Writing advice for writers who want to write children’s books. These articles are full of actionable and proactive advice for those who want to write and sell fiction in the children’s book marketplace. Topics range from picture books to young adult novels, and all of these articles are full of writing advice on how to craft and publish children’s fiction.
This is a survey of published authors that I did on here (mumbles) over a year ago. But now I finally have a beautiful infographic to share on how to write a manuscript that succeeds.
The key takeaway, I think, is that so many of you have written more than ten manuscripts on your journeys, and how many of you enlisted outside help in the form of writing groups, critiques, beta readers, and editors.
What I’m seeing here? A lot of encouragement and perseverance. While it’s true that approximately 20% ended up landing an agent or publishing their first manuscripts, between 38 and 43% of writers ended up breaking through on their 5th through 9th manuscript, or even their tenth+ manuscript! That’s the majority of responders to the survey.
These writers have also taken the time to leave some very important words of wisdom to those of you who are still struggling with how to write a manuscript that succeeds.
Please take this to heart: you may publish your current WIP, or you may not. But a large determining factor of success is perseverance and self-education. That’s why you’re already ahead of the curve! You’re sitting here, learning about the writing craft, and adding tools to your toolbox.
Now all you need to do is keep going. Trust that one day you will crack the code of how to write a manuscript that succeeds, like the published authors who responded to the survey did.
The idea of author platform is vitally important to all writers, but today’s question is about how it relates to writing nonfiction for children. Here is Dena’s question:
I know for NF you need a strong platform, but what if you’re not a teacher? What sort of platform do you need for NF in the MG and younger age range?
Platform and Nonfiction for Children
When we sit down to write fiction, “write what you know” is often enough to get us started. We’re making it all up, anyway! Well, not so in nonfiction for children. There, the idea of qualifications—including our author platform, professional identity, areas of study, etc.—comes into play. The question becomes:
Who are we that we can (and should) write this particular story?
After all, if I’m a parent looking to buy a book on bugs to supplement my child’s learning, do I want a book written by Carl, an enthusiastic but amateur bug fan, or Peggy, a trained entomologist (bug expert) working in the field? I think we can all agree that the latter would seem most qualified. (To be clear, not everyone who writes nonfiction needs to be a PhD level expert in their field. But qualifications like “teacher” or “scientist” don’t hurt when you are writing about relevant topics.)
Does that mean Carl’s story lacks value—educational, artistic, or otherwise? Is Peggy’s book better simply because of her experience? Not necessarily! Carl could have an amazing piece of nonfiction for children on his hands. But now Carl does have to overcome some bias in the marketplace, because he may not be seen as the most credible or desirable source.
In other words, Carl does not have the best platform for writing in his particular nonfiction area. Is this a dealbreaker?
Getting Around Platform
There are ways for Carl to build his case—and his platform—that will allow him to pitch his nonfiction for children and attempt to have his project considered seriously. (Explore the topic of author platform for fiction writers.)
First, Carl can do comprehensive research and include a bibliography and author note at the end of his nonfiction manuscript, which shows how he arrived at his data. When we write nonfiction for children, we aren’t discussing the topics at the graduate level. Writers are generally painting in broader strokes and avoiding too much jargon. So it’s easier to research a topic intended for a children’s audience than, say, a thesis dissertation defense.
That being said, the quality of your research counts here, especially if you are trying to compensate for a lack of credentials. Publishing credits, even if they’re not in your current interest area, also establish credibility and can offset your lack of platform.
A great way to build your platform would be to ask a consulting expert to contribute—and transfer some of their credibility to your project. In your pitch, it would look compelling to say that you’ve reviewed your nonfiction for children about dealing with feelings with a child psychologist or school counselor, for example.
Bolstering Your Nonfiction for Children Platform
In addition to the strategies listed above, you should also think about building your platform as you get into the submission process. In an add-on to my WriterType Marketing Roadmap resource (called Repurpose Your Content!), I divulge ways to spin any content you create or research you do.
Why not try to publish a nonfiction article on the same topic in a children’s publication or newsletter? You’ll now have a writing clip in your new field to add to your platform. The research has already been done. It’s literally a free opportunity to build your author platform.
In a similar vein, find an expert in the field and interview them for your blog, newsletter, or podcast. They may even sign on to consult on your manuscript. Now you have some social media content for your platform, a valuable connection, and another inroad with your topic.
