by Sarah Frances Hardy

As an author/illustrator of picture books, my process for creating picture book characters involves a constant back and forth between my keyboard and sketchbook. I have to “draw them out.”

I start with my keyboard, and the first thing I do is ask myself lots of questions about my main character.

  • What does she love?
  • What does she hate?
  • Is she messy?
  • What type of clothes does she wear?
  • What’s her favorite color?
  • Does she have pets?
  • Is she scared of lizards?
  • Does she play the violin?
  • Is she afraid of her mailman?
  • Does she like to eat Cool Whip sandwiches on white bread? (okay, that one was MY favorite sandwich when I was little!)
  • Would she help her worst enemy?
  • Is she cute? Precocious? Bookish? Obnoxious?. . .

I get pretty specific and allow for the unexpected to pop in. Don’t we all love a character with some weird little surprising personality quirk?

When I finally hit upon the perfect character who has her own unique gumbo of personality traits, then it’s time to pull out the sketchbook. I draw facial expressions and hairdos. Wardrobes and bedrooms. I really get to know my character visually–I need to be able to see how she likes to stand (arms crossed protectively in front or hands sassily on hips), what she likes to wear (tie dyed t-shirts or tutus), and what things she loves to do (ballet or tai kwon do).

Then I think about objects that would inhabit her world. Little details scattered in the illustrations of a picture book help create a rich character, kind of like the world building writers do when writing fantasy stories. I just do my world building visually–actually drawing a world with beds and chairs and clothes and people. For me, visualizing my world is a necessary step before I begin to think about writing plot. I like to have my stage set and my characters in full costume before I turn them loose to tell me their stories.

If I’ve done my job, then my main character and how she relates to the world will lead me to a plot. There will be something in her personality that stands out, and it’s up to me to put something in her way. For example, if she really hates something–like sports. I make her put on a pair of soccer cleats and play. Or, if she’s really embarrassed about something–like her frilly blankie that she sleeps with every night. I make sure someone exposes her at a spend-the-night party.

I ask myself “What’s the worst thing that can happen to my main character based on her unique personality?” And, then I do it to her (I know–I’m such a meanie!). But, since I’m an illustrator, I do this visually. I draw the way she would stand if forced to put on full soccer gear. I draw her reaction to being exposed at the party.

And, this conflicted character that I’ve pulled out, drawn out, of her comfort zone, leads me back to my keyboard to bang out a story . . .

Sarah Frances Hardy, a Southern girl living in Oxford, Mississippi, took an early retirement from practicing law to paint and write full time. She has exhibited her work in galleries throughout the Southeast as well as in New York. Her corporate clients include Steve Wynn who purchased several of Sarah Frances’s paintings for the Beau Rivage Resort in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Sarah Frances’s debut picture book, pitched as “Wednesday Addams meets Fancy Nancy”, which she wrote and illustrated will be published by Viking Children’s Books in 2012. Sarah Frances also writes middle grade novels which are set in the South. She is inspired by her three daughters, who each couldn’t be more different.

Sarah Frances is represented by Joanna Volpe at Nancy Coffey Literary and Media Representation. Learn more about Sarah Frances Hardy at her website and her blog