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Rob Biddulph on creating a picture book character

Award-winning picture book creator Rob Biddulph has blogged for us about what is involved in creating a strong character for picture books. His latest picture book, Kevin, has just been published by HarperCollins Children's Books.

Make no mistake, creating a successful picture book character is not an easy thing to do. They don’t tend to appear out of thin air. The Gruffalo didn’t arrive fully formed in Julia Donaldson’s brain ready to terrorise the creatures of the deep, dark wood with his black tongue, purple prickles and terrible teeth/jaw/claw combo. He will have undergone a lengthy evolution, in large part at the hand of Axel Scheffler, being tweaked and titivated until both author and illustrator were as happy as they could be with their creation. Even then, there was no guarantee that readers would feel the same way. Luckily for them, they did. Successful character creation is far from an exact science, but I do have a few boxes I try and tick to give me a fighting chance. I call them the three “-able”s.

Firstly, your character needs to be LIKEABLE. He or she needs to have an element of visceral appeal, even if there is not an immediately apparent warmth. They can be cheeky in nature, naughty even, but there has to be something about them that makes the reader root for them. For example, one of my all-time favourite children’s book characters, The Grinch (from Dr Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas), is a pretty foul creature when we first encounter him. But… he has a certain indefineable charm. He’s definitely a wrong ’un but, for some reason, we crave his redemption. We’re desperate for him to mend his ways and become friends with the Whos. We see some good in him somewhere, and the final pay-off is all the sweeter for it. Us feeling that way was not an accident on the part of the great Mr Geisel. Subtle pointers are woven into the story. After all, only someone with a heart capable of growing two sizes could own a dog that cute!

Secondly, your character should be RELATABLE. Your readers need to be able to put themselves in the character’s shoes. If they can do that then the reading experience is much richer. One of the ways to help this happen is to draw your characters with very little facial expression. It sounds strange, but it really works. A blank canvas allows the reader to project whatever they’re feeling onto the character’s face, and therefore become more personally invested in what’s going on. Complicit, even. In my first book, Blown Away, the characters have totally blank expressions all the way through the story even though they were experiencing lots of different emotions. A crudely drawn expression of fear on Penguin Blue’s face, anger on Clive’s, or embarrassment on Wilbur’s would, I feel, have actually diluted the emotion of the moment. I do try to give a few visual pointers, but they’re subtle. A raise of an eyebrow, a shrug of a shoulder, a sideways glance, but in the main my characters appear quite neutral.

Finally, your character should be MEMORABLE. This, in large part, is down to their design. Think of history’s most iconic children’s book characters and they are all very strong graphically. For example, Paddington, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and The Cat in the Hat. They are painted with bold colours or they might wear an unusual item of clothing. A red hat. Yellow wellies. A stripy scarf (step forward Odd Dog Out). Something different that sticks in the mind’s eye and leaps out from the bookshelf. I often think that good character design should basically follow the same rules as advertising. It’s all about cutting through the masses, standing out from the crowd. This character is going to sell your book after all, and your cover on the shelf fulfills exactly the same function as a poster on a wall. It should shout “choose me”. Think like that and you are definitely on the right path.

As I said, this is only a checklist. A starting point. And, as is the case with all alchemy, there is no guarantee of gold. But there are treasures to be discovered, that’s for sure.

29/08/2017Rob Biddulph on creating a picture book character
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