Think creatively if you don’t have a nonfiction for children resume already in place. You may have to work harder, but victory will be that much sweeter!
For in-depth personalized advice on your children’s nonfiction, hire me as your picture book editor.
The unique thing about kidlit is that there are many children’s book genres and categories to choose from, and the divisions in children’s books are much more segmented than, say, the adult fiction world. (The reason for this is simple—your audience is changing drastically in regards to their ability to read independently, they are also changing according to age, maturity, and a ability to process and understand information. These same kinds of changes simply don’t happen as rapidly to readers from other demographics.)
Many children’s book writers are interested in writing for more than one age group. Read on if you want to learn about writing in several children’s book genres and categories.
The Difference Between a Genre and a Category
First, one nit I like to pick: there’s a difference between a “genre” and a “category.” A lot of people call picture books a “genre.” Nope. But this line of thinking is so prevalent that I’m using the keyword “children’s book genres” to talk about categories so that more people find this post now and in the future.
A “genre” is a stylistic description. You immediately know that a romance is going to be a different style of book than high fantasy or hard sci-fi. That’s “genre” at work.
In children’s books, we have different “categories” or “audiences”. Books that fit into these are each written for readers at different ages, of different reading abilities, and in various stages of mental and emotional development. That’s simply because kids from age zero to eighteen make a ton of leaps.
Now that you know the lay of the land of children’s book genres and categories, let’s say you want to write for multiple audiences. This is totally worthwhile, and there’s more commonality between, say, a chapter book and middle grade than a business nonfiction book and a memoir for adult readers. The characters are similar in age, the language is similar, and the intended kid readers are going to be only several years apart from one another.
The first thing to know is that you must be very comfortable with multiple age categories before you attempt to write, say, a picture book on the one hand, and a YA romance, on the other. Understand the differences in your reading audiences in a holistic way first—what will each age of kid want to read about?—and then bolster that understanding by using appropriate language, word count, and character age. These differentiators are the bare minimums when it comes to writing across children’s book genres and categories.
It’s also crucial to understand that these category guidelines and requirements are going to be somewhat inflexible. You can always write a 300-page picture book full of words at a college reading level, yes. But your odds of publishing one successfully in the tradition or indie setting are going to be very low, because such a project is unlikely to speak to your target audience.
It takes many writers a while to learn and deeply understand the needs, requirements, quirks, and sensibilities of one children’s book category. If you can bring this keen understanding to two or more children’s book genres or categories, you may be a good fit to “double dip” or more.
Building a Career in Multiple Children’s Book Genres or Categories
Because of the intended audience in kidlit—children—we face unique considerations when we want to build a career writing across children’s book categories or genres. In my consulting practice, I hear variations of the following question all the time: I write racy erotica, but also board books. How do I market myself without scandalizing children or confusing the BDSM crowd?
This is obviously an extreme example, but the conflict remains. It’s also compounded by the fact that, through about middle grade, your readers are technically and legally unreachable online and you’re marketing to parents, educators, and librarians instead. It isn’t until upper MG and YA where you are actually reaching your intended target audience.
My advice goes back to what I learned as an agent when doing career counseling: You are welcome to switch children’s book genres or categories, if you can pull more than one off well, but only after you’ve established yourself. Write three really strong picture books, then attempt to publish and market a middle grade.
If your audiences are two different, consider setting up multiple areas of your website and social media, or multiple accounts altogether (in the example of your erotica presence vs. your board book marketing). I would discourage aspiring career-makers from hopping around, first to picture book, then young adult, then middle grade, then chapter book.
You can write all of these children’s book genres and categories at one time, if it keeps your creative fires burning, but I wouldn’t attempt to publish them in such a sporadic pattern. Make a name in one arena, then branch out. Otherwise, you may confuse your audience and waste precious energy and marketing resources duplicating your brand-building early on.
Looking for custom career advice? Hire me as your publishing consultant and we can draft your way forward together.
To increase narrative tension avoid the sense of “limbo” in your fiction, give your characters a sense of their past, present, and future. You want to spend most of your time in the present, sure, but if you don’t weave in the past and future of your character eventually … the present will start to feel like limbo. And readers will not want to be in limbo for long.
