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Creating Believable Characters in Children's Books
by Robyn Opie Parnell

If you've read my previous articles on writing for children you'll be aware that I've defined children's books as books that feature a child as the main character and the target audience is children.

So, let's take a look at children as characters.

In picture books, no description of the characters is necessary. Picture books are highly visual and therefore all characters are obvious from the illustrations. When writing picture books, you have a limited number of words to work with (less than 1,000) and you can't afford to waste words on unnecessary description.

The same can be said of easy readers and chapter books. These books still contain plenty of illustrations and a limited word count. Description should be restricted to what is essential to the plot.

For example, if you're writing about a child who is bothered by their appearance - wearing glasses or being too small - then a limited amount of description is necessary.

A general guideline when writing these shorter books for young children is to only include what is essential for the story to make sense.

To make your character seem real to the reader you must think of him or her as a real person. People are around us every day. It's useful to take bits and pieces from the people we know to create our characters. Be careful to always mix and match. Never use an entire person in a novel. That person may not appreciate it.

When writing for children - or any type of fiction - it's best to avoid stereotypes. They are boring and unimaginative. They are an example of lazy writing. Be creative.

A character comes alive through their actions and dialogue. Actions, in particular, will show a character's personality. What they do and how they react largely depends on their personality, background and experience.

For example, a child who has been bitten by a dog will react differently when confronted by a strange dog than a child who has never experienced this trauma.

Believable characters always act consistently.

For example, in my book Working Like a Dog, Lucia wants new rollerblades. Her parents won't buy them for her. She must save the money herself or go without. So Lucia decides to start a dog-walking service to earn money for new rollerblades. Later in the story Lucia loses two of the dogs. She worries about the dogs and spends a lot of time searching for them.

The action in this story shows Lucia's character. She's a likeable responsible young lady. She is prepared to earn the money to buy new rollerblades. She could have stolen the money or rollerblades. She could have bullied other children for their lunch money. She could have nagged her grandmother into giving her money or rollerblades.

When she loses the dogs, she could have left them to find their own way home. She could have lied to the owners about losing them.

Lucia is responsible when she decides to earn money to buy her own rollerblades. When she loses the dogs she is responsible and searches for them until she finds them.

Lucia acts consistently and her behaviour is believable.

Imagine if Lucia decided to lie to the dog owners about knowing what happened to their precious pooches. She could say that the dogs were missing when she went to walk them. This element of the plot would probably be hard to swallow considering what we already know about Lucia. She would suddenly seem unbelievable.

It is essential to know what your character wants - their motivation. And why they want it. Your character's goal must be something that readers can relate to and care about.

Your readers must care about your character and be interested in their plight. Otherwise there is a good chance they'll put your book down and never return to it.

You, the writer, must care about your character. If you don't care about him or her then you can't expect your readers to care either. To care about your character you need to know him or her well.

Sometimes writers use a habit or habits in an attempt to make a character appear real. Habits can take the form of action and dialogue. Maybe a character chews their nails or adds the word "like" to the beginning of too many sentences or wears a particular type of clothing.

Be careful when giving your characters habits. Too many habits can distract the reader from your story and become an annoyance.

When writing for children, characters should be kept to a minimum. Too many characters can confuse our young readers.

As children's books become longer and your audience older, there is more room for character development. But it is important to remember that every word in your children's book should be essential to the plot.

Copyright Robyn Opie Parnell. All Rights Reserved.

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