Give Your Character Something to Do

writing craft | Writing for Children Blog | craft | writing for children and teens
July 28, 2016


Creating a one-of-a-kind and well-rounded character is only the first step in building a story. A character can be fun and exciting. And in some books (especially picture books, Olivia, for example) a character study can be the whole point of the book. For this to work, you nearly always need an over-the-top character and a unique voice. But this kind of piece doesn’t really work well beyond the picture book level. After that you need to give your character something to do, and that “something” is plot.

Summed up to its essential core, a plot is the result of applying pressure to a character to the degree that the character must act in reaction to the pressure. The pressure you apply and the reaction to it will be directly tied to the character you’ve created. An impulsive, brave, active child will take very little pressure to be pushed into an adventure, but an “easy” plot like that is rarely very satisfying for the reader. So you’d need to keep upping the pressure and making the story more and more active––and probably dangerous––to keep the reader reading. We’d need that feeling of constant elevation to avoid the story feeling like just a bunch of kinetic activities.

A truly successful plot usually depends upon a character who would normally resist the actions he is going to be forced into by the pressure. A cautious, timid child (for instance) who normally wouldn’t ever rush into an adventure but does so because he needs to save someone he loves––that’s an exciting story. The excitement comes from the character’s discomfort. The adventurous child is thrilled and comfortable with an adventure––that blunts the thrill of the story. But a cautious, timid child is wary and reluctant when adventure calls, and so pushing him into it automatically makes the reader care more.

If you want more writing instruction like this, plus lots of tips and great resources, click here!

The key to making that kind of story work is to be sure the pressure is sufficient to keep the child in the situation. If you have an adventurous child who initially gets involved just because it’s an adventure, would naturally simply stop participating when the adventure became truly uncomfortable. So to keep him involved, you’ll need to give him additional motivation. Strong motivation really is key to a strong story.

So, apply enough pressure to force action. Be sure the character has some reason to resist, but MORE reason to keep going. That push/pull of emotions and motivation will always result in a more interesting story.

Now, the push/pull doesn’t have to be about life and death. It can be about performing in a school play, standing up to the neighborhood bully, or 'fessing up to wrong-doing. All kinds of situations can result in good plots. Just be sure that the resolution isn’t too easy, but also that it grows logically and believably from the pressure you’ve created and the character you’ve applied that pressure to.

Pressure is the key to plot. It gets a character moving. It keeps the pace and excitement up throughout the story. And it keeps the reader enthralled as the story progresses. So look at the stories you’re presently working on. What is the pressure you’re applying? Is it important enough to the story? Is it believable? If you have the right answers to those questions, you have the second big ingredient in your story. Your readers will thank you.

If you want more writing instruction like this, plus lots of tips and great resources, click here!

Mac Barnett teaches

Have you had a chance to watch this yet? A free lesson on how to keep the magic in picture books from none other than Mac Barnett from his keynote during Picture Book Summit 2015. This $97 value is yours free for a limited time!

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.


July 28, 2016

This was my first Webnar, and I enjoyed it so much, I can't begin to tell you. Usually, I tune in, and can't figure out what to do next. But this one was so easy to follow, and I felt as if I was sitting right there, with him, as he told me his way of planning out a Picture Book story. I learned so much, just from his free lesson, that I can't wait to follow him again,

July 28, 2016

I can't seem to watch Mac Barnet's free lesson ??.

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