Monday, March 25, 2013

Picture Book Workshop #8: Creating Characters That Pop

In the last Picture Book Workshop, we analyzed some popular characters.  Now we need to apply those lessons to crafting your own characters that pop.

So let's say you have a story about a child who wants a cookie.  The cookie jar is on top of the refrigerator which is out of reach.

The first thing you want to ask yourself is Why should the reader care?

If it's more of a plot story, one where the plot takes the focus over the individual character like most Dr. Suess books or Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina, then the answer comes from a reason given in the plot.  The child worked really hard all day to earn a cookie, but Mom forgot to reward him/her.
That sort of thing.

But that might not even be important if you create a character that people are drawn to.  Then the reader will care about the child getting a cookie because the reader cares about the child.

In Monkey Ono, Monkey Ono really wants to go to the beach.  He's dying for a beach day.  I don't say why.  I don't build a big back story about what will happen if he doesn't get a beach day.  Monkey Ono is a big character and he wants it so badly, that if the reader cares about Monkey Ono, they will care if he gets his beach day.  They want it for him.

So how do you create a character like that?  Someone (or something) that the reader cares for and goes on a journey with?


What's fun about your character?  Is he/she zesty?  Funny?  Smiles a lot? 

Toad, in Frog and Toad, is kind of cranky, but he's also kind of funny.  But I'm not sure Toad would work alone.  Toad works because Frog is there too.  They balance each other out like The Odd Couple.  I could probably do a whole other post on character pairs, but let's stick to single characters, shall we?

Let's go back to Olivia.

Olivia has a big imagination.  A big voice.  She's very confident.  She's looking to make a statement.

I find these things appealing in a character. 

If you look at a character like Amelia Bedelia, she's likeable because she is always trying to do the right thing.  Because she's so literal, she often gets it wrong.  But she's tenacious.  She doesn't give up.

And this brings me to the next thing you want when creating a character that pops: flaws.

Nobody is perfect.  Perfection is boring and people can't relate to it.  People love a good character flaw.

Olivia is a little over-the-top.  Amelia Bedelia is too literal and misunderstands a lot of what people say.  Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes.  Obviously Indiana Jones isn't a picture book character - but he's such a GREAT character and the whole snake thing really adds to his appeal.

Let's revisit our little cookie loving child.  Oh, let's just say it's a girl, Suzy.  Suzy has a very good work ethic.  She does her chores.  Maybe she's very neat and likes lists.  Maybe the last thing on her to-do list is EAT COOKIE.  Suzy has been left with a babysitter who won't give her a cookie until after dinner, but Suzy cannot rest until she crosses the last thing off her list - her cookie.  The cookie she earned.  Suzy plans to stack a ladder on a stool on a chair to reach the cookie, but Suzy has a flaw.  She is clumsy. 

Just by fleshing out the character a bit, we have a much richer story.

Suzy has good traits.  Suzy has a flaw.  I also threw a quirk in there too - Suzy likes lists.  That can be a re-occurring theme throughout the story.  She can make a list for every new plan to get the cookies.
Quirks are important too.  Don't forget to give your character some quirks.

And by quirks, what I really mean, are adding little details that only that characters does.  Maybe it's a behavior quirk like making lists.  Maybe it's a verbal quirk like a ninja shouting YAHOO!  Maybe it's an adventurer who never leaves his hat behind.  (See, I'm back to Indiana Jones.  I just love that guy.)

 Of course, there are so many things you can do to bring your characters to life, but if you start out with LIKEABILITY, FLAWS, and QUIRKS, you are well on your way.


Anna Staniszewski said...

Great advice! Also, Indiana Jones is the best. :-)

Claudine G. said...

For me, characters that 'pop are quieter and sometimes mask their vulnerability with strong faith, or are just honest. Great post!

Julie_c said...

Thanks for your comments! I'm not surprised to find another Indiana Jones lover out there. And Claudine, I couldn't agree more. There is absolutely a place for quiet characters. In my experience, however, I have learned that I'm not good at writing them! ;)