I have an upcoming picture book REMBRANDT AND THE BOY WHO DREW DOGS by Barron's Educational Series (2008) and I thought I'd discuss some of the writing process over a few posts. Check out: IDEAS for more of this discussion.
I will start with my best advice, creating authentic picture book characters takes time and patience.
Here's the first big thought. It is essential to choose characters that suit the very stylistic form of picture books. Characters in a picture book need to be kids or anthropomorphic animals. An adult character at the center of a picture book should be avoided. This is not a mild warning, folks. I'm serious. Only one in a billion stories work with the "whole grownup at the center of the pb story" angle. It's easier to make a brave toaster, scary talking vacuum cleaner or a wild and woolly washrag character than a believable adult character in a picture book.
Now that you have settled on a great character -- perhaps, Clucky Strut, a chic chicken, or six year old Max Uh Mum, math genius -- it's time to decide how many more characters will be in this book. It's best to focus on one character in a picture book. Two is OK, but be sure they are very different characters. Two voices that sound exactly alike are generally frowned upon. Three is a crowd but possible. Four, that's the outer limit, folks. Remember your entire pb text is at the most 5 pages and that is a very long picture book at that. Note, you can have more non-essential characters; these characters fade into the background and really serve as part of the setting -- think Where's Waldo. Waldo is the only "real" character.
Next, let's talk about an old idea -- character is plot. Characters need pathos --real problems. Your main character will need to change from the beginning of the book to the end. Humor is welcome here. Clueless, confused, and complicated is usually a good thing. Mean, manic and malevolent is not such a good thing. Characters need an internal struggle and external struggle. This is "real" fiction, folks. Dig deep. Create characters we will all cheer for, weep for, and laugh with. No one one wants cardboard.
Last, is my "show don't tell "warning. What does "show don't tell"mean anyway? You have very few word to make your characters come alive. Don't tell just tell us that your character is spunky, bright, funky, crazy, empathetic, clueless, cute, or cuddly. What is something a spunky person says? Reveal your character through dialogue. What does a bright empathetic character do? Use the plot to show this. Where does your funky character live? You can use setting to give us a sense of your character's personality. You can use the theme, too. What does your clueless, cute and cuddly character care about? Drive the story with verbs and nouns and be very sparing with adjectives and adverbs. I find asking lots of questions helps me move away from cookie-cutter characters to fresh, original characters.
I hope you can use some of this discussion to strengthen your work. Check back next week for more picture book musing. I'll end with a couple of quotes from some guys that "have been there, done that and wrote the book."
First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him.
I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.