Sometimes, I see people talk about children’s books as though they’re a lower form of writing. There’s this attitude that children’s books aren’t ‘real’ books, and that people who write them aren’t making the same sort of serious art as, say, someone writing adult fiction.
This is ridiculous for a ton of reasons, but I’d like to focus on just one: what was it that got you interested in writing?
For me, and for almost everyone I know, it was reading as a child. And as a child, I was reading children’s books! Those worlds got me hooked on this world of books and literature. Specifically, so did the characters I fell in love with.
Writing compelling children’s book characters is hugely important in making the book itself stand out, and in making it memorable for kids. In this article, I’d like to show you some of my favorite children’s book characters, tell you why they work so well, and give you some pointers on how to write your own.
Let’s get started!
Examples of Great Children’s Book Characters
I’ve chosen children’s books from different reading ages to give you a comprehensive sense of what sorts of characters work well across the board. I’ve also included a mix of genres, because, you know, a good character’s just a good character, plain and simple. Children’s book characters are just a dynamic and multi-faceted as any other genre, enjoy our deep dive into some exceptional examples.
1. Percy Jackson
Let’s start with one of my personal favorites! You can point to just about any twenty-something-year-old writer who was a major bookworm as a kid, and they’ll tell you how much this series means to them. But specifically, Percy Jackson means a lot. Why?
Well, to start with, he’s hilarious. He’s always got something funny to say, and that’s super entertaining to read! He’s also got ADHD and dyslexia, which both make it hard for him to focus in school. This was really cool for me and a lot of other people to read as a kid–he has a hard time focusing in Algebra, too, and he’s still a superhero!
Rick Riordan’s work is a great place to look if you want to see how authors can write diverse characters for children. Percy Jackson was just the first neurodivergent kid I ever read about, and that was neat.
The reason this character resonates so deeply with kids is because he’s so relatable to them. They make children feel seen, the same way I felt seen as a child with ADHD. He makes children feel like they’re capable, even if they have those struggles, and that makes him a great children’s book character.
2. Nancy Drew
Another absolute classic. Nancy Drew works so well, in my opinion, because she’s consistent. Much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock series, Nancy Drew doesn’t change too much from book to book–the stories are more focused on the mysteries she solves and the people she meets.
However, from book to book, she’s kind, curious, and inquisitive. It’s fun to watch her solve mysteries and to feel settled in her perspective. She’s super smart, but I never felt like I was lost in the dust trying to solve mysteries with her. I felt like I was right alongside her the whole time, and that’s really neat!
This makes her a great children’s book character to learn from as a writer because you can build a children’s book series just like this—with a consistent character with the plot shifting around her same qualities. Kids know what they’ll get with her as a character, and can enjoy the story itself in each book.
3. Bloody Jack
Bloody Jack Adventures by L. A. Meyer follows, well, Bloody Jack, from her recruitment to the pirate life and all across the seas. What stands out to me about this character in particular? The distinct voice, which changes with Jack’s mood to make us feel what Jack’s feeling, and Jack’s impeccable sense of humor.
She’s also pretty dramatic in a way that’s endearing. Because she’s tough and unafraid, I didn’t mind when she was dramatic, because I knew she wasn’t being melodramatic. Instead, her excitement made me feel excited, and her distinct voice made it all fun to read.
You’ll notice humor come up a lot in this list, and there’s a good reason for it! Making a character funny is one of the easiest ways to get anyone interested in their point of view, kids included.
4. Maximum Ride
Another character near and dear to my heart! James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series has a whole host of neat characters, but my favorite was always Max.
Max is tough as nails, so I was always excited to see her kick some butt. But she’s also hilarious, and even though she’s super tough, she’s also emotionally vulnerable. Because of the casual voice, I felt really sympathetic to her, and wanted to see her come out the other side of all her troubles.
Who can forget Matilda? I related to Matilda as a child because we were both bookworms. Matilda’s also got a rough home life, and she’s misunderstood by her family members and teachers. Maybe not every kid has a set of evil parents, but most kids feel a little misunderstood, and Matilda really speaks to that.
This is another example of an “ordinary” children’s book character that ends up doing incredibly capable activities. The way this combination makes children feel powerful is what makes a great character.
6. Ms. Honey
Just in the same way that Matilda speaks to misunderstood kids, Ms. Honey speaks to what they dream of–someone who understands them! She’s kind, compassionate, and she accepts Matilda just the way she is, telekinesis and all. This was my dearest comfort character growing up for a reason!
