It’s still early in Picture Book Idea Month, and hopefully you’re all still overflowing with ideas that you can put down on paper. It does get tougher as the month continues, but bravo to you for taking up the challenge!
You’re going to come up with a lot of different kinds of ideas. You’ll think of titles, puns, and images that you see in your mind’s eye. You’ll imagine complicated scenarios and Holy Grails. You’ll draft punchlines and scenes that tug at the heart. All of these varied things can eventually grow into a beautiful, successful picture book.
But no matter what you start with, character is almost always the key to crafting a book that will be published.
POPPYCOCK! you say. CODSWALLOP! BUNK! After all, there are so many other things we hear about that make editors want to publish a manuscript. Compelling plots. Flawless writing. Powerful marketing hooks. And those are all vital things! Your plot has to be gripping and unique. The writing must be impeccable and beautiful to read. There has to be hooks to help the book sell.
But all of those things pale in comparison to the character.
It is the character that the reader will fall in love with. It is the character who he will root for. It is the character he will draw on his fan mail to you. It is the character who will live on in his imagination for week, months, years to come.
It is the character you have to get right.
Let’s talk about some ways to do that.
Character is Like the Salt
Every once in a while when I’m cooking dinner, I totally forget to add salt. The meal I end up with is nothing short of disgusting and inedible. Salvageable, yes—as long as I add some salt to it. But without that one ingredient, dinner is nothing like what it is supposed to be.
Character is the salt in your picture book idea.
Some meals use a lot of salt. Others, just a sprinkling. But salt is essential. The same holds true for character.
Even in a high concept idea (which is becoming increasingly popular in picture books), you still need that sprinkling of salt, errrr, character. Here’s an example: I have a book coming out soon called RUTABAGA BOO (which will be illustrated by the uber-talented Bonnie Adamson). The entire book is about the unbreakable bond between a son and his mother. Whenever the son needs his mother, he says, “Rutabaga!” To show that she is there, she answers, “Boo!”
On the surface, it may not seem like there is a lot of character in this idea. (I mean, how much character development can you show in 22 words?) But while the heart of this story is the mother/son bond, what draws the reader in is what you learn about the characters—and how much those details endear the characters to the reader. Every spread tells you something more about the characters—what they like to do, what scares them, what makes them feel better. The characters in this case may just be a sprinkling of salt—but without them, the story doesn’t mean nearly as much to the reader.
Think Wedding Cake, Not Cupcake
Let’s belabor the cooking theme some more.
As you are thinking of you PiBoIdMo ideas (and you are focusing on character because you, like me, believe character is the key), make sure you incorporate layers from the beginning. Just like a wedding cake is more impressive because of its tiered layers, you want to create a character that has, well, tiers and layers. Don’t let your idea stand at “Cindy wants a new puppy.” Push it to the limit (even at the idea stage):
- Can you enhance the theme? “Cindy wants a puppy so she can join the kids who walk their dogs afterschool and make some new friends” or “Cindy wants a puppy so she isn’t so lonely”
- Can you ratchet up the conflict? “Cindy wants a puppy but her father hates dogs” or “Cindy wants a puppy – but she only wants responsibility for the top half (the bottom half – and anything that comes out of the bottom – should be her brother’s responsibility!)”
- Can you make your character a study in contradictions? “Cindy wants a new puppy—and yet, she is allergic to dog hair!” or “Cindy wants a puppy but she already has a kitten who is deathly afraid of dogs”
Every time you add a layer to the idea, you make your story inherently more interesting. And no matter where you add the layer, try to leverage into making the character more complex.
To go back to the RUTABAGA BOO example, layers were very important to make that story meaty enough to merit a hardcover picture book. It wasn’t enough to say that the son wanted to be with his mother in a whole bunch of different scenarios. When I wrote the story, I thought about all the different reasons that children want their parents. Would he look for her when he was hungry? When he was scared? How would those look different? How about when the boy was excited – how would he look for his mother then? When he was lonely? When he was tired? What kinds of scenes would show all these diverse interactions that create a relationship?
I started with the cupcake model of “sons like having their mothers nearby” and added tiers to make the story mouthwatering. In 24 words (and Bonnie’s beautiful illustrations, the reader is left with a full depiction of the mother / son bond – and meets characters that they can identify with.
Envision Your Character
After I’ve lectured you on the importance of character, I’m sure you’re all committed to brainstorming great characters every day of PiBoIdMo 2014. So now I’d like to give you a tool to help you with that.
When I teach kids at author visits about developing characters, I give them a graphic organizer to help them get their thoughts down on paper. As it turns out, that organizer works really well for picture book authors, too. (I know. I use it!) So here you go, PiBo-ers! Your own Character Graphic Organizer to help you develop your ideas…
Sudipta is an award-winning author of over 40 books and the co-founder of both Kidlit Writing School and Kidlit Summer School. Her books include DUCK DUCK MOOSE, TYRANNOSAURUS WRECKS, ORANGUTANGLED, and over thirty more books that have been acclaimed by the Junior Library Guild, the California Reader’s Collection, the Bank Street Books Reading Committe, the Amelia Bloomer list, and many more. Find out more about her by visiting SUDIPTA.COM or her blogs NERDYCHICKSRULE.COM and NERDYCHICKSWRITE.COM.
One lucky commenter will receive a free picture book course at Kidlit Writing School! Our next picture book course will be on character development in picture books. The winner can opt to take that course or any other picture book course offered in 2015.
This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:
- You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
- You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
- You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)
Good luck, and happy brainstorming!
As a bonus, ALL PiBoIdMo participants who register for a class during PiBoIdMo can get a discount on picture book courses at Kidlit Writing School by going to the secret PiBoIdMo page: http://www.kidlitwritingschool.com/piboidmo-special-registration.html. Find the coupon code to get your discount—just make sure you register before November 30!