Creating characters

Never mind dogs looking like their owners: it dawned on me this week that a number of my children’s authors are starting to resemble the characters they create – slightly disturbing, since many write about animals, monsters and other strange creatures. Good-looking versions of their creations, of course.

Perhaps I’m hallucinating as a result of mid afternoon blood sugar level slumps, lengthy meetings or the kind of silliness which occurs when spending a long time immersed in children’s books. But it’s not completely surprising – after all, it is often the case that writers imbue their characters with personality traits they themselves possess, so why not physical characteristics, too?

But actually we shouldn’t really know what characters look like – or, at least, descriptions of physical appearance are best avoided. Characters should emerge through their actions – the way they slam the phone down, scowl at the bus conductor or march to the front of the queue (they don’t necessarily need to have anger issues, though). Knowing that she has long curly brown hair just doesn’t bring a character alive in the same way; in fact, I can’t think of any examples where a description of how a character looks works really well.

Am I wrong? Let me know if you can point to a really strong physical description of a character in a children’s book.

The BBC Writer’s Room site offers some other useful tips on creating character. It’s aimed at scriptwriters but can also apply to children’s book writers,


4 thoughts on “Creating characters

  1. Bought ‘I am David’ by Anne Holm for my boys this summer and couldn’t help skimming through it for sentimental reasons. The scene where David first discovers what he looks like is firmly placed within the drama, as David tries to work out why adults find him strange. “…very soon a face appeared clearly in the mirror – his own! It did not look ugly. No, he honestly could not see what could be wrong with it. It was thin, but so were many people’s faces. The colour of his hair perhaps was not quite right: maybe it should have been a darker brown….” But generally, I think you’re probably right – imagination works the best!

    • Interesting but yes I think here the description is telling us more about David than his appearance alone – it shows us how he views himself and expresses his anxiety about adults finding him strange. Thanks for commenting and for bringing up this example. I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions and I’ll keep an eye out for them too!

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