May 10, 2018
As important as solid writing and well-crafted plot is to a successful book (and they're really important), there is something that could arguably be considered even more important: characters.
Your characters are the life of the book at every age. In a picture book, the main character is literally the face of your book and usually takes up most of the illustration real estate on the page. The characters are the reader’s way into the story through connections, either emotional connections or connections based on similarity. Wilbur in Charlotte's Web may be a pig, but children can relate to his being someone small in a world that is completely out of his control. And children can relate to the importance of having a true friend. So Wilbur makes connections, even though he is a pig.
Now those connections are so essential to a story that editors can be especially sensitive to characters that are difficult to connect with. These types of characters can be so problematic that they can result in rejection letters even if your book is well written and you crafted a strong, logical plot. Let's look at some examples of tough characters to sell.
Adults in Kids' Clothes
Adults often appear in children's stories, even in children's picture books. Sometimes, the adult character is even the main character (though usually when this happens, the adult is someone who has childlike characteristics to make connecting to the character easier.) You'll see characters with a childlike sense of wonder. Or older characters who are in a position that lacks power. Animal characters work very well for this as it's easy to write them as completely independent (therefore adults) and completely childlike without having anyone question that combination.
Examples of adult characters that work because they're written so childlike include The Bad Guys series by Aaron Blabey and After the Fall by Dan Santat. Mr. Lincoln's Way by Patricia Polacca, features an adult who is very much not a child, but the book starts off by showing ways that Mr. Lincoln is more like a child than an adult. He has tea parties with kindergarteners and nature walks with sixth graders. He invites families to come and look at the stars through his telescope. So she lets the young reader connect with Mr. Lincoln on their level before we begin to see him acting in his role of "wise adult." An adult who has no way of connecting with the reader is an adult about whom the reader is not likely to care.
And this holds even more true for a character an author creates who is said to be childlike but who doesn't demonstrate anything childlike for the reader to connect with. This often happens when newer writers want to create a "wise adult" character but has been told not to let the adults take over the book. So the writer instead gives the "wise adult" role to a child character who then behaves like an adult, sounds like an adult, and reflects adult interests. This child will lecture others on rules and remind other characters of "wise adult" sayings. This kind of character is rarely successful because the reader isn't given any chance to connect with them or believe in them as kids. Children can spot a false character and will turn away from the story. Editors know this, which is why characters that look like kids, but are really adults there to lecture the other characters (and the reader) will often cause your story to be rejected.
Objects as Characters
Another potentially problematic character is the inanimate object as character. This character tends to fail for one big reason: the character often doesn't have the physicality to do what the writer wants the character to do and thus strains believability so far that the reader simply cannot connect with the story. Take a cloud, for instance (since clouds and water drops are very, very common examples of inanimate objects that are made into characters.) A cloud can float and be pushed by the wind and grow thinner or plumper and that's about the sum total of physical action available to a cloud. A cloud cannot grab anything, tug at anything, cover its eyes, wave, or do a whole variety of other things that new writers will sometimes have the cloud do. (A beautiful exception to this is the book Cloudette by Tom Lichtenheld.) If you're going to use an inanimate object as a character, you simply must remember the capability of the object.
The problem of physicality is why some of the most successful inanimate objects as characters are toys (Toy Story comes to mind as a movie that makes use of this. The characters in Toy Story are believable because they naturally have arms, legs, heads, eyes, etc., because the toys already have these things. Winnie the Pooh and The Velveteen Rabbit are two classic literature examples with The Velveteen Rabbit being an especially good example of a story where the physical limitations of a toy are kept in mind throughout the story). Of course, the fact that toys have been part of so many stories means that writers must think of new and innovative plots and stories when using toy characters to avoid a different problem entirely, “the overdone story.” These days, robots have taken the place of the animated toy in a number of published picture books including Boy Bot by Ame Dyckman and Doug Unplugged by Dan Yaccarino.
