The Making of a Picture Book Part Two: CHARACTER

Welcome to part two of my blog series ‘The Making of a Picture Book’. If you need to catch up, here is The Making of a Picture Book Part One: PLOT. In today’s installment we will be looking at character.

All Haji Amadou character study by Christopher Corr for THE GOGGLE EYED GOATS by Stephen Davies
by Christopher Corr

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The characters in most picture books are pretty two-dimensional. What can we say about the hungry caterpillar, for example? He starts off tiny and hungry. He grows bigger and develops a stomach ache. And in the end he becomes a beautiful butterfly. As a character, he is simple but also memorable.

There are a few things you can do to make your picture book characters engaging and memorable. I will be talking about illustration on Thursday, so for the moment we will look at how you as a writer can make your characters leap off the page. We will consider names, character tags and catchphrases.

Names

Names are important. How do you choose names for your picture book characters?

  • They don’t have to be alliterative but it can help. Alliteration hasn’t done Elmer the Elephant or Jeremiah Jellyfish or Horrid Henry any harm.
  • They can include a direct reference to a character trait. Recent ‘cautionary tales’ from Andersen Press include the eponymous heroes Georgie Grub, who hates washing, and Nora Fattima Buffet, who loves feasting.
  • They can contain a private joke that only adults will get. THE GREAT SHEEP SHENANIGANS by Peter Bently and Mei Matsuoka stars a wolf called Lou Pine. Nice.
  • They can be mind-meltingly silly. Let me put a foot outside of strict Picture Book territory for just as long as it takes to mention Andy Stanton’s wonderfully named girl character Jammy Grammy Lammy F’Huppa F’Huppa Berlin Stereo Eo Eo Lebb C’Yepp Nermonica Le Straypek De Grespin De Crespin De Spespin De Vespin De Whoop De Loop De Brunkle Merry Christmas Lenoir. Otherwise known as Polly.

If you have several characters whose names appear together, the rhythm of the combined names is important. Brits (and in particular children of the sixties, seventies and eighties) will remember the TV show Trumpton with its famous fire brigade roll call: Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub. The creator of Trumpton, Gordon Murray, says he used the phone book to come up with good names.

I confess I was thinking of Trumpton when I named the children in THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS. I wanted that elusive quality of chantability which is so important in a picture book, and I asked a number of friends here in Burkina Faso to help me string together some local names in a rhythmic way. We ended up with Ali, Alu, Fati, Faruk, Halima, Talita and Zamp. That final monosyllabic name is my personal tribute to Grub, to Trumpton and to a bygone golden era of children’s television!

Ali Alu Fati Faruk Halima Talita and Zamp
Christopher Corr

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Character Tags

A character tag in fiction is a device used to make a character distinctive and memorable.

  • It can be an accessory. Robin Hood has his bow and arrow and his green costume. Zorro has his mask and cape. Indiana Jones has his khaki and his hat.
  • It can be a hobby. Fossil-hunting (REMARKABLE CREATURES by Tracy Chevalier), code-breaking (A BEAUTIFUL MIND), burglary (RAFFLES THE GENTLEMAN THIEF).
  • It can be a way of talking. If I say JEEVES AND WOOSTER, two very distinct voices pop into your head straight away.
  • It can be a fear. Mr T is afraid of flying. Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. Christopher (THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME) is afraid of strong emotion and conflict.
  • It can be a physical defect, mannerism or tic. Think about James Bond villains: the metal-mouthed Jaws, the cat-stroking Blofeld, the asthmatic blood-weeping LeChiffre and the tri-nippled gold-pistolled Fransisco Scaramanga.
  • It can be an obsession. Palindromes, moths, sand, prime numbers, dolls houses, be as weird as you like.
  • The more tags you pile up, the more real a character seems. But beware, if you do this crudely or thoughtlessly you will end up not with a character but with a tag cloud.

    The examples above are from films and novels, of course, both of which have space for the development of memorable, multi-tagged characters. But what about picture book characters? The truth is, you can’t conjure up an Elizabeth Bennett or a Sherlock Holmes in a four hundred word picture book, and neither would you want to. So choose one or two defining characteristics for each of your character(s) and leave it at that.

    In Josh Lacey’s excellent analysis of THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA, he notes with delight ‘the mixture of gentility and terror in the character of the tiger’.

    In what little [the tiger] says – he speaks only twice in the book – he is terrifically polite. “Excuse me,” he says as he pokes his head around the front door, “but I’m very hungry. Do you think I could have tea with you?” As he leaves, he waves and says, “Thank you for my nice tea. I think I’d better go now.” What a perfect guest! And yet he’s a wild destructive force who rages through the home, draining the taps of water, eating every scrap of food, leaving a scene of chaos.

    If the characteristics you have chosen for your character are somehow at odds with each other, so much the better. The caterpillar is tiny but ravenous. The tiger is polite but destructive. The fish (TIDDLER THE STORYTELLING FISH by Julia Donaldson) is physically small but has a big imagination – “He blew small bubbles but he told tall tales!” Contrasts are interesting. The unexpected is humorous.

    Catchphrases

    The repetition of certain words or phrases is a common feature of the most successful picture books. We are all suckers for a good catchphrase. Turn the pages of THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR and you will keep coming across these words:

    But he was still hungry!

    How many different ways can you say those last two words ‘still hungry’? Five? Ten? A hundred?

    Many picture book catchphrases contain an element of rhyme. If you are just starting out, it is probably unwise to write your whole picture book in rhyme (your book will need foreign rights deals if it is going to make a profit and rhyme is a nightmare to translate). But there is no reason why your catchphrase(s) can’t rhyme – it will make them all the more powerful and memorable. Here are three examples. The first is from Lynley Dodd, the second from Julia Donaldson and the third and fourth are from Dr Seuss.

    Slinky Malinki jumped high off the floor,
    He swung on the handle and opened the door!

    ‘A gruffalo? What’s a gruffalo?’
    ‘A gruffalo! Why, didn’t you know?’

    I meant what I said
    And I said what I meant
    An elephant’s faithful
    One hundred per cent!

    I do not like them,
    Sam-I-am.
    I do not like green
    eggs and ham!

    Rhythm and alliteration are also factors you might want to think about when devising your catchphrases. There are two phrases in THE GOGGLE-EYED GOATS which are repeated several times in the course of the book: ‘The goats have got to go’ (alliteration) and ‘Enough of the hullaballoo!’ (assonance).

    But we are straying already into the domain of Language, and I want to keep that for my next post. Step this way please for The Making of a Picture Book Part Three: LANGUAGE.

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Stephen Davies

Children's author: picture books, chapter books and YA novels

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