Start in Action
One of the notes I give the most in my editing work is to start in action, whether it’s a simple picture book or complex young adult novel. If you cannot choose a scene or moment that is sustainable for a page or two (this applies to novel or picture book), then it’s not the right place to start.
Most common is zooming away to fill in backstory. For example, “I sit in the assembly, looking around. There’s Phoebe, my best friend since kindergarten. The day we met …” and then we’re off to kindergarten.
Readers need a reason, like narrative tension, to keep reading your work, especially when you launch a new story. A scene that you sustain allows them to truly sink in. Ideally, there’s enough action to get them invested. Something is happening. The character is allowed to be active and proactive (readers love a proactive character).
And while some of us are trying to achieve a “be here now” mindset in our personal lives, this can actually backfire in your creative writing. Sooner or later, the character’s past and future need to come to the party to create narrative tension.
What is Narrative Tension?
To quickly define it, narrative tension means something in the story that keeps a reader invested in reading. My favorite thing to talk about (well, one of like 5,000) is loops. Humans hate an open loop—something unresolved. That’s why writers need to open loops as they go. Usually, the loop asks the question, “What will happen here?” Or, “Will the character get what they want?” Or, “Will this thing from the past ever be resolved?”
If our characters exist only in the present moment, going from scene to scene, we risk our power to create narrative tension, or open and close the maximum number of loops.
Weave in Narrative Tension and Context
Think of how your own mind operates. In a normal span of fifteen minutes, I spend woefully little time in the present. I’m usually “time traveling,” as I call it. My mind is either dwelling on something in the past, or worrying about something in the future. (Looking for meditation app recommendations, plz!)
Characters should spend a bit more time in the present than I do in my personal life, but you can use this tendency of the human brain to “time travel” to add narrative tension and open loops.
As for the past, think of your character’s wound and need. They have probably experienced something in the past that shaped them and needs resolving in the present or future. They may think about it once in a while to plant seeds and drive up tension.
As for the future, think of your character’s objective and motivation. What they want and why they want it. Maybe the wound/need (past) and the resulting objective/motivation (future) tie together into something the character can pursue in the present. (Hint hint: They should!)
Bringing It All Together
Think about your chapter endings. Ideally, this is where you’re really reminding your readers of the loops open in your story. I like to have characters either learn something new in the present, or set themselves to really pursue their future goals. This adds instant narrative tension.
Have you developed your character’s wound, need, objective, and motivation? If not, drop everything and start daydreaming.
Are you struggling with narrative tension in your picture book or novel? Let me be your freelance editor and we can find it together.
I often see fiction writers use the rhetorical question in their manuscripts to ramp up tension and get readers more engaged. Or so they think. Is this a worthwhile strategy? Or is the presence of a rhetorical question in your prose just a copout? (Do you see what I did there?)
Rhetorical Questions Do Not Help Character
Instead of asking a bunch of questions, I’m going to give you some statements. I don’t believe questions help further character or plot. They aren’t specific. They aren’t mysterious. They are a shortcut to doing the hard work of writing your story.
Not sure what I mean by a rhetorical question when it comes to the fiction or writing craft. Here are some rhetorical question examples:
But could she be trusted?
What would happen if he let himself believe?
Would it be worthwhile for her to follow the imp down the path?
I would imagine writers believe there to be a lot of mystery in rhetorical questions, and a lot of tension. But to my trained eye, they’re much ado about nothing because they don’t communicate a lot of substance.
How Do I Get Around Rhetorical Question Use?
In my editorial work, I push clients to go further. If you know a juicy, meaty, potentially emotionally engaging question to ask in your prose—answer it instead.
This forces you to plant your character’s flag one way or the other, decide, and then move on based off of that decision. Otherwise, characters can swirl around in an endless stream of questions without ever taking a definitive stance. You will likely not get character buy-in on crucial issues, and you are much more vulnerable to the deadly sin of flip-flopping that way.
Imagine if we addressed the rhetorical question examples above more directly instead:
He wanted to trust her, but he just didn’t. Not right now. She’d have to earn it.
Believing in magic was risky. It was foolish. It went against everything he’d been taught his entire life—everything his family worked so hard to protect. Order. Logic. Reality. But here, he saw magic in front of him, as real as his own reflection. If he let himself believe, he’d have to change his entire concept of himself. For the first time, that didn’t seem so scary.
