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.
It’s my pleasure today to feature a picture book self publishing case study for a change of pace. Full disclosure: Shelby Wilde is an editorial client of mine from earlier this year. We worked on this picture book manuscript together and discussed her career next steps. She decided to self-publish her project, and did, in my opinion, a wonderful job with it.
I don’t often feature client work on the blog or do interviews, but I chose this project because I think it’s extremely well done and I think Shelby has some great insights that will be useful to other writers considering self publishing, especially picture book self publishing. (For any writers in this boat, I highly recommend the Self-Publishing Blueprint from Writing Bluerpints. It’s a comprehensive online class on the ins and outs of becoming an indie publisher. I watched the whole thing with great interest.)
Here, she shares her experience with deciding to “go indie,” the unexpected things she learned, and her lovely book. A long article, but a must-read. Hear about it directly from Shelby, below. I will pop in occasionally to comment with takeaways over the course of the interview!
Deciding to Self Publish
When I decided to self-publish SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND, I spent months researching the process. I knew I would have to pull out all the stops in order for the book to compete with the quality of traditionally published books on the market. I chose to have hard cover books printed in China, which I would then sell through Amazon. Hard cover format is the preferred format for children’s picture books.
There is another self-publishing path called Print on Demand (POD). I did not choose that option because there are very few POD options for hard cover books and the quality is not where it needs to be, in my opinion. Traditional publishers have set the bar high when it comes to the quality of children’s books and self-publishers need to meet and exceed consumers’ expectations.
Kidlit Takeaways: Picture book writers have the self-publishing options of choosing to print physical books in softcover, hardcover, or both (a big investment upfront as you have to buy a print run of expensive books), POD (no upfront investment but quality control can be an issue), or ebook (despite being easily suited to illustrated content, ebooks do not offer the same reading experience for parents/children as physical copies).
Shelby’s point about competing with traditionally published books is spot on. I tell this to my clients all the time: You can do whatever you want when you self-publish. But you are selling to customers who are used to spending money on traditionally published books, and standards are high as a result. You need to offer them something equal or better in order to convince their dollars to come over to the indie side!
Self Publishing Case Study Interview: The Decision to Go Indie
What is this book’s “origin story”?
SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND was inspired by my daughter, who is a rock hound—she loves hunting for rocks. One day she sat me down and started telling me stories about how she acquired each of the rocks in her collection. In her stories, she debated with dragons, haggled with mermaids and convinced aliens so she could take home her treasured rocks. The combination of fantasy and reality inspired me, and I know it is something that captivates kids.
How did you make the decision to self-publish and why?
Early on, I considered the traditional publishing path for SCAVENGER SCOUT, but soon after the manuscript was completed, I realized I felt a strong connection to the main character. I wanted to guide her story through the publishing process myself, overseeing every aspect. Another reason I decided to self-publish is that I wanted to select the illustrator. If you choose the traditional publishing path and sell your book to a publisher, they will select the illustrator. Because I was so connected to the character of Scout, I wanted to be able to choose the style of illustration that would bring her to life.
Kidlit Takeaway: Choosing to self-publish gives you ultimate control over your project. Control you would lose with traditional publishing because the publisher does have final say on issues like title, format, illustrator, etc. But with great power comes great responsibility, and it behoves you to do your due diligence and make strong, marketable decisions.
Self Publishing Logistics
Describe the process of preparing the book for publication. What was unexpected? What did you learn?
When it comes to preparing the book for publication, selecting the illustrator is only the tippy top of a very large iceberg. The most important thing I learned is something that should have been obvious to me: When you decide to self-publish, you will need to wear all of the hats that a traditional publishing house does. You will need to hire an editor (or editors—did you know there are different kinds?), an illustrator, a book designer (or your illustrator may be able to provide this service), a printer, a shipping company, storage space (if you are having your books printed and shipped to you, instead of ebook or POD). The difference is that the publisher has a team of people who are specialists in their areas and you have just … you. A writer. The learning curve is steep, but it is doable as long as you’re willing to put the time in.
