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by Jen Betton

If you’ve been to any sort of children’s book writing event, you’ve heard how much editors and agents want character-driven stories. But what if that is hard for you? What if you’re like me, and you have a tendency to create characters who are just placeholders for the plot? What if you create amazing characters, but have a hard time getting the plot to work around them?

This is the story of how my first published book was written, which also happened to be my first truly character-driven manuscript.

In 2014, I lurked in the sidelines of Storystorm (PiBoIdMo at the time), and I read Diana Murray’s post about character-driven stories. She recommended creating a character with a personality trait that was in direct opposition to their goal. This struck a chord with me but didn’t result in anything much until a couple months later when I read the absolutely perfect LIBRARY LION, written by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. In it, the Lion (who naturally would like to roar) becomes a fixture at the library (a place of quiet) – boom, instant conflict! I adored this book, and thinking of Diana’s post, sat down to think of some animal characters who natural tendencies might lead to conflict.

I wanted to have an animal character because it allowed me to play with making an internal trait external. So I started brainstorming animals and inherent conflicts: A bear wants honey—no inherent conflict there, but a sloth who wants to race, aha conflict. Very quickly, I came up with a hedgehog who wants a hug!

The words weren’t right and I didn’t have an ending, but I immediately had a character, and a conflict, and HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG was born! After a lot of fleshing out, a persistent, prickly little hedgehog feeling down in the snout and droopy in the prickles tries to find a hug. He asks a number of places, gets discouraged, and eventually finds someone feeling the same way.

So get a notepad, and start brainstorming your own list—what is a trait that an animal or person might have? It might be something like this:

  • Sloth – slow
  • Lion – roars
  • Magpie – hoards sparkly things
  • Hedgehog – prickly
  • Matilda – messy
  • Victor – loud

The second step is to create a list of things that would make that natural trait difficult—it could be a goal or desire, or just a situation that makes that inherent quality problematic—anything that creates conflict. What if the sloth wants to hurry up? What if the lion loves a library and needs to be quiet? What if the magpie loses all her stuff? What if the hedgehog needs a hug? What if the messy girl needs to find her homework? What if the loud boy needs to keep his baby sister asleep?


If you start to look, you’ll notice a lot of characters out there have some sort of inherent conflict: in Anika Denise’s STARRING CARMEN, the main character loves being the center of attention, but needs to share the spotlight. In Lisa Anchin’s upcoming debut, THE LITTLE GREEN GIRL, the protagonist wants to leave her garden to see the world, but she is literally rooted in place, being a topiary. In Molly Idle’s PEARL, the mermaid wants to do something important, but is given a humble grain of sand to protect. Sometimes it could be two conflicting desires (instead of a personality trait and desire) like in Sherman Alexie’s THUNDER BOY JR, where little Thunder wants his own name, but doesn’t want to hurt his dad’s feelings.


Another variation on this exercise is to put two characters who have opposing traits or desires together: for example in Alexander Milne’s Pooh books, Rabbit loves order and Tigger loves to bounce on him—that creates an instant tension between the two.

I love this exercise because at the end of it you have a character (or two!) and the beginning of your plot! Happy story-hunting!

Jen Betton loves to draw and make up stories with her pictures. In Kindergarten she got into trouble for drawing presents on a picture of Santa, and she has been illustrating ever since. She wrote and illustrated HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG, published with G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and she illustrated TWILIGHT CHANT, an NCTE notable book, written by Holly Thompson, published with Clarion. You can find more of her work at, or on Twitter and Instagram @jenbetton.

Jen is giving away a signed copy of HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG, with an activity kit and bookmarks.

Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!


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