Everything You Need To Know About Creating Characters For Children’s Books

Everything You Need To Know About Creating Characters For Children’s Books


In my first two posts in this series, I wrote about tips to get you started and common themes in children’s fiction. In today’s posts, I want to write about characters in children’s books.

A Brief Introduction

Remember that characters drive plots. It’s important that other children like and empathise with the characters you create. They have to care about what happens next because of them.

Your readers want to know how they will handle difficult situations. They have to understand them and their personality traits, both the negative and the positive. As writers we have to get our readers to empathise with our creations and to care if they succeed or fail. If the main characters do not seem real in our imaginations, or in the settings we choose, children will lose interest in them.

Too many characters confuse young readers. As children’s books become longer and your audience older, there is room for more characters and more in-depth character development.

Four Things To Remember

  1. You do not have to describe characters in picture books. Characters are shown in illustrations. You can’t afford to include descriptions with a limited word count. Try to include only what is necessary for the story to make sense.
  2. The reader needs to think of your characters as real people. Take interesting bits and pieces from people you know, mix them up, and create characters who are unique.
  3. Characters act and speak. Actions show personality. What they do and how they react depends on their background, their experiences and their personality type. The best characters act consistently.
  4. Every character needs a reason to feature in your book. What do your characters want? What motivates them? Why do they want it? Young readers must be able to relate to your characters.

Seven Types Of Characters In Children’s Books

1.  Child Or Teenage Protagonists

The protagonist must be one or two years older than your readers are. If your targeted audience are 8 to 10-year-olds, write about a character who is 9 to 11-years-old. If your readers are younger teenagers, your main characters must be 15 or 16. You can fill the book with younger or older friends, family members, and neighbours. If you are writing about a group of children, the age range can be spread out.

If a child has to confront a threat, he or she must have the personality to fit the part. Characters must have reasons for acting as they do. Human beings will react because of their personality types or through their circumstances. If your character is not confrontational by nature, circumstance must be the driving force. Make it impossible for your character to back down.

2.  Adult Protagonists

Children are used to this. Characters in fairy tales and folktales are usually teenagers and adults. Children enjoy Robin Hood, Snow White, Superman, Pocahontas, Vampires, Cinderella, and Batman. Adult protagonists in modern children’s books are often eccentric or unusual.

3.  Animal Protagonists

Animals play the roles of friends and are used as story telling tools. They can also be used to create a story goal. Example: A child may want to rescue an animal. The animal seems normal and only the child knows how special the creature is. Tip: Research the animal before you write about it.

4.  Supernatural Or Fantasy Protagonists

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is a wizard, but he is also a boy. He is human in attitudes and behaviour. However, your wizard protagonist may be supernatural. You will need to create a new set of rules for this character. How does he interact with humans? Does he fear them? Despise them? Avoid them? Does he fit in? Alternatively, he may live in an entirely different world. You must love creating new worlds for these characters if you choose to write in this genre.

5.  Other Child And Teenage Characters

You must know as much as possible about children at the different ages and stages you are writing about. The innocence and naivety of children fades earlier today. However, children are dependent for longer as well. Older children and teenagers have more freedom. They can come and go, select their own friends, and choose their own activities.

6.  Parents And Other Adults

Adults are treated realistically in books nowadays. The best authors show adults as characters rather than caricatures. They have feelings and personalities. However, scenes from an adult’s viewpoint should be limited.

7.  Younger Characters

The age of the characters you create plays a part in their personalities. Watch young children. Listen to them. Read about the psychology of these ages.  Young protagonists, under the age of seven, need an older caregiver to allow them to move about, play outside, look after pets, buy toys, go shopping, and visit friends.

Eight Quick Tips For Creating Major And Minor Characters

Major characters must have:

  1. Three-dimensional personalities
  2. Clear motives
  3. Memorable likes
  4. Distinctive dislikes

Minor characters should have one of the following:

  1. A habit
  2. A certain possession or toy or way of dressing
  3. A way of speaking
  4. A memorable facial feature

This makes it easier for the reader to remember them.

Problem Areas

First time writers often create characters who are too similar to one another. To avoid this, create differences. Throw unlikely personalities together. This lets you explore emotions based on unfamiliarity, fear, irritation, envy, rivalry, and mistrust.

List Your Characters

Tip: Having too many characters in a group always weakens the story. If you have too many characters with the same personality type, you don’t need all of them.

If you struggle to create different personalities, ask ‘what if’ questions. Here are some ideas:

  1. What if one of them changes as they grow older?
  2. What if you change the sex of one of the characters?
  3. What if they are forced to be together?
  4. What if school friends have parents with completely different values?
  5. What if friends have different home circumstances? These could include financial and family structures.
  6. What if you have friends whose parents disapprove of their friendship?
  7. What if they are different ages?
  8. What if one leaves the other behind through circumstance or by choice?

Hopefully, one of these will help you to change the characters enough to make them distinct from each other.

Exercise – Cast your book 

I hope this exercise helps you to decide who should be included in your story. Imagine that you are the producer of the film version of your story. You have to look after the budget and you should be able to justify each actor’s presence. Ask these questions:

  1. Is the role necessary for the protagonist to achieve his or her story goal?
  2. Why? What does it add?
  3. Does the protagonist really need three friends?
  4. Are you aware that four protagonists may add eight parents to the mix? Or more, if they come from ‘blended’ families?
  5. How many sets (settings) will you need because of these additional characters?

If you still want a large cast of children, you could set most of your scenes at school, or in the park, at the shopping mall, or in the care of an adult or older sibling. Children do not live in an adult-free zone.

How To Make Your Characters Act

Emotions move your characters and your plot forward. Try to create situations that create these emotional reactions. Here are some ideas to get you started.

If children have to confront a threat, they must have reasons for acting as they do. To make them more believable, show the world through their perspective.

Show them as real people through their contradictions, their mistakes, and their crises of faith. Let readers identify with them as they try to justify themselves, make decisions, take chances, and get into (and eventually out of) trouble.

If you want to learn how to write for children, join our kids etc. course in Johannesburg or sign up for kids etc. online