One unexpected challenge was dealing with long timelines. Traditional publishing cycles are long: it typically takes two years to bring a book to market. Self-publishing is a little bit faster—mine took 11 months from start to finish, but still not quick. You have to have a lot of patience. If you have ever created something to sell, the last thing you have is patience. You can’t wait to get it out there. And even though you are a small, nimble company (yep, you need to get a business license if you want to self-publish), you are stuck with a lot of timelines that you don’t own. It takes weeks to months for the illustrator to complete their illustrations, months to print and ship the books, months to promote the book before launch.
Another unexpected challenge: Advertising budget: I didn’t think much about funds for advertising when I was in the planning stages. It’s just a fact that if you want a product to sell, you have to advertise it. Advertising is a skill and it costs money. It’s also relentless. If you stop advertising, you will see an immediate drop in sales. While it’s true that even if you sell your book to a traditional publisher you will still have to market it, at least you’ll have some support from the publisher.
Kidlit Takeaway: The leap from writer to publisher can be a rude awakening. Self-publishing isn’t just a shortcut to making your work available. You are responsible for many things you’ve thought of–and haven’t yet! Shelby also brings up a great point: budget. Do you have one? Picture books are especially expensive to self-publish (as opposed to a novel made available on Kindle, for example) because the biggest expense is the illustrator. To hire a good one, you have to pay thousands of dollars (five figures isn’t unusual). Otherwise, it will show. Unfortunately, readers do judge a book by its cover. Layout costs more money. Then, if you’re creating a physical book, you have to pay for expensive full color printing on a bigger trim size product. Shipping. Storage. Shipping to the consumer. And that’s before you even think about marketing. Picture book self publishing comes with sticker shock!
Describe the process of launching the book. Any lessons there?
This is another area where you have to understand that publishing is a business and you have to do all of the same things that traditional publishing houses are doing in order to compete. Among the activities you will want to put on your launch list: blog tour, social media ads, frequent social media posts, giveaways, partnerships, cross promotion with coordinating products, press release, media interviews, email blasts. Just like the production of the book, launching the book involves skill sets that writers don’t often have: public relations, media relations and marketing. The most important thing I learned when I launched my book is that you have to start months in advance.
Kidlit Takeaway: Marketing is a skill in and of itself. But all writers, whether indie or traditional, have to learn it at some point. The good news is, you are allowed to take small bites. That’s why I like the tip about starting months in advance–you’ll want to give yourself plenty of runway to learn.
Self Publishing Marketing and Career Path
What’s life after independent publication like? How are you currently involved in marketing the project?
I have completed my launch communication plan and have now moved into the “Keep the momentum going” phase. Frequent social media posts, cross promotion, blog tours, book reviews, giveaways, email blasts, etc. Once you self-publish a book, you are now on the hook for marketing the book forever. That sounds daunting, but you have to think of it like any other product. Products don’t sell themselves. You have to put yourself out there as the author, put the book out there through ads, all to keep the stream of people flowing to your book. I enjoy the marketing aspect so it’s fun for me, but it is also time consuming.
Kidlit Takeaway: Ah, the old “art vs. business” debate! A great reminder that any book, even a traditionally published one, becomes a product. And then you sell it forever. The good news is that every positive review, blog post, interview, etc. gives you additional traction, but you always have to be proactive about creating opportunities. Unfortunately, “if you build it, they will come” is not a realistic adage in the age when hundreds of thousands of books are being traditionally and independently published per year.
What’s on the horizon for you? Would you self-publish again? Why or why not?
When I wrote SCAVENGER SCOUT, I also wrote a sequel so I have committed myself to self-publishing that book as well. I anticipate launching in Q2 of 2019. Once SCAVENGER SCOUT Part 2 is out, I will definitely have my hands full managing the printing, shipping and inventory that will come with both books. I am just one person and I’m not interested in becoming a small publisher. I have three other completed manuscripts that I’ve decided to pitch to agents in hopes of getting a contract from a traditional publisher. Choosing the self-publishing path means you are choosing to focus on the business side more than you will focus on the creative side. I want to have more time to spend on writing so I’m happy to let a publisher handle the logistics, even if it means lower profits for me.
