Chapter books offer wonderful possibilities for creating memorable characters. Targeted to readers ages 5-10, chapter books take character development to a deeper, richer place than possible in picture books and easy readers. In this piece, I’ll explore some ways to develop outstanding chapter book characters that will connect with young readers.
All characters have sayings, gestures, habits and personal objects that are unique to them. If we start thinking about the material goods in a character’s home, backpack, locker, or wherever, we’re going to be listening to our character’s voice, studying them as they move, and trying to figure out from these details who these characters really are.
Let’s think about OBJECTS first of all.
If a child lives in an apartment where her parents own nothing but fluffy teddy bears and Hello Kitty dolls lining the walls, that shows you something about her parents, right? If the girl herself has a small dog that she dresses in sunglasses, and she only drinks cream soda with ice made from the water of a river in Fiji, do you get a sense of what this little girl might be like? The things a character owns are HINTS for a reader.
Now, imagine you were given two suitcases to go through. One was full of neatly folded clothes, notebooks full of neat writing, on top of which lay a photograph of two young children, smiling. The other bag was messy, stuffed with scrunched up T-shirts and a dog-eared book poking out. What assumptions would you make about the owners of each of the bags? How about the objects a character wants when they go to the store? What books does your character own and read? What movies?
Every object that you place in a character’s possession gives you as the author the OPPORTUNITY to give the reader hints about your character.
Moving on from objects, think about how your character SPEAKS. Is there a particular word they use all the time, a quirk of language (each character in your book might have one of these, which is a great way for a reader to feel like they are getting to know your characters). For example: Does your character always use the word, ‘like’, as a filler in sentences? Or does he enjoy long words that most people never use?
Now think about in what way your character talks. Do they shout? Or whisper? Do they rattle out sentences or think before they speak?
Can you see how all these details make a character different from someone else (both in real life and on the page)?
Does your character have a ‘characteristic’ GESTURE? Do they wipe their nose all the time or pick at their front tooth? Do they giggle a lot? And what are their HABITS? What does your character do every day, every week? Notice the word I used there: CHARACTERISTIC. What we’re thinking about this week are your character’s CHARACTERISTICS – the things that are TYPICAL of them as a person, the traits that make them unique.
If you’re already working on a chapter book manuscript, I suggest going through and making sure that your character’s CHARACTERISTICS are the same all the way through. And, this is key, that EACH OF YOUR CHARACTERS has DIFFERENT CHARACTERISTICS. If all of your characters are pushing their hair back from their faces, sticking their tongues out when they’re being silly, stamping their feet when they are cross, etc., can you see that it makes it hard for a reader to distinguish one from the other?
If you haven’t started your book yet, use this opportunity to think about each character’s traits so you know them all well before you begin.
- What would your character pack on a trip?
- What objects are in your character’s room?
- What books has your character read in the last year?
- What three habits does your character have?
- What would be something typical that your character might say?
- Describe a typical gesture your character makes.
- Describe one of your character’s secrets.
Alice Kuipers is the best-selling, multiple award-winning author of books for children and teens that include Life on the Refrigerator Door, The Worst Thing She Ever Did and the Violet and Victor picture book series. Her upcoming Polly Diamond chapter book series will be published by Chronicle Books.
On Wednesday, November 16th, Alice will co-host a free live webinar with Laura Backes (publisher of Children’s Book Insider) called Creating Your Chapter Book Characters. Laura and Alice will walk attendees through a live process that will help them create a protagonist, an antagonist and even a supporting cast of a chapter book. A replay of the event will be available for all registrants. To register now for this free event, click right here.