She considered whether or not to follow the imp. Sure, she could play it safe. But then she’d never know. Everyone kept saying that she needed to listen to her heart. Well, her heart was telling her to take this once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Instead of questions, we have characters declaring themselves. Weighing their options. Considering the issues in more depth. Coming to decisions.
Nothing Rhetorical About It
At the end of the day, you’re the writer. It’s your job to present the story, put the issues out there, and lead readers through the character’s decision-making process so that we get to know that character on a deeper level.
I’ve recently had a rash of manuscripts where writers are relying too much on the rhetorical question in important moments—in essence, asking the reader to create part of the story and do the character’s heavy lifting.
Instead, answer these questions where you find them in your manuscript. You’ll be rewarded in terms of depth and nuance and a better understanding of your character and story, which you can them transmit to your readers.
Struggling with asking the right questions? With answering them? Partner with me as your developmental editor, and we’ll get down to the marrow of your fiction together.
Ever thought about writing the premise of a story before writing the actual story? No? Well, put on your open-mindedness hats, guys, because it’s about to get real. (Agents hate her! Learn the one writing secret to save yourself years of frustration!) No, but seriously…
What is the Premise of a Story?
The premise of a story is what your story is about. Simple.
Oh, you want more? Okay…
I give this talk on self-editing for fiction writers (which you can play on-demand on Udemy or wait for the free webinar) and I always start the talk very, very, very zoomed out. I ask writers about their “Mission Statement,” which is another way of talking about the premise or the “what is your story about”.
Basically, it’s a combination of your character’s main transformational experience (do characters have to change?), the story that takes them to that experience, and a sense of your theme.
A girl who is accidentally infused with moon magic must fight for the ones she loves, in a society bent on seeing her and the witch who saved her life as the enemy.
That’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. You’ll notice it’s not the whole story, but we have a sense of the character, what the character has to do (or how the character has to change), what the character is up against, and any other key characters or story elements. In this case, the witch (Xan) gets a mention, as does the society that “sacrificed” Luna to the witch when she was a baby.
What is your story about? Who is at the center? What do they have to do, or how do they have to change? What is the main conflict? (Or, if not the main conflict, a big conflict?) What is your theme?
Now, imagine that you’re not just doing this for your book after the fact…
Starting With the Premise of a Story
Let’s say that you’re actually creating the premise before you create the book. This is a smarter, more efficient way of writing. Remember, the first thing I ask of my revision students is: What’s your premise?
You’re going to have to know it eventually. But most writers don’t even start putting their premise together until long after they’ve written their story. Maybe even long after they’ve revised it.
Most writers don’t think about their premise until it’s time to pitch.
Why is this an issue? Well, you don’t want to spend five years on a novel only to realize that you may not have enough story to attract agents, publishers, or readers. (Even if you publish independently, you still have to attract readers. You still need to be able to tell them what your story’s about so that they click that all-important “Buy” button!)
What if you don’t have enough story to truly turn out a compelling, saleable project? This is why I highly recommend writing a premise (or the bones of one) for the project you’re about to start working on first.
Is there enough meat? Does it sound exciting? Or is your premise loose and vague, like, “A coming of age story about a boy who has to learn the true meaning of friendship.” I’d contest that there’s not enough meat on that bone yet. The story needs some additional layers, some specificity, some action, so that it doesn’t sound so much like a lot of other stories I’ve read.
Try It Backwards
Before you sit down to work on your next project, as you work on your current project, or before you revise a draft manuscript, stop what you’re doing immediately—do not pass GO, do not collect $200—and write out a premise.
You’re only doing it for yourself. You’re not pitching. There’s no agent hovering over your shoulder, watching you. Write out what your story is about. Is there enough? Do you have a solid premise of a story? Are you focused? Or do you need to add more layers, action, tension, and/or meaning to your work?
Catching potential issues and course correcting at this highest, most zoomed out level could literally save you years of work, and keep you from following a misguided path all the way to a disappointing conclusion.
If you haven’t tried this yet, you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
What do you think of this bass-ackwards approach?
If you’re struggling to pressure test your story and see if there’s enough substance, or if you want to catch pitfalls and opportunities at the outline level, hire me as your developmental editor. Let’s get at it together!