Kidlit Takeaway: The takeaway I hear from clients all day every day is that writers are very surprised that they have to become publishers/marketers/businesspeople when they self-publish. They are not just writers. In fact, writing often falls to the bottom of their To Do list. Shelby’s point here is a great one to remember. It’s echoed in Teresa Funke’s excellent and very in-depth online class on self-publishing via Writing Blueprints: each project has its own life and potential. For some projects, self-publishing is the way to go. For other projects, you can always try traditional. Having these options means you can learn about them and choose the ones that are right for you on a project basis, and on a career basis! The bigger message is this: Successful, tenacious writers have more than one project in the pipeline!
Looking to make the jump into self-publishing? My editing services are perfectly suited to writers preparing to go indie. Get professional eyes on your work so you create the strongest product possible.
I tell clients all the time that my job is managing expectations and encouraging perseverance in writing. Part of working with a freelance editor is expecting to be pushed outside of your manuscript comfort zone a little bit. Most writers come to me with the thought, “I am excited by my idea but I know there are several things that aren’t working. I want to learn and grow and make it better.” Maybe that writer has gotten some early feedback from critique partners about things that need tweaking. Or they’ve already done an unsuccessful submission round with agents or editors and they didn’t get the response they expected. Or maybe their manuscript isn’t meeting their own internal expectations and they just don’t know what to do about it. Enter a second pair of eyes: an editor.
A small percentage of writers, however, and I’ve only had this experience twice in my editorial career, are so convinced of the merits of the manuscript that they’re not looking for an editor. They are looking, I’d imagine, to get on the radar of someone even tangentially connected to the industry, and get a booster to the top. Maybe they think I will recommend them personally to agents. Maybe they think I’ll start agenting again myself for the sake of scooping up a hot project. Or maybe they just want the gold star from someone who has made a career of saying, basically, “yes” or “no” to thousands of other writers.
An Editor Should Encourage Writing Perseverance
I try very hard to generate constructive, actionable feedback. I’ve never sent a set of notes that says, “This sucks, it’s dead in the water, and you should probably stick with your day job.” One time, at a conference, I met with a writer who told me something shocking. “This,” she said, “is the first manuscript I’ve written in twenty-five years. I had a writing teacher in college tell me I was no good, and it hurt so much that I stopped writing altogether.”
This woman lost twenty-five years of her writing life. She clearly loved doing it, but because one voice (in a presumed position of authority) told her she wasn’t good enough, she gave up on her dream for a quarter of a century (and almost all of her adult life up until that point). People perceive me as an authority, too. And so I have made it my goal to never wield that power in a way that hurts a writer. I always provide notes that encourage writing perseverance, not kill the drive to write.
Do I rave about every manuscript unequivocally, then? Absolutely not. Even excellent writers have some blind spots. So whether I’m helping a beginning writer cut fancy “said” synonyms out of their dialogue, or I’m helping an MFA-graduate with beautiful prose work on plot and overall sales hook, I try my best to do it with the dignity and respect that each writer and each manuscript deserves, for where they are in their individual journey.
All that said, I still run into writers who need help managing expectations that perhaps outpace their current manuscripts. Whether those expectations are achieving success at their first writing conference, or breaking into multiplatform publishing, perhaps even neglecting common query letter tips and putting the cart before the horse in their pitch, I see this happen with writers. They’ve created websites, maybe, or products, or they’ve already self published. They have a lot to say about various awards they’ve won or endorsements they’ve gotten. There’s little talk about the manuscript, though, as if that was just an afterthought. They’ve sacrificed perseverance in writing to focus on the bells and whistles of publishing success.
It Always Comes Back to the Manuscript
This sends a message to me that the writer isn’t as interested in rolling up their sleeves and working on the product itself. To me, everything but the manuscript is just noise. You can send me a t-shirt with your characters on it, or a list of testimonials from school appearances, and all that is fine and good. I’m a driven, type-A personality, too, and I have way more ideas than I have time to make them all a reality. I respect proactive people. But my only concern is the manuscript.
