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
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
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
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.