Scene description tends to flummox many a novel writer. The devil is in the details, you’ve heard. Well, it’s possible to have too many details, and also too few. Then there are static details. Ack! How to walk this fine line when crafting your own scene description? Read on.
The Ideal Balance of Scene Description
Scene setting exists to not only bring your reader into your story, but give mood to each scene, and do world-building. A 1950s kitchen will be very different from an alien world. The issue is, many writers don’t know how much scene setting is too much, or how much is too little. They don’t know where to put it in their prose. They struggle with its overall arc as the novel progresses. Here are some thoughts for achieving that ideal balance.
Considerations About Reader Attention
When you write scene setting, you are directing reader attention. You are either highlighting a place, or downplaying, according to the amount of description you choose to include.
Yes, it’s possible to get bogged down with description, and, as a result, scene setting. We’ll talk about that in a moment. It’s also possible to skip scene setting altogether and end up with a strangely ungrounded project.
Remember this when you write: How much you describe something directly ties into how important a reader thinks that something is. As you decide how to describe a scene, how much, and when, keep this in the back of your mind.
You can describe a scene more liberally the first time a character visits. This is their introduction to a place, after all, and you want readers to create it in their minds. But don’t do a few big paragraphs of description at the beginning of every scene. This will be a pattern readers grow tired of. Instead, think of places to pause and insert description throughout the scene that takes place in a certain setting.
Once that groundwork is done, future visits to that place can do with less scene setting. But you don’t want to abandon it completely.
Too Few Scene Description Details
If you suffer from too little scene description, pick some evocative details of each scene. A big problem in novels without setting is that scenes often turn into talking heads. Just dialogue and human motion. These tend to read very quickly and readers won’t feel grounded. Can you pick evocative details, maybe that match the emotion of the scene? Pepper them on pages where you see a ton of dialogue and little action.
Maybe three or four details will be all you need. Maybe you’ll sit and start thinking about the room and be inspired to describe it more. As a good rule of thumb for you, try a few sentences of scene setting at the beginning of each scene that your characters enter. Then, when they go back to a location, note any changes or comment on how the setting might feel different because of all that has happened since the characters’ last visit there.
Too Much Scene Setting
Indulgent scene setting is an opposite problem. Usually, writers lavish the first page set in a specific scene on description. This can stop action cold. Redundancy also becomes an issue, especially if description is ongoing, even though a character has visited a place many times.
Think of a new scene or a new chapter as an invitation to the reader. You are asking them to join you for the next installment of story. If you immediately bombard them with colors, smells, the various textiles and appointments of a room, the vibe in the air, the music drifting in, and all of these other small details—that’s a lot to keep in mind. It makes the beginning of a scene, which is ideally a light and inviting thing, seem heavy and too complicated.
If you struggle with this issue, limit yourself to three significant details and three more specific details. And don’t introduce all of them when a character first enters the scene. Pepper them throughout.
How Scene Description Changes Throughout
Think of the scene setting in your novel as having its own arc. You will be doing more scene setting at the beginning of a novel, simply because you are introducing readers to a world and its environments. They have never been to each place before, they will want to see the big picture and a few evocative details.
But as the story moves forward and the settings become familiar, don’t drop your scene setting. Simply shift your focus. Is the diner dreary on this foggy day, as the character goes to sulk over a milkshake? Does the brilliant sunshine over the field cheer the whole place up? As characters go through a story, they will develop relationships to the places they have been. These relationships can change the character’s viewpoint of a place. They can add emotion to the place.
Pick three locations that your character visits a lot. Can you give them an emotional “tone” every time the character goes there? Add some specific scene setting description that teases out a sense of arc? Even more neutral settings can contribute to story with a few well-chosen descriptions.
Work with me as your developmental editor and we can address your questions about scenes, arcs, and writing description in a focused encouraging one-on-one setting.
I work a lot with voice, especially colloquial writing, with my editorial clients. Aside from dry voice, which is a topic in and of itself, I have been battling long sentences quite a bit recently. I write this post as a reminder to all writers: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. (Cue my thirteen-year-old self giggling.)
Long Sentences Are Hard Work
There are two common ways in which writers elongate sentences unnecessarily. One is via the semicolon, one is by stacking action. Unless you are British or from another Commonwealth country, the semicolon is largely leaving modern trade fiction. (An interesting anecdotal study done for The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer found that semicolon use is inversely proportional to commercial success. Plus, not a lot of people use semicolons correctly.)
