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Friday 30 November 2012

Creating Strong Picture Book Characters

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about characterisation. I’m not working on any picture books at the moment (although I've come up with a few ideas I'm filing for the future) as I’m busy writing the sequel to my upcoming novel for ages 10+, in which a new central character appears. As a writer, one of your most important jobs is to create characters from your imagination that are completely believable to others. And characterisation in a picture book is just as important in a novel. Young readers have to be able to identify with, and relate to, the hero of their books, be it animal, child or adult. 
In a picture book, you don’t get the chance to describe your character in the same way as you would in a novel. The character has to be immediately appealing through pictures that grab the reader, thrusting them into the story and making them empathise with the characters and what they’re going through. There aren’t enough words to play with, or any small child’s attention span long enough, to sit through lengthy descriptions of personality and what the character is like before the story gets going.

Look at the phenomenally successful Gruffalo. The hero is a small mouse, who manages to outsmart all his enemies. For a child, there must be something very nice about seeing someone so small and seemingly powerless triumph over so many larger, and more formidable creatures.  The image of the mouse enjoying his nut in peace on the last page is tremendously satisfying. 

Children also enjoy characters they can easily recognise, like Elmer, or Maisy mouse. There is comfort in the familiar, and someone they can return to again and again, who ends up feeling like an old friend, or part of the family. There are a number of books featuring bears, mice and rabbits, enduring favourites that are soft, cuddly and reassuring (even if they aren’t necessarily that way in real life – I wouldn’t want to curl up with a bear!).

Picture books also often feature babies or young children, allowing the reader to explore different situations safely with someone they can identify with. Current favourite in our house include Dogger, where Dave, a young boy, loses Dogger, his much-loved stuffed toy, and The Pirates Next Door, where a little girl called Matilda has an exciting pirate family move into her neighbourhood.   

Through picture books, and the characters they meet there, children can meet new friends, experience new situations, visit new places, have adventures, or seek reassurance. Children have to like the characters they're reading about in order to return to the book again and again, something that's crucial in a picture book.

Which are your favourite picture book characters?

Karen Saunders


  1. We love Winnie the Witch, Kipper and Old Bear, they've all been around for a while! The Pirates Next Door is also a favourite in our house.

  2. When my sons were small, the characters they loved best were Mog (Judith Kerr) and Spot (Eric Hill)for all the reason you describe above, Karen.

  3. I live with my characters running around my head for weeks sometime months before they make it to paper. Before I began to write I would never have believed I would have admitted to having conversations with talking mice, hedgehogs and trolls. But I need to get to know and like them before I can write about them.

  4. Olivia and Mr Pusskins always make me grin. Plus I noticed someone (won't say who - but it wasn't me and the writing's very young!) wrote 'I Love Demon Teddy' inside the book 'Demon Teddy'.

    I like that we're all different: I tried sharing The Pirates Next Door with children and none of us took to it.

  5. With picture books, concentrating on character without coming across twee is difficult. You are right that it is in part about word count and in part about attention span. I find the best picture books are those where the character comes out through how s/he reacts to the plot, rather than those where the character has to be pointed out in a deliberate, obvious way. I like David Mckee's The Sad Story of Veronica who Played the Violin (which is always one of my favourites). Veronica's character comes across in little bursts throughout the book and very much dictates (and is dictated by) the plot.

  6. I love Tom and Aunt Fidget Wonkham Strong in How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen (by Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake). Inspired! And Small and Large in Debi Gliori's No Matter What...