Another inanimate object that has been successful in stories is the vehicle. Stories have been published with main characters who are construction vehicles, trains, planes, and automobiles. Vehicles work because the character can move from one place to another. But the author must keep in mind that a wheeled character has no hands and so behaviors that could only be accomplished with hands must be avoided. Thomas the Tank Engine is a popular example of this kind of character, as are the Tractor Mac books by Billy Steers, and Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. Steers gets around the problem of no hands by having the farm animals handle many of the actions. Duskey Rinker and Lichtenheld have the trucks’ extensions (the dumper in the dump truck, the claw and hook on another vehicle) handle the action.
Having said all that, there are examples of picture books that ignore the physicality problem entirely. Ice Boy by David Ezra Stein features an ice cube as main character and the author/illustrator simply draws the character with arms and legs. It helps that this is a book whose author is also an illustrator as he could show how he intended to make the idea work when he presented it to an editor. When a writer who is not the illustrator presents a character like that, he faces the obstacle of the editor thinking, an ice cube cannot do that, with every action.
Now no one likes every character. Some people think Harry Potter is whiny and Max (from Max & Ruby by Rosemary Wells) is a brat, but these same characters are simply adored by other readers. So surely that means likability is in the eye of the beholder, right? Not exactly. Some kinds of characters will trigger likability issues hard enough to give an editor pause every time.
One example is the character who is cruel to the weak (bullies are hard to like). Sometimes writers are intending to create a positive or funny character with normal sibling issues but takes “retaliation” or “clever pranks” too far and instead creates a bully doing mean things to siblings. So think about your characters interactions with others and be sure that a character's jokes and behavior don't push him so far into unlikablity that a reader may reject him. Keep in mind that anything that looks like bullying strains likeability, so if you need to craft a bully as the main character, you must find ways to face that unlikability problem and overcome it. As screenwriter Blake Snyder suggested, have the character do something strongly positive (like save a kitten) early on to build a likability bridge that can withstand later problems.
Another character type with likability problems is the one who thinks only of himself and no one else (this can easily become a problem in novels. Imagine you’re crafting a selfish character who is going to grow and change and become a hero late in the novel. Unfortunately, even if he grows near the end of the book, readers may not stay with the story to get to the transformative part of the book. Again, the answer is to give us something to like about the character early. Think for a moment of Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. That guy is very self-absorbed, but he loves his little sister. He even admires her. And that is one of the things that helps save him from fatal unlikeablity).
For every difficult character to sell, you'll find dozens of examples of authors who sold them. That means that advice about difficult characters should be received with a healthy skepticism. But exceptions don’t leech all the value from a “rule.” Knowing when you've made a problematic choice puts the power to deal with it in your hands. If you've made a tough choice, and the time has come to sell the piece, you can take one of two approaches to helping prevent an editor from rejecting based on that problematic choice. One way is to pretend the tough choice doesn't exist. Don't mention that you know your story, “Richie the Dancing Raindrop,” is going to create logic issues. Instead, simply focus on the story and demonstrate why Richie is engaging, well-crafted, and a perfect fit for the story in which he resides.
Another choice is to address the problem directly and explain how Richie avoids most of the problems with inanimate object characters. The good thing about meeting the issue head-on is that you're showing that you didn't just bumble into a problematic character; you did it knowing the possible pitfalls and intentionally avoiding them. The problems with the second choice are that is eats up valuable story summary words and spends them on explaining (and we know explaining is never that exciting), and that it starts you off in a kind of negative position of basically saying, "I know you think you don't want this, but you're wrong." And editors can chafe at anything that hints of that message. You wouldn't believe the number of writers who regularly act as if they know more than editors who have devoted years to the job. If you make the explaining choice, make it carefully.
So, if you have a problematic character, you can change him or support him. Look at the character closely and decide whether he needs to stay as he is or change. After all, if the character has strong reasons for being who he is, and you’ve given us plenty of points of connection with him, and you’ve written him really well, your book could end up being one of those that comes to mind whenever anyone makes one of these lists of characters editors shy away from but still get published. And wouldn't that be awesome?
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? Show us a sample of your work here.