I personally encourage clients to avoid them because they create awkward long sentences that drag on. They are especially undesirable in picture books, early readers, and chapter books, and some early middle grade because those readers are not yet comfortable with complex sentence structures.
Another tendency I see is the stacking of action, especially by using “as.” I encourage writers to limit a sentence to three actions, for example:
She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absently at the wall.
(This happens to be my favorite activity…)
Here’s what happens to the sentence, which is long enough already, if “as” comes to the party:
She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absent at the wall as the cat prowled for puzzle pieces along the hallway and the mail carrier knocked at the door.
It’s too much for one sentence to do comfortably. (Also, my cat can’t be the only puzzle enthusiast out there, right?) Your work shouldn’t be, well, work to read. When you’re tempted to use a semicolon or “as” to keep something going, consider either zooming out and conveying less action (because you might not need such detail) or breaking up the sentence.
Reading Long Sentences Aloud
Another trick I love to use, especially for picture books, is to read the work aloud. Not only will this help you get a visceral feel for colloquial writing and voice, but it will absolutely indicate which sentences are too long. Why?
People need to breathe. And if you need to breathe in the middle of one of your sentences, it’s too long. Especially in dialogue. We tend to speak in shorter sentences than we’d use for narrative and description. If you have characters speaking in 50-word sentences which are exactly the same as your narrative writing style, that’s an issue. Speech should have its own cadence.
Read your work aloud to focus on long sentences and either eliminate them or break them up. Colloquial writing is here to stay, and shorter, more energetic sentences are going to help you a lot on the voice front. A win for you, and a win for your readers!
If you struggle with voice, I can step in as your manuscript editor and guide you in the right direction with personalized, encouraging feedback.
Perhaps this is a contrarian approach to character development, but I don’t care what your character’s favorite flavor of ice cream is. I don’t necessarily want to know what sport they played, or what their spirit animal is (unless these factor into the plot, of course). A lot of character development that writers are coached to do doesn’t really translate into great story. So what should you focus on? Keep reading to find out.
Why Ask Character Development Questions?
A lot of writing books suggest getting to know your characters. Act like you’re interviewing them. Ask them questions. This, the logic goes, will lead to deeper and more nuanced character.
But you have to ask the right questions! I have seen spreadsheets that writers have created of a character’s hometown, favorite TV show, etc. None of these things move the needle. A key part of writing character, in my opinion, is creating vulnerability. Inner struggle is crucial to character and story. Those are the deeply human elements that are going to reel your readers into the heart of your characters and stories. If you’re not asking these types of questions, it’s never too late to start.
Things to Consider When Doing Character Development
Here is a list of character development questions I wish more writers would ask their characters or about their characters:
What is your deepest conscious desire?
What is your deepest unconscious desire?
What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
What do you want from yourself?
What do you want from other people?
What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
What’s your most positive and supportive relationship?
Is there any conflict to it?
What’s your most negative relationship?
Is there any positivity to it?
If there were no obstacles, what is one thing you would do in a heartbeat?
What obstacles (internal and external) are preventing you from doing that?
How do you feel about yourself on a good day?
How do you feel about yourself on a bad day?
What does an ideal life (referring to the character’s own life and situation) look like, to you?
What does an ideal world (referring to society at large for the character, his or her loved ones, and people in general) look like, to you?
What three experiences from the past defined you in the present?
Where do you see yourself in three months? One year? Three years? Ten years?
What is the inner wound or inner struggle that keeps you up at night?
What is your ugliest side? How do you manage it? Does it ever overtake you?
What is your most noble, best side? How do you encourage it? What’s keeping it from shining more often?
What does it feel like to you when you’re stressed? Bored? Angry? Proud? Happy? Excited?
Is there any friction between how you see yourself, and how others see you? If so, what is preventing you from closing that gap?
These questions aim to address a few crucial (I believe) components of character development: What are the inner struggles? How does the character deal with adversity? How do they see themselves in their mind’s eye and in relation to others? How do conflicts and tensions affect them?
The rest of the decisions you make about their favorite subject in school and what kind of cake they like … those are fun but fluffy. Here, I aim to drill down to the very real. Why? Because these are the relatable things that your readers will connect to on a deeper level.
