Susie Bower: How to Write Children’s Characters
Posted 2nd July 2020
Where do you get your characters from?
A classic question most writers face. If the writer replies:
They’re an amalgam of people I know.
– the questioner’s face may light up with anticipation – or drop in horror. But my own answer is guaranteed to provoke puzzlement:
They come from inside myself. They are parts of me.
For some years, I’ve explored Internal Family Systems Therapy which works with all the different parts or personalities within an individual. So when I plan my children’s books, I create my characters from the best, the worst and the most eccentric parts of myself.
Inside each of us lives a cornucopia of characters, each with its own motivation. Each accompanies us on our individual Hero’s Journey. So here are five key characters found in children’s literature – and inside oneself.
1 – THE EXILE
Decency and a certain innocence define the Exile – the story’s protagonist. This character begins the story in a downtrodden, unloved or outcast place – and may be ‘spoiled’ or flawed at the beginning. Think Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, spoiled and unloved and sent away; or Harry Potter, exiled to live under the stairs; or Morrigan Crow in Nevermoor – believed to be cursed, and unwanted by her family. This is the part of oneself which is immature and unformed, a part we may not yet have learned to love, but which is drawn towards the light of goodness, hope and love. It is the part of us which is capable of becoming an individual. It is the part with integrity.
2 – THE ANTAGONIST
The Antagonist is the part of oneself which Jung called the Shadow: the repository of all the unwanted and unacknowledged aspects of the personality: cruelty, selfishness, rage, evil. The Antagonist challenges the hero/ine by threatening them or by throwing obstacles in their way – preferably, both. The Antagonist need not necessarily be a person: in Piers Torday’s predictive The Last Wild, the main Antagonist is the red-eye virus. The most successful Antagonists are complex. Think Captain Hook in Peter Pan, whom J.M. Barrie described as the handsomest man I have ever seen, at the same time, vaguely disgusting – a man who fears the sight of his own blood – and keeps a Thesaurus in his cabin.
3 – THE MENTOR
The Mentor is the part of us which we may call our intuition, our inner parent, our guide: the more evolved and mature part of ourselves; the part which looks out for us; the person we need to grow into. Mentors are often eccentric: they show the protagonist how to embrace their own individuality. Their underlying quality is love – though this may be tough love. Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe may have the best interests of the children at heart, but he’s also wild, fierce and untameable. The wonderful Charles Maxim in Rooftoppers is more ‘civilised’ – but he educates baby Sophie in his inimitable way (serving her food on a book titled Hungary) and when asked what he’s going to do with her, replies simply: I am going to love her.
4 – THE ALLY
A.K.A. the friend, the sidekick, the companion. Someone or something who is the Hero/ine’s equal, but who often infuses the story with humour. These are the parts of ourselves which want to be helpful, but which can inadvertently cause chaos in our lives through their immaturity or plain stubbornness. Win in The Land of Roar accompanies Arthur and Rose on their adventures, but his bungling attempts to help always seem to backfire. Grandpa in Grandpa’s Great Escape causes endless trouble for his grandson because of his obsession with living in the past. In The Clockwork Crow, the crow is a classic sidekick – grumpy, odd, undependable yet loyal.
5 – THE BAD-GUY-TURNS-GOOD
Ambiguous, weak or just plain awful at the beginning, this is the character who carries hope of redemption or transformation. C.S. Lewis often employed such characters: Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a thorn in Lucy’s side and betrays the children to the White Witch. But by the end of the story, he learns loyalty. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace Clarence Scrubb – I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none – only finds his inner decency when his greed transforms him into a dragon.Best of all is Severus Snape in Harry Potter – the ‘bad guy’ who haunts Harry through seven books, enigmatic, charismatic and controlled: the heartless man, paradoxically ruled by a secret passion. In reading – and writing – such characters, we too may experience redemption.
It’s often said that everyone has a novel inside them. Whether this is true or not, we all have a cast of characters inside us worthy of a novel – if we’re willing to get to know them!