Eighteen months ago, I took up karate. It’s a great workout, but the biggest reason I train is I want to be a formidable senior citizen. If someone tries to nab my purse or deny my senior discount at Denny’s, I’ll be able to answer with a nasty roundhouse kick to the solar plexus. By laying the foundation now, I’ll be a badass when I’m 70.
But the neatest thing about taking up karate when you’re a woman in her mid-40’s is that people don’t automatically expect it. If you’re just a casual acquaintance, you won’t know I’m working toward my black belt. And by the time I’m collecting Social Security, the possibility won’t even cross your mind. Unless you try to grab my purse.
In life most people become more complex as we get to know them. This should also be true for characters in children’s books. At a conference I recently attended, Lyron Bennett, editor for Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, called it “the slow reveal”. It means investing your characters with enough varied qualities that some can be withheld until called for in the plot.
The slow reveal is particularly important when writing a series. If J.K. Rowling had allowed Harry Potter to reach his full power as a wizard in Book 1, would fans have waited nine years and six more books to discover if he finally defeated you-know-who? But equally important is planting the seeds early on for who you want your character to become. From the beginning, readers saw Harry’s potential, and Rowling allowed greatness to surface in Harry when it was least expected. Those qualities expanded along with Harry as the series unfolded.
You don’t want to reveal everything at once in stand-alone books either. Picture books and easy readers, with their smaller word counts and straightforward plots, do best with characters who have one or two surprises up their sleeve. In Peggy Parish’s classic easy reader Amelia Bedelia, the child sees that Amelia is doing a bad job on her first day as a housekeeper because she doesn’t understand the list her employer left her. But even before Amelia begins on the list, she whips up a lemon merengue pie. What the reader doesn’t know is that Amelia makes the most delicious pies anywhere, which eventually saves her job at the end of the book.
Parceling out your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses keeps the tension taut in a novel. In Gary Paulsen’s timeless Hatchet (ages 11-14), Brian, a city kid, is stranded in the Canadian wilderness after the his bush plane crashes, killing the pilot. Neither Brian nor the reader know if he’s got what it takes to survive on his own. Can he figure out how to start a fire? Yes, quite by accident. Can he fish? Eventually. Kill and cook a bird? How about live through a moose attack or weather a tornado? Brian evolves from reacting to his predicament and stumbling upon solutions to carefully taking control of his situation. But nothing Brian does is out of character. Though he must teach himself to live in the wild, he draws upon bits of information he learned from watching television or at school, and reserves of strength that were in him all along.
Even if you’re writing a single title, make your children’s book characters complex enough to carry on for several books, just in case. Fans loved Brian so much that Paulsen was persuaded to use the character in several other wilderness adventures. Picture book series (such as Mo Willem’s Pigeon books) or easy reader series like Amelia Bedelia generally grow because the protagonist’s quirks are open-ended and funny enough that readers don’t mind exploring them over and over in different circumstances.
The slow reveal works particularly well in mysteries. In this genre, the readers gradually get to know the victim (perhaps an honor student who is discovered to be running an side business selling test answers), and the villain (who may seem like a nice guy at the beginning of the book). Or, how about a first person narrator in any genre who appears normal and likable early on, but becomes less and less reliable as the story unfolds? Read Robert Cormier’s timeless young adult I Am the Cheese for a masterful example of a shifting first person reality. If you prefer a broader perspective, try Avi’s Nothing But the Truth: A Documentary Novel for ages 11-14, which looks at one incident from several viewpoints, gradually separating fact from fiction. So when you first breath life into your characters, don’t stop too soon. Add layers that can be exposed later on. These surprises will keep readers enthralled, whether you’re writing about a boy wizard, a demanding pigeon, or a ninja grandma.
Laura Backes is the publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. For more information about how to write children’s books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets, the lowdown on children’s book publishers and much more, visit the CBI Clubhouse at http://cbiclubhouse.com