It’s what an agent or editor will respond to. It’s what will stand out among the noise if it’s, indeed, worthwhile. I saw excitement bubbling over for a perfectly lovely client last week, and I wrote to them: “The only way to get someone excited about your work is by presenting good work, and letting it speak for itself.” It’s easy to say but very hard to do. It’s also at the very core of what I do as an editor. Every writer has a different personality, and some need more help managing expectations than others. That’s okay. My job, however, is to help put the crucial piece of that manuscript into place, and help writers create good work so that they can then present it. It’s as simple and as difficult as encouraging perseverance in writing, but, man, do I love my job.
It’s all about the manuscript. Hire my manuscript critique services and I’ll give you constructive, actionable feedback that’ll help improve your project.
The post below is written by my editorial client Scott Plumbe, who came to me for the first time last year with a highly illustrated MG story about a fox named Theo who has some family secrets and a fascinating adventure across India and the Himalayas. It’s been really great working with Scott, and when he decided to independently release his book with a subscription model, I approached him to write a few articles about his experience.
I’m sure that a lot of my readers are curious about independent publishing and Kickstarter. As a freelance editor, I’m seeing more and more clients self-publishing or pursuing alternate paths to seeing their work in print or digital release. If a guy can make tens of thousands of dollars off of a potato salad, why can’t books get funded?
Here’s Scott’s first article about his process. I’ve contributed to his Kickstarter. If you’re curious, you can find the link here.
The past few weeks have brought about a massive change of direction for me. I am officially starting a Kickstarter campaign. This post is the first of three in which I’ll share my crowdfunding experiences before, during and after my campaign.
I’m an illustrator who has always had a desire to tell my stories through words and pictures. Comics and graphic novels may seem the obvious choice, but the complexity of my story, The Unlucky Fox, isn’t suitable for either. Instead, I’m creating an illustrated novel of 60,000 words and over 100 pages of full-colour illustrations.
After much consideration, I’ve chosen to launch the story through the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter. I’m offering potential backers a monthly subscription to the story. Every four weeks, backers receive a fresh chapter replete with newly completed illustrations.
Why crowdfunding instead of other emerging or traditional avenues? Being a freelance artist who has never sought representation, I have a strong streak of DIY in me. And without that characteristic, I don’t think anyone could undertake a crowdfunding campaign.
There are numerous crowdfunding options out there, including Indiegogo. I like the inherent risk aspect of KS — it’s all or nothing! If a campaign fails to meet its target, no money is collected from your backers. This prospect weeds out a lot of potential creators who are not as confident. It places those campaigns that do launch with KS amongst a community of like-minded creators and entrepreneurs. I believe the core KS users are creative types. That means artists, designers, innovators and makers — people accustomed to calculated risks. And let’s face it. As a debut writer, I’m a risk! By choosing KS and sharing the process of bringing my project to life, I hope to reduce the unknown and gain some support along the way.
What kind of preparation is involved?
I took a full year to decide on my current path. During that time, I followed KS projects and undertook a major revision of my manuscript. I also sketched out a list of ideas for possible rewards and sourced suppliers. I’ve spent the last six weeks putting that plan into action. That means finalizing the rewards, writing my pitch, making the video and a website to support it all. I also poked around and made a list of blogs and local news outlets to send press releases to.
Why an incremental subscription release model?
From a traditional publishing perspective, as a first-time author I have many challenges. Not only is it a hurdle to promote the work of a debut author, but add on top of that my desire for accompanying colour artwork! It has taken nearly four years to bring the manuscript this close to completion, but I still have heaps of artwork to finish. I decided to take my cue from the world of comics and TV serials and break up the delivery of the story. Interestingly, some anecdotal evidence from friends in the gaming industry suggests that many game studios are moving away from the traditional Hollywood ‘tentpole’ model, pushing projects forward with incremental expansion instead. They deliver their content in small doses, rather than one big launch. Studios are taking less risk and getting instant audience feedback as they progress. In their case, the result is a product that essentially has no end and can lead to a more empowered fan base.
What are your risks and challenges?
I have many! Most are obvious, while others are specific to my story. In particular, the chance of not connecting with an audience is notable. The KS community is primarily adult, not the young teens my novel is written for. But encouragingly, there have been several successful campaigns for young readers. Most notably, Augie and the Green Knight that earned nearly $400,000 in pledges. Of course, this is the exception and not the rule!
