Finding Your Character

writing craft | Writing for Children Blog | craft | writing for children and teens
July 14, 2016


One struggle many writers have comes from character creation. How do you make characters who feel exciting and real? This is a common struggle. How do you make characters who don't all sound alike? How do you make characters who don't sound like you? The key is knowledge. The more you get to know the character, the less that character will try to sound like all your other characters. Here are four tips that have helped me.

#1 - Quick Start Your Character Traits

A while back I had the opportunity to attend a writing workshop on
writing early readers and first chapter books. We did a character building exercise that had one small part that was really transformational for me: the finding of a "catchphrase."

Have you ever thought about how much character is summed up in a catchphrase? A cool laid-back character whose catchphrase is "Ayyyyyy" is a totally different personality from an agitated, high energy character whose catchphrase is "Dy-no-mite!" So now I've fallen in love with the catchphrase as a brainstorming device. I don't actually have the character USE the catchphrase in dialogue. Instead, it's simply a brainstorming device. As a catchphrase pops into my head, I think about all the things that phrase says about the person who says it.

Try it yourself. Come up with a list of catchphrases and then list some personality quirks that would make someone choose that particular catchphrase. What do you automatically know about a character whose catchphrase is "Phasers on Stun?" How about one whose catchphrase is "Always careful?" Or "Keeping it chilly?" Do you see how different those three characters would be? As I make me list of traits that come with the catchphrase, I can then set the catchphrase aside and unfold that character through the personality trait list.

#2 - Finding a Face

I know one writer who always sketches her characters. It helps her deepen the character's personality (as well as giving you some steady physical traits to hang description on). If you're not much of an artist, you can do a quick google image search to find possible pictures. For example, imagine my catch phrase was "batter's up" so I decided my character loved to play ball. I do a Google image search on "baseball kid" and I have dozens of photos that might be my character. I look for one that seems to reflect the character trait list I made. The marriage of  character traits and photo begins to make my character feel real, like someone I might know. The more the character feels real to you, the less that character will sound like all the others.

Now, maybe you don't have an obvious thing like baseball to ground your search on. You can still use image search. For example, my kid with the catchphrase "always careful" might come with the character trait of "nervous." So I can do my search for "nervous kid" and, again, I have a collection of possible kid photos.

#3 - Compare and Contrast Traits

As you add more and more characters, it's important to give them different character traits. For instance, if the nervous boy's best friend is an impulsive risk-taker, then you're automatically going to have a story where the two characters sound and act very different. You're also going to have the opportunity to get them into trouble, and trouble is the heart of an exciting story.

Be certain that each character has both strong/positive traits and weaknesses. A character who is all weaknesses will have trouble engaging the reader. A character who is all strengths isn't likely to make for an interesting story because the best plots grow out of the mix of strengths and weaknesses in every person.

#4 - Give Them Something to Want

Kurt Vonnegut said that every character should want something, even if it's just a  glass of water. This is the heart of motivation and is key to the plot arc of  every scene you write. Each person who enters a scene needs to want something. It might be something simple (the newspaper carrier just wants to toss the paper into the yard) or it might be something complex (the young man who wants to convince his older sister to loan him her phone because he destroyed his.) You need to know what every single person wants in that scene. And the scene will have more energy if these wants come into conflict. For instance, the sister wants to text all her friends about the cute boy at the mall, and thus won't want to give up her phone to her brother.

The more conflicts you have, the more the main character will have to work to get through the scene. The challenge of conflicting wants/needs makes a story matter more to the characters and to the reader.

If you build your characters with these four tips, you're sure to end up with unique voices and interesting scenes. Try it. I think you'll like it.

Mac Barnett teaches


Here is something you might like to say yes to: a free lesson from none other than Mac Barnett from his keynote during Picture Book Summit 2015



Jan Fields is a full time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Take the free aptitude test here.

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