Harry Potter Series, Wimpy Kid Series, Percy Jackson Series – all bestsellers with a compelling central character. So compelling that the readers were willing to wait on them for years, following their every move book after book.
Most all-time bestsellers and children’s classics follow the same pattern. Charlotte’s web, Calvin and Hobbes, Matilda, Tale of Peter Rabbit – these are all books with characters much loved by both the young readers and the adults. Is that the secret of their success?
According to the famous writer, Ray Bradbury, “The plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by.”
Memorable Characters in Children’s Books
Many established writers recommend getting the character right. After which all you have to do is “trot along behind him with a paper and pen, putting down what he says and does.” (William Faulkner)
J.K. Rowling has the same take on the creation of Harry Potter, “It started with Harry, then all these characters and situations came flooding into my head.”
In a nutshell, avoid creating lifeless and boring characters. It is impossible to weave a great story around characters who will elicit no empathy from the readers. This is especially true of children’s books.
Characters who connect
The success of a children’s book relies heavily on the young readers connecting with the characters. Children’s writers need to create characters whose struggles tug at the heartstrings and whose victories bring joy to little hearts.
The character need not be heroic, but he certainly needs to connect with the audience. Think Wimpy Kid and you have a very non-heroic character, a loser if truth be told. But with loads of attitude and remarkable resilience, he still manages to get a sympathetic reading from the readers.
In contrast, both Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are characters who are all too human but have the moral strength to rise to the occasion. And their struggle to overcome the overwhelming odds has everyone rooting for them.
So, believable or compelling, average Joe or heroic – the reader has to feel a sense of empathy for the characters. That is the only reason the reader will stay with the story.
Creating a character
If you are looking to build up a character, you obviously have some sort of a storyline in mind.
- Think of how the character fits into the plot – hero, villain, any other? Then build him up in some detail. Think through the “what, who, why, when, where and how” of the character.
- Begin with a prototype and then add the specific characteristics.
- Think creatively. Add the quirks, mannerisms and character traits.
- Define the character’s goals. Make it a strong, driving force in his life.
- Alongside work out his fears, weaknesses and motivations.
- Adding some secrets or a back story is a sure way to add mystery and interest to the character.
As you may have realized, creating a strong, original character is certainly a lot of work. But eventually, you will know that it is worth every bit of the blood, toil and sweat you have used up. Because as the old maxim goes, “it is characters that make or break your story”.