Creating interesting characters is at the heart of any fiction writing. We read fiction to experience other people’s lives and discover more about the human condition, whether our interest lies in crime stories, romances or gritty realism. Even in hard-core science-fiction it’s the characters that matter – what would Star Trek be without Captain Kirk and Mr Spock?
There are some general principles in creating character that apply across the board – it’s usually much better to show your characters in action and talking rather than to rely on describing them or telling the reader what they’re doing. Good characters are usually like the tip of an iceberg – their creator knows as much about them as God (or their mother) would, but we only see what is necessary for the story. The invisible part seems to lend weight to them, though. And really great central characters tend to change and grow emotionally in their stories. Consistency is absolutely vital too – characters can be surprising in what they do, but there should always be some sense that their actions are consistent at a deep level, that they’re not ‘acting out of character’.
There are some differences in creating characters for stories aimed at children, however. For a start, although a children’s story can contain characters of any age, the main character is likely to be a child, a teenager or young adult. Even in stories where the characters are animals, or fairies, or robots or dragons, the protagonist is likely to be a young member of that particular group. So it’s important to be able to tell a story from a child’s point of view – which rather implies that you have to understand children. I’ve covered this in a separate fact sheet (Writing for Children), but it’s worth going over again, and shouldn’t put you off.
Children are human beings, of course, and have all the emotions that adults do. But they have much less power over their lives than grown-ups, and are certainly more vulnerable. They’re also still learning about the world and themselves, and that process can take a long time. There are big differences between the age groups children’s books are aimed at. In very simple terms, a toddler of two or three won’t have the language development or manual dexterity of the average seven year old, while a 14 or 15 year old might be as accomplished as an adult in some things, while still going through all the emotional traumas of adolescence. Boys and girls also develop at different rates – just look at the differences between the girls and the boys in any average primary year 6 class!
You might think that’s all very straightforward, but one of the most common problems for people who are beginning to write for children is creating young characters who are not believable, usually children whose abilities are beyond their age group. This isn’t a question of kids being able to drive cars or handle computers – if you want someone to programme your DVD player or sort out your mobile phone, ask one of your children! It’s more to do with emotions, and the ways in which children react to things, particularly major changes in their lives.
Children often don’t understand what’s going on around them and struggle to come to terms with it. Divorce is a classic example. Many parents would like to believe that a simple explanation along the lines of ‘Mummy and Daddy don’t love each other any more, so we’re not going to live together’ is enough. Many children might seem to accept that on the surface, but underneath they’re probably confused, frightened (what if they both stop loving me?) and angry. That can lead to long silences, regression to former stages of development, bad behaviour, and more.
All this is important when it comes to creating child characters. You might need to make some very fine judgements – perhaps you might have to decide what a bright five-year-old is capable of, or a seven year old, or a ten year old. If you have children of your own then that might be easy. If not, or if your children are grown up, then there is no substitute for research – observation of real children (and family life in general) and young people, and reading about them. There are some great books about child development and child psychology (see my separate reading list).
But in the end it’s important to remember that children are as varied as adults in terms of their personality, and this should be reflected in the characters you create. Children can be shy or bold, fearful or confident, curious about life or wrapped up in themselves. They can be talkative or quiet, boisterous or nervous, friendly, mean, kind, nasty or downright strange, and some of them can be all these things or none of them.
It would be wise to remember the old rhyme about the little girl who had a curl in the middle of her forehead – when she was good, she was very, very, good, but when she was bad she was horrid. Great children’s writers create characters that fit into that spectrum. Jacqui Wilson’s Tracey Beaker is desperate to get out of the children’s home where she lives, and can be a pain to everyone around her. But she can also be a little angel. And Anne Fine showed in her marvellous short novel The Tulip Touch that you can write about a child with real problems that make her a potential danger to the other children she comes into contact with.
One point to bear in mind is that it’s not essential to come up with a complete, perfect description of what your characters look like. It can help to make a character more concrete in the reader’s mind, but think of it as casting an actor in a film. Luke Skywalker might have had dark hair, not blonde, but he would still be the same person. In most stories, unless some aspect of a character’s physical appearance plays an important role – a scar perhaps, or Shrek’s looks, or the colour of someone’s skin – the details don’t matter all that much. We’re more interested in Harry Potter’s courage and resourcefulness than the colour of his hair or his eyes!
Tony Bradman has been involved in the world of children’s books for nearly 40 years. He has written for children of all ages, edited many anthologies of stories and poetry, and taught creative writing to both adults and children. He regularly visits schools and appears at the major literary festivals. He also reviews children’s and YA fiction for The Guardian. You can visit Tony's website or follow him on Twitter here.