Well, I guess it’s time to hit LAUNCH!
I’ll check back in when my campaign is underway.
You read about this project here first, when I posted about the sale of A SMIDGEN OF SKY by Dianna Dorisi Winget (then titled Fly A Little Higher, Piper Lee) from Harcourt. Now the moment is finally here (tomorrow) when you can read all about spunky Piper Lee in this irresistible middle grade!
Order your copy and crack into this tale of growing up, dealing with change, and what it really means to be a family. Congratulations, Dianna!
Yesterday was the release day for THROUGH TO YOU by Emily Hainsworth, a standalone young adult novel from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins. If you aren’t curled up reading it, I’m glad you’re reading this, since it might inspire you to go and buy your copy.
A few housekeeping mentions and a huge congratulations to m client Karsten Knight on the blog. Let’s lead with the congratulations. Karsten Knight’s second book in the WILDEFIRE trilogy, EMBERS AND ECHOES hits shelves tomorrow! Here is the gorgeous cover:
Go out and get your copy today, er, tomorrow. If you haven’t read the series yet, you’re in luck! The paperback of WILDEFIRE, the first book, is also out.
This is a multicultural romp that features a group of powerful teen gods and goddesses. If you’ve been looking for a good definition of voice, you should definitely be reading Karsten’s work. Good thing you can start tomorrow.
Other than that, I am teaching my very popular Picture Book Craft Intensive webinar on Thursday, September 6th at 1 p.m. Eastern. As with all of my other webinars, you don’t have to be available on the time and date. You will get a recording of the lecture after the fact. The webinar comes with a critique for every student, and this is a great opportunity if you’ve been craving some professional eyes on your picture book manuscript. Register here.
I’ve got a few conferences coming up. The weekend of September 15th I’m in San Antonio for the SCBWI conference, and the weekend of the 28th, I’m visiting with the Idaho Writer’s League. If I’m meeting you at either of those, I’m looking forward to it! If not and you’re nearby, please register.
ETA: Just realized the link to the webinar was broken. I’ve found it for you. Sorry about that! (Even as I posted, I had this nagging feeling that I was missing…something…)
This was something that Bethanie Murguia simply had to see for herself, so we got together to take some pictures yesterday. She also signed stock at Books of Wonder on W 18th Street, and at the Scholastic Store itself, so if you are in the area and want a signed copy of ZOE, head on down before they’re gone. We were joined for a delightful series of meetings and for dinner by Cheryl Klein, ZOE’s editor. Scholastic even made stickers that let kids dress and redress Zoe in various outfits! Those have been sent to booksellers, so I hope you see some in the wild.
The first picture is Bethanie and me in front of the window, the second is all three of us proudly showing off a copy of ZOE. What an amazing opportunity! I’m very grateful for the support of the Scholastic team, and so happy that Bethanie was able to see her work displayed with such style. A fun bit of trivia: Zoe’s closet in the window features real clothes from Stella McCartney Kids!
How completely inappropriate…I am late in announcing the release day for the amazing picture book ZOE GETS READY by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, out on May 1st from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. It’s the story of a girl with big hopes for a day when she gets to choose her own outfit. But how can she make up her mind with so many possibilities in her closet? And just what kind of day will it be?
You can also watch the YouTube trailer for the book here:
I’m going to bring you another super cool picture of the team behind ZOE this week, but for now, get on over to your local independent bookstore and pick up your copy! If you are an online shopper, find it on Amazon or Indiebound. You can check out Bethanie’s website here. And don’t worry about falling in love with this spunky heroine and being left hanging…Scholastic will publish a follow-up ZOE book next year!
Today is a fantastic day indeed because Lindsay Ward‘s WHEN BLUE MET EGG is now on sale! This book is out from Dial, an imprint of Penguin USA. Go down to your local independent bookstore and look for it. If they don’t have it, ask for it by name.
This is a gorgeous story of friendship and love, loss and acceptance, and it takes place against the snowy backdrop of one of my favorite places in the world: New York, New York!
Meet Blue and Egg and follow their adventures today. You can also read the story of how this sale came about here.