major award winning Children's Author

Pencil Tip #19: Put character first

Dan and Eric, by Jim Field, from our new book 'There's a Lion In My Cornflakes'
Dan and Eric, by Jim Field, from our new book ‘There’s a Lion In My Cornflakes’

I’ve just come home from a trip to the cinema – Rio 2. I’m a little bit in love with Nigel the evil cockatoo. What a great bad guy. I sort of wish he were one of my inventions, but starting with a character is something I rarely do.

Years of working in advertising have made me very concept driven, so my stories usually start with a Big Idea. My plotting is mostly instinctive and sometimes tested against ‘The Writer’s Journey’ structure (read more about this here). But my lack of focus on character means some of my stories never really make it off the ground.

I don’t like feeling that there’s a weakness in what I do, so once I realised what my writing was lacking I wanted to find out how to strengthen it – or at least how to try. I’ve written a separate blog post over on the Picture Book Den about attending a course on ‘Character Mapping’. But on top of that, I’ve found myself dissecting what I read more and more.

Instead of just looking at the way plots build, the way page turns are used to build tension and reveal surprise, the interplay between words and pictures, I’ve also been looking at just what it is that defines the characters in picture books. What are the moments, the clues – sometimes subtle, sometimes sledgehammered – that make us fall in love with them? It’s really changing the way I write, mainly in that it’s focussing me on emotion. And having been trapped in the cinema for the last two hours watching my son eat a big bag of pick and mix, my current emotion is hunger. Excuse me while I act completely in character and sniff out some cake…