Pay Attention! Your Character Is Talking to You.
Let me just say that I find it hilarious that I’m writing about this subject. Developing a strong character used to absolutely terrify me. It seemed horribly intimidating. I’d see picture book series and wonder how writers could come up with multiple stories for one character. I was a thirty-two-page-one-book-only kind of gal, if you know what I mean. I’d rather focus on beautiful art and the overall theme or arc of the story. But that only takes you so far as an author and illustrator. Soon the voices of your characters will begin to poke their heads out and demand a voice. I found myself writing stories I never thought I could write, but suddenly they started to pour out and I figured I better start listening to those little voices.
I was pregnant with my first son when the idea for Don’t Forget Dexter came along. My husband was required to get a T-DAP booster shot prior to the birth and while sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, he noticed an abandoned toy dinosaur that had been left underneath a chair. My husband notices EVERYTHING. And he’s pretty darn funny. He took a photo of the dinosaur and sent it to me with a text that read “Well, they left me here.” I was at home sketching when I received his message. I couldn’t stop laughing.
Immediately I sat down at my computer and wrote a first draft. The story poured out. No hesitation. To this day it still feels like it was an out-of-body experience. Believe me, I know how crazy that sounds, but I have no other way to explain it. Prior to this, I had met authors who would say their characters were speaking to them while they wrote. And I thought, well that’s cool, it doesn’t happen to me, and it sounds a bit nutty, but whatever works. Now, I’m one of those authors, because it truly felt like Dexter was telling me what he would and wouldn’t say. He’s a rather opinionated dinosaur you see. I had no intention of breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the reader, but Dexter did.
I went back and forth with my agent on a couple drafts, created some character sketches, a dummy, and a finished color piece of Dexter. Then we went out on submission. We had interest from multiple houses, and finally Dexter had a home with Two Lions. I was thrilled to be doing another book with Kelsey Skea, the editor whom I’d worked with on Brobarians. She and the rest of her team had loved Dexter so much that they wanted a two-book deal. Our original submission had only been for one book. I was thrilled! Two books! And the funny thing was, right after we accepted the deal, Dexter began yapping about his next adventure. Apparently he wanted to go to school. He really is quite chatty. It’s Show and Tell, Dexter! comes out in July.
So… here’s my advice when it comes to creating a character-driven picture book:
- Pay attention. You never know where your ideas will come from. Be observant and open to anything. Okay, this is more of a general rule about writing, but it’s important.
- Be authentic. Decide what the defining characteristics of your character are. Explore and expand on them. I always suggest making a list that you can refer back to while writing. My list for Dexter included something along the lines of: neurotic, silly, hypochondriac, friendly, and accidentally funny. Neurotic being the most defining.
- Listen to the voices in your head. Writing may be the only profession where this is socially acceptable. Take advantage of that.
- Don’t disregard anything. Write down everything that comes to you regarding your character. Shape who they are through these snippets of information.
- Defining characteristics are key. They can be the backbone of your story. Every great character-driven picture book is like this. Olivia: confident. Pigeon: opinionated. Curious George: curious (okay that one was obvious). Eloise: sassy. Do you see what all of these traits have in common? They are all relatable to kids! Kids can have an emotional connection with these characters. THAT IS ESSENTIAL for a character-driven picture book.
Now go out there and write one!