Week of April 8, 2012—JUDGE FOR YOURSELF
Wednesday, April 11, 2012—Weak Characters
Have you ever read a story and not known who the character was? Not understood why the character was doing whatever he/she was doing? Not be convinced that the character would act in the way he/she does? Not cared about what happened to the character? Or, worst of all, not liked the character? These were some of the fatal flaws in character development that I noticed when I recently critiqued fifty-seven short stories.
I believe it was Lisa Wheeler who introduced me to ARF—age-appropriate, relatable, and flawed. These are the characteristics Lisa says to include when developing main characters.
Most picture book experts agree that characters should be age-appropriate. In other words, they should be children. Sometimes animals or adults are used as main characters in picture books, but most often the animal or adult takes on child-like characteristics or children can relate to them in some other way and, thus, become age-appropriate. The age-appropriate character has a problem and solves his/her own problem.
Main characters must be relatable. If the character is a child, you’ve already started making the character relatable. The problem the child is trying to overcome can also make or break the relatability requirement. If the problem is not something an average child can relate to, then the character won’t succeed. Another part of being a successful, relatable character is being likeable. Who wants to read about a kid they don’t like? Even if the main character is an awful kid (as in Mean Jean in The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill), he/she still must have some redeeming quality or make some change in the story that the reader can relate to and that can cause the reader to care about and like the character.
Lisa says that characters should also be flawed. No one can relate to a perfect kid or other main character. Flawed doesn’t mean the kid is in the principal’s office every day or has a rap sheet. Flawed means the main character is real. A human. Someone who can make mistakes, and correct them, too. Again, this goes back to being relatable.
Let me add another F to ARF--Many picture book main characters are funny or lighthearted. Most three to eight-year olds and their parents aren’t interested in reading about a hum-drum, hateful, depressed child. But we all know that all picture book stories don’t have to be humorous to be successful. However, if you’re main character isn’t funny, by all means, make sure the character has the other two characteristics—age-appropriateness and relatability.
When we all talk about picture books, we usually start by talking about characters. Since we spent last week with Tammi Sauer, let’s use some of her books as examples. Most people wouldn’t say, “Have you read that book about the talent show at the barn?” Instead, they would say, “Have you read about the two chickens who were in a talent show?” or “Did you read that book about Marge and Lola?” They wouldn’t say, “I just read a fabulous book about what goes on in a school for monsters.” They would say, “I just read a book about a little monster named Bernadette who went to school.” And on and on we could go—Avery the boy who went to Cowboy Camp, Mr. Duck who likes his privacy but learned to share, the cave boy who wanted a pet, etc. etc. etc.
Develop your main characters carefully. Make them well-round, complete, age-appropriate, relatable, flawed. (And maybe even funny!)