Picture books are their own unique art form, and often it’s a memorable main character that makes a picture book feel so special that you want to read it again and again and share it with everyone you know.
Whether the protagonist embodies the theme and goes on a singular adventure, or gets in trouble and solves the problem in a way only he or she can, the story feels inevitable and satisfying in the best way. We want to see that character go on adventure after adventure, even if those adventures are small things like making a gift for a friend or sleeping with the lights out.
So how can you create your own picture book magic?
I’m constantly encouraging writers to read intentionally, and with picture books, there’s no excuse not to read hundreds. Check out all the new releases at your library and visit your local indie bookstore. Look for the books that are face out and on tables to get a sense of what’s popular.
Avoid reading books that have been out for more than a few years, not because they aren’t good and there’s no value in looking back, but because it’s a good idea to understand what’s selling now.
As you read yourself these questions:
1. Who is the main character? What makes this character special?
It should be possible to summarize each character with a sentence. (There might be more to them than that, but the essential details can be summed up.)
Most characters in picture books are children or childlike. When you’re developing a picture book character, your character needs to be going through the same things your reader is. Even if the setting is wildly different, the struggles and the emotions will be familiar. Readers are interested in reading about characters they identify with.
2. What does this character want or need?
The answer should be simple, clearly defined, kid-friendly, and relatable.
The character may or may not know what they want or need, but as the writer, you should be able to identify it.
3. How is the main character’s identity connected to the story?
We often talk about character development like it’s its own separate element, and that can be helpful when we’re studying the art of writing. But in picture books, character, plot, and theme are woven together so tightly that it makes sense to think about them as a whole too.
4. How does this character learn or grow?
It’s ok if the answer is “They don’t really learn or grow.” Not all picture book characters do.
With popular series, it’s common for the main character to be consistent across the series, and sometimes it’s the secondary characters that do the learning and growing.
Takes Notes on What You Like
Many picture books follow a classic format, introducing the main character and a problem. There are three attempts to solve the problem. Then there’s a big moment and the main character is brave. They grow and change in some way. Then there’s a conclusion that shows how life will move forward.
But there are LOTS of ways to be a main character, and LOTS of ways to build a story around them.
Take notes on what kinds of characters you’re drawn to. We all tend to naturally connect with some people (and characters) more than others.
Don’t overthink it or feel like you need to understand why or compensate and practice liking other kinds of people (and characters). Just trust what you like and spend some time playing around with those kinds of characters. Hopefully as you read, you’ll have some clear likes and dislikes and get to know your own taste better.
Add Layers to Your Main Character
Creating a character isn’t something that you do at the beginning of a project and then you’re done. You continue to add layers throughout the writing process.
After you’ve written a draft that feels like it’s headed in the right direction, try making a list of everything your character does in the story. Does it all feel consistent and true to the character? What happens if the character does the opposite of what you expect? Make a list of everything the character says. Does it feel consistent and true to the character?
Pay extra attention to the way the reader meets the character. Where does the reader first get to know the character? What does your character do first?
The protagonist is the heartbeat of any story, and it can take time to get to know your character—or quiet the voices that tell you, “That’s too simple” or “That’s too wild.” But when you find yourself excited to spend time with your character and just thinking about your story makes you smile, you know you’re on the right path.
So what kind of picture book character will you create?
There’s so much room for creativity.
The books that are selling right now tend to tell simple stories that connect to bigger ideas and suggest there is more to explore in that world.
We need more she/her and they/them characters! We are far from seeing people of color well represented in picture books (on the creative side or in the books themselves). So please create characters that reflect the world we live in.
And remember you don’t need to create another Eloise or Little Blue Truck. You need to create your little weirdo. The imaginary friend you want to know everything about. The unlikely but totally relatable creature. The funny, sweet little guy who makes you smile when you picture him doing ordinary things. Your own inner beastie! That’s who you should write about.
Writer and editor Heidi Fiedler has worked on hundreds of children’s books for clients ranging from Chronicle to Bravery Magazine. She also teaches masterclasses and coaches writers, so they can move forward with confidence and ease. Take a class, download free resources, and get inspired at helloheidifiedler.com or say hi on Instagram @heidifiedler.