What to Actually Use
One big mistake I see is that writers do all of this character development, and then shoehorn all of it into their manuscripts. They can’t bear to leave any behind. But some of those spreadsheet ideas need to stay in the spreadsheet. The purpose of doing any kind of “getting to know you” work with your character is that you sit down and do the work. You get to know them. You plan them out.
Invariably, some of that work will end up on the “cutting room floor.” It’s for you, it’s not for the reader. Though you’ve developed it, you don’t necessarily have to use it on the page. And you don’t want to be terribly overt with the answers to the above questions, either. Avoid putting these things on the page. Real people don’t walk around saying, in dialogue with others, “My childhood wound is that I wasn’t loved enough.” But if this is true, it drives a lot of their behavior anyway.
Think of it as homework, not necessarily something for the final product. Focus on what’s really important when it comes to character. Leave the rest for your spreadsheet.
If you struggle with character development, you might want custom, actionable advice from a novel editor. I can help take your protagonist, and therefor your story, to the next level.
Some writers don’t have to decide on their main character, the protagonist has been in their imagination forever! Others, though, struggle with the choice or protagonist. These writers having big casts of characters, multiple POVs, or small, tightly knit ensembles. If you find yourself struggling to define the main character in your story, read on.
If you have trouble selecting the best potential main character for your manuscript, you’ve come to the right place.
Choosing Your Main Character
One question I’m asked a lot is: Does a character have to change from beginning to end? This is otherwise known as a character arc. My answer has always been a resounding yes. Unless you’re writing an antihero (a tough proposition, especially for younger readers), a character’s change arc is going to be one of the more interesting parts of your story. Whether your character learns something by solving a problem (common in picture book) or undergoes a fundamental identity shift (as seen in MG and YA), their potential for change is a big determining factor in who you should select for a main character.
Remember what readers want. They read to care and feel. That’s it. Change is messy, it’s emotional, it’s usually very gratifying. The character who changes the most is also the character who has the potential to connect most with your reader. If this isn’t currently your main character, you might have a decision to make.
Main Character and Emotion
One of the cornerstones of my teaching philosophy about writing is interiority, or access to a character’s thoughts, emotions, reactions, and inner struggle. The character with the biggest change arc usually also has the most potential for emotional scenes. The character is going through a lot, they feel deeply, they aim to learn or grow … readers will want to see this on the page. By choosing this dynamic character, with deep, nuanced feelings, for your main character, you will be putting more emotion into your story. The scenes of your plot will have more feeling to them. What you write about will seem to matter more to readers. If your character floats along, not changing, not really feeling that much, do they have enough potential to be a true protagonist?
The other thought here is about novel theme. Every book has something that it’s about, in a big picture sense. Character will often be tied into your theme, meaning that if you want to write about loss, then maybe a good protagonist in that type of book is grieving. So when you choose your protagonist, and you think about their journey, and their potential for emotion, you’ll also want to think about how all of these things align with your bigger picture. If your book is about self-acceptance and your main character spends most of the story in denial, while their friend plays a supportive and emotionally vulnerable role, maybe you’ve chosen the wrong point of view. Let the lens of the character match the thing you want to do or say with your project.
Special Consideration for Picture Book Main Characters
I was speaking to a client this weekend who has this problem with a picture book. He has three potential candidates for the protagonist. In addition to all of the thoughts, above, I gave him the following advice:
Since it’s generally a bad idea to use adult or teacher characters to dispense picture book lessons, the main character in a picture book should be the character who realizes the moral of the story themselves. Which character here can realize the strongest solution to the problem, and present it to readers in a kid-friendly and realistic way? That should be your main character.
This client had one character who would’ve been a good mouthpiece of the message, which was about dealing with change (a perennial picture book theme). But there was another character who was actively going through a change. I counseled this client to pick the character who was experiencing change, because readers would be much more receptive to hear from that particular character about how to deal with it. That character would be speaking firsthand about the topic, rather than giving a more passive lecture.
In summary, follow the change, follow the development, follow the emotion. Connect these back to your theme. The person who hits as many of those points as possible is your book’s main character, and if they’re not, they should be.
Struggling with creating a relatable protagonist? I can be your developmental editor to help you create the necessary depth and nuance.