003: Creating Characters for Children’s Magazines

Creating Characters for Children's Magazines

How to build big characters in tight spaces

June 11, 2016

Writing for Children podcast episode three

Welcome to the third episode of the Writing For Children podcast! Help us celebrate the launch of the show and become eligible to win our giveaway of amazing prize bundles for writers totaling over $1,800! 

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Click here to download the show notes with extra resources!

Listener Question of the Week

Kimberley Moran asks:

How do you know when you’ve hit the right audience age range? Do you need to have kids in that age group or just read a lot of books targeted to that age?

Listen to the answer in the podcast!

Got a question about writing? The faculty of the Institute of Children’s Literature is waiting to answer your question! Ask it RIGHT HERE.  

Write it Right: How to create Creating Characters for Children’s Magazines?

Most short stories for young people have one main character, the protagonist. Longer forms, such as novels, can handle two main characters and sometime when an author is attempting to capture an old-fashioned voice (in a novel), you’ll even find the story jumps from head to head of many characters. However, it takes room to make those things work and magazines stories are short and tight – which is why you see single main characters in almost all magazine stories.

So are generic characters with no real personality. Writing a character, especially a protagonist, is a bit like taking on an acting role. You must truly know the character in order to flesh it out completely. Some writers know a bit about their characters…the bits they feel they need in the scenes and hope that is enough. Unfortunately, they often find themselves getting bogged down in the middle of the story because an unexpected story turn forces them to face that they don’t know how to make the characters respond.

For very young children, characters are often bigger and more obvious than in real life. Often characters in stories for very young children illustrate a single characteristic blown up to huge status. Because the focus of the story is so tight, the focus on the character is tight as well. If your character is mischievous, he is usually into a dozen different scrapes before breakfast. If your character is timid, he is frightened of everything he comes into contact with. If your character is loving, he is a veritable marshmallow of cuddliness. Very young children simply don’t get subtle, so characterization at this level is bold.

With older readers, characters become more three-dimensional. The protagonist is no longer the personification of single traits. He is also not expected to be perfect. Just as middle grade students don’t enjoy hanging out with perfect kids, they don’t enjoy reading about them either. Consider the predicament that you plan to toss the character into as you create him. His inner strengths must be sufficient to face the coming conflict. If a whiney demanding child suddenly turns compassionate and giving, you have lost credibility. Those kinds of transformations simply do not happen without incredible circumstances. However, a timid child with a strong sense of empathy and justice might find the courage to stand up to bullies on behalf of someone else who matters to that child – that kind of transformation is more believable because we can see how pre-existing strengths helped the character overcome his weaknesses.

Even a strongly plot-driven story needs well-presented characters if it is going to engage. Stories that linger in the mind of the reader nearly always feature characters that become real for the reader. Another difference in stories for very young children and stories for older kids is the inner life of the main character. You’ll often find a lot of internal dialogue in older kid stories and first person narratives are popular. Readers at this age are constantly self-analyzing and self-criticizing. Small matters grow into huge worries and over-reacting is common. Readers like characters that are slightly more self-sufficient than they would likely be in real life. In real life, parents and teachers solve and control and even create a lot of your problems – but in stories, the focus is on the kid.

When creating characters, you must remember that kids do not think like adults, do not talk like adults and do not react like adults. Because your characters are expected to do a job in your book, they must have sufficient kid like motivation to do the things they do in the story. Your protagonist must have a goal, and his reason for wanting that goal must be one that kids can relate to. The goal must be one that the reader will consider worthy. It is not a worthy goal for a rich kid to want a new skateboard because his old skateboard isn’t trendy enough. It may be something that happens in real life, but it’s not a goal that will work for a story. Since the average reader isn’t rich and has to settle for lots of things that aren’t trendy enough, he will not appreciate the kid’s goal and will not care whether it is achieved. 

Therefore, if the goal you want to use is getting a new skateboard, you must create a character and put him in a situation where a new skateboard is a worthy goal. If you begin your story by deciding what it is going to be about, you must then people it with characters that would logically function in the situation you have imagined. One writer suggests that you begin this character creation by thinking of your characters as people you hire to play the roles in your story. He writes want ads to describe the kind of people he needs for his story. This allows you to boil your character needs down to the bare bones and forces you to look beyond external characteristics that seem to dominate the character creation of new writers.

Why not give it a try? How would you write the want ad for your main and secondary characters? Do you know what kind of kids will be required to fulfill the role you have for them? How about minor characters? Do you know what kind of people they will be or are they still shadowy figures waiting to be fleshed out? Spend some time digging around in your characters.

Click here to download the show notes with extra resources!

Episode 001 - Write a Children's Book: What's Your Idea?

Episode 002 - Three Keys To Writing Nonfiction For Children

“I sold one of my assignments to Highlights for Children before I even finished the ICL [Writing for Children and Teens] course. I think that says a lot about the quality of the teaching.”

Laurie J. Edwards

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