Creating Believable Characters
in Children’s Books
Copyright Robyn Opie - All Rights Reserved.
If you’ve read my previous articles you’ll be aware that I’ve defined
children’s books as books that feature a child as the main character and the audience is
So, let’s take a look at children as characters.
In picture books, no description of the characters is necessary. Picture
books are highly visual and therefore all characters are obvious from the illustrations. When writing picture
books, you have a limited number of words to work with and you can’t afford to waste words on unnecessary
The same can be said of easy readers and chapter books. These books still
contain a lot of illustrations and a limited word count. Description should be restricted to what is essential to
For example, if you’re writing about a child who is bothered by their
appearance – wearing glasses or being too small – then a limited amount of description is
A general guideline when writing these shorter books for young children is
to only include what is essential for the story to make sense.
To make your character seem real to the reader you must think of him or her
as a real person. People are around us every day. It’s useful to take bits and pieces from the people we know to
create our characters. Be careful to always mix and match. Never use an entire person in a novel. That person may
not appreciate it.
Always avoid stereotypes. They are boring and unimaginative. They are an
example of lazy writing. Be creative.
A character comes alive through their actions and dialogue. Actions, in
particular, will show a character’s personality. What they do and how they react largely depends on their
personality, background and experience.
For example, a child who has been bitten by a dog will react differently
when confronted by a strange dog than a child who has never experienced this trauma.
Believable characters always act consistently.
For example, in my book Working Like a
Dog Lucia wants new rollerblades. Her parents won’t buy them for her. She must save the money
herself or go without. So Lucia decides to start a dog-walking service to earn money for new rollerblades. Later in
the story Lucia loses two of the dogs. She worries about the dogs and spends a lot of time searching for
The action in this story shows Lucia’s character. She’s a likeable
responsible young lady. She is prepared to earn the money to buy new rollerblades. She could have stolen the money
or rollerblades. She could have bullied other children for their lunch money. She could have nagged her grandmother
into giving her money or rollerblades.
When she loses the dogs, she could have left them to find their own way
home. She could have lied to the owners about losing them.
Lucia is responsible when she decides to earn money to buy her own
rollerblades. When she loses the dogs she is responsible and searches for them until she finds
Lucia acts consistently and her behaviour is believable.
Imagine if Lucia decided to lie to the dog owners about knowing what
happened to their precious pooches. She could say that the dogs were missing when she went to walk them. This
element of the plot would probably be hard to swallow considering what we already know about Lucia. She would
suddenly seem unbelievable.
It is essential to know what your character wants – their motivation. And
why they want it. Your character’s goal must be something that readers can relate to and care
Your readers must care about your character and be interested in their
plight. Otherwise there is a good chance they’ll put your book down and never return to it.
You, the writer, must care about your character. If you don’t care about
him or her then you can’t expect your readers to care either. To care about your character you need to know him or
Sometimes writers use a habit or habits in an attempt to make a character
appear real. Habits can take the form of action and dialogue. Maybe a character chews their nails or adds the word
"like" to the beginning of too many sentences or wears a particular type of clothing.
Be careful when giving your characters habits. Too many habits can distract
the reader from your story and become an annoyance.
Characters should be kept to a minimum in children’s fiction. Too many
characters can confuse our young readers.
As children’s books become longer and your audience older, there is more
room for character development. But it is important to remember that every word in your book should be essential to
About the author: Robyn Opie is the author of more than 75 children's
books. She has been writing for children for 9 years; most of her books are sold around the world and
many have been translated into foreign languages. Robyn lives in Adelaide, South Australia, with her partner
Rob Parnell, two dogs and thousands of children's books. She works full time writing for children.
Robyn is the author of three comprehensive e-books including
How To Write a GREAT Children's Book: The Easy Way to Write for
Kids (Volume 1)