The Importance of (Consistently) Being Earnest and Other Thoughts on Characters in Children's Books

Posted on: May 21, 2013

Recently, I was asked to respond to some interview questions for the publication Children's Writer. Characterization is something that we are constantly concerned with here at the editorial desk. Who is this character? What would they do in this situation? Are they likable? Do I care what his/her/their experience is? Why did they react that way? There is no real end to the questions we could ask about the characters we meet in our submissions and acquired titles. So, for today, I thought I would share my responses to said questions with the world-wide-web. Maybe you have some ideas to share as well? We'd love to hear you sound off below or on Facebook. Maybe you have a quick question? Ask away on Twitter! However you choose to respond, we're excited to hear your feedback. -Josh What elements make up a well-rounded character? The best sort of characters have two critical components: a likability factor and a flaw. The latter is pretty straightforward: perfection is boring! No one wants to read about a friendly, beautiful, intelligent, charitable, and charismatic individual succeeding at every turn. Flaws keep characters relatable—allowing your reader to identify with someone or something you’ve created is the best way to captivate your audience. The likeability factor is a little more conceptual. It’s not about every character you create having something redeeming or likable; it’s about pinpointing where your character falls on the spectrum of likability and keeping them there. Your antagonist is a wretch? Great! But make sure we consistently dislike him. Your hero is a chauvinist, but there’s a delightful sarcasm to his humor? Wonderful! But plant him there. Consistency is great, especially when writing for children. When evaluating a manuscript, how much of your decision is based on characterization and what are you looking for in this area, and at point would lack of authentic characters disqualify an otherwise great submission? Children’s picture books are a special breed when it comes to characters. There are far fewer words to work with—more than ever, you need to make each letter count! The manuscripts I respond best to have characters that excite me to read on. I would even say this is the biggest asset to a good submission. If your characters are imbued with some sort of adventure, with some sort of tangible energy, then you’ve won half the battle. To me, an “otherwise great submission” isn’t even a possibility without strong characters. What is the most common problem you see with characterization and how would you suggest writers remedy this? So many writers tailor their characters to common archetypes or stereotypes. While I think this can foster a great deal of familiarity and allow listeners or readers to more readily identify with who they’re reading about, it’s also the quickest way to bore an acquisitions editor. I want to read about someone new, someone fresh, someone unconventional! Characters are outlets for an author’s creativity to flourish—why would you waste that chance by creating someone we’ve seen a thousand times over? How much of a part does a character’s description play in the overall picture? How much description is too much? Description is one of those tricky concepts. I don’t think it’s fair to say “this is what works, this is what doesn’t” because there’s so much variability between books. What I would say is this: if a reader can’t tell the you how your character would spend their Sunday morning, you’ve not gone far enough. Plus, I think it’s always easier to cut back than it is to push for more. Is characterization determined by reading level? At what level does a multi-faceted character emerge? I don’t think characterization should be determined by reading level. I think there are so many ways to create complex characters that don’t rely on elevated wording or mind-breaking prose. With children’s books, it’s so important that you allow the spirit of the character to come through illustration and detail—dialogue, action, decision-making all contribute to successful, multi-faceted characters. What about archetypes--how far should one stray from these in creating believable characters? As addressed above, I think archetypes are the quickest way to bore a reader. Cookie-cutter characters are neither exciting nor captivating for young readers to invest in. Sure, archetypes exist because they’ve withstood the test of time as believable and accurate representations of real individuals, but so much of children’s reading functions as an escape from the mundane. It’s hard to immerse yourself in a new world when everyone in the text is so routine. What is one piece of advice on characterization that you’d like to give writers? As for any advice I’d like to share, I cannot stress how important it is to trust your instinct. As an author, a writer, you should know your characters better than any person ever could. They’re your creation: own them! Know the ins, the outs, the ups, the downs, the all-arounds, and every little smidgeon of detail that you may not even ever share with anyone. When you’ve given such intimate attention to your characters, the rest is natural—they’ve become an extension of your being and writing through them, with them, or about them will be perfectly effortless.  

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.