Characters: The Building Blocks of Fiction

All good fiction starts with characters. Characters are the central focus of your story; they control the plot, causing its twists and turns and ultimate resolution. A mistake many writers make is conceiving the plot first and then plugging one-dimensional characters into this storyline, simply moving them from point A to point B. This results in a flat story void of any emotion. Even the most thrilling adventure won’t appeal to readers if they don’t care about the people involved.

Though the idea for a story (it’s theme or message) or the events that comprise the plot may be the first things that spring to mind, take time to develop your characters before you start writing. Many authors write out a detailed character sketch or biography, listing both physical (include gestures, facial expressions, etc. as well as physical appearance) and personality traits. Dig deep: What is this character’s greatest fear? His worst nightmare? His proudest achievement? This kind of background is important for any type of character, including talking animals. Avoid stereotypes or ready-made characters (those your reader has seen before).

Once your character is firmly established in your mind, have him or her encounter a conflict of some kind. The way this conflict is resolved depends on who your character is, which is why the background work is so important. The resolution, which must be brought about by your main character, depends on this character’s unique set of strengths and weaknesses. The above paragraph illustrates the basic plot outline of your book. Underlying all this is the story’s theme, or message. You never state the theme to your reader, but it should be evident by what your main character has learned, or how he or she has changed, during the course of the book. Since there are only a handful of themes out there, what will make your story stand out is how your particular character has handled his or her personal conflict. If your characters are original, your plot will be original as well.

This kind of character development is also important for secondary characters. Though you won’t be showing as many aspects of their personalities as with your main character, you’ll find yourself implying many of the traits that make them unique. In this way, each of your characters is an individual, and the secondary characters won’t all blend together in the background.

With short stories, picture books and easy readers, the plot tends to focus on one or two aspects of the main character’s personality (fear of the dark, jealousy of an older sibling). Chapter books, middle grade and young adult novels have more complicated plots, and explore greater dimensions of character. Often sub-plots bring out smaller conflicts the main character is facing that relate to the larger plot. In novels the characters tend to be about the same age as the reader or a year or two older. Picture books can feature characters of any age, as long as the conflict is something a child 4-8 years old would care about, and character has a childlike view of the world. (For a more intensive study of characters and exercises on character development, see Character Workshop by Katherine Ploeger, The book cost $15.95 plus $3.75 shipping and can be ordered by calling 1-800- 807-1916.) Remember that your characters, whether they be a child or an animal, must act consistently with the personality you have given them. They must deal with the conflict in a way that is true to themselves, and can’t use knowledge or experiences they wouldn’t have simply because it’s convenient to the plot. In this way, your characters drive the plot and the story’s outcome. Once your characters take on a life of their own, you may find your story heading in a direction you never anticipated. Let it go. If your characters are real and believable, they may take you places you never dreamed possible.

Laura Backes is the publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. For more information about writing children’s books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children’s Book Insider’s home on the web at

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