7. Greg Heffley
Greg is awesome for reasons similar to Bloody Jack–Diary of a Wimpy Kid is told in a diary format, which gives the reader an immediate sense of intimacy with the author. He’s relatable, he’s funny, and he’s telling us all his secrets, which makes us want to read more!
8. Alex Rider
I can’t be the only one who remembers this series–when I was in middle school, Alex Rider was the coolest character in the world! The appeal here is simple: he’s a regular kid, just like you or me, and he’s been thrust into a world of super-spies. He’s snarky, he’s quick on his feet, but he stays down to Earth.
9. Mr. Tumnus
For these last two examples, I’m focusing on a few more characters I couldn’t necessarily relate to, but loved regardless. Mr. Tumnus from The Chronicles of Narnia is a faun, which means he’s a cross between a man and a goat. As a kid, I just loved the idea of a half-goat, half-man, and it was even cooler that he was so polite and well-meaning instead of a scary monster.
10. Willy Wonka
Willy Wonka is a quirky character done right. He’s shrouded in mystery, which makes the reader want to learn more about his world (and, by extension, follow Charlie through the book). He’s also really eccentric in a way that keeps you on your toes!
How to Write Children’s Book Characters
So, we’ve taken a look at some children’s book characters. You may have noticed some common themes–kids like characters who are relatable, funny, and tough. They also like characters who speak to their desire for adventure, nurturing, or understanding.
But how do we write our own children’s book characters? Well, it’s not so different from writing characters for anything else. There are a few things to keep in mind, though, that can help you along your journey.
1. Don’t Condescend
It’s true that kids don’t have developed brains, nor do they have an adult reading level. You can’t plunk a copy of War and Peace in front of your typical eight year old and expect them to care about it.
But this doesn’t mean kid’s media needs to be ‘dumbed down.’ A lot of children’s books deal with heavy, complicated subjects like grief, mental illness, broken families, you name it–it’s how those issues are dealt with that changes.
Make sure you’re conveying information to kids in a way they can understand, but don’t talk down to them. This is true with characters, too. Your characters should be complex, nuanced, and interesting–kids don’t like flat characters any more than adults do.
As an adult, we often don’t enjoy watching or reading children’s entertainment, because we think it’s really dramatic and “too much.” But young kids need more dramatized emotions and reactions because their empathy skillset isn’t quite as developed as an adult. It’s better to “spell it out” for them, in a way.
2. Make them Relatable
If you want to make anyone fall in love with your character, you want them to be able to relate to that character.
You’ll notice that a lot of characters on my list are characters who come from regular backgrounds and are thrust into a crazy new world. This ‘hidden world’ genre works brilliantly in children’s books because it essentially takes the reader on the adventure with the main character. The reader relates to the main character’s excitement and nervousness, because they also don’t know what’s going on!
Even more fundamentally than that, though: make your readers see some of themselves in your character, and they will defend that character to the end. Feeling misunderstood, especially, can be a new and isolating experience for children, and having characters who feel the same way and overcome it can make them feel related to and sympathized with.
3. Know Your Character
The key to writing any fleshed-out character is to know them through and through. Where did they come from? What’s their family like? What kind of person are they?
Percy Jackson probably would have read a lot weirder if Rick Riordan hadn’t known or cared whether Percy had ADHD, or didn’t know what his home life was like. It might not end up mattering too much in the story, but readers can tell when an author has put extra thought into their characters!
Try using a character creation sheet to get a good sense of your characters. Again, you might not use all of that information in your story, but knowing what kind of a person you have will help you write them consistently and interestingly.
4. Give Them a “Thing”
Children’s characters are best when they’re identifiable. Like we mentioned before, this doesn’t mean that they need to be super dumbed-down or flat–it just means we need to be able to pick them out of a lineup.
Think about kid’s shows for a second, like Power Rangers or My Little Pony. Even if you’re too young to really grasp the differences between each pony, you can still tell them apart. In TV and movies, this is most easily done by color-coding, but it’s also done by giving each character a ‘thing.’
Let’s look at Percy Jackson, for example. Percy is a son of Poseidon–that’s his ‘thing,’ and it informs a lot of his abilities, character traits, and general aesthetic. By the time we’re in book four, we can hear that someone is a child of Athena and have a good grasp on what type of person they are, even if we don’t know them specifically.
Is your character the smart one? The loud one? Are they nervous, angry, or foolhardy? You don’t want them to be monotone, obviously, but it doesn’t hurt to lean on character types when you’re writing children’s books. This makes it clear what the character will grapple with, and it makes it easy to see the change in that character from point A to point B.
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What are some of your favorite children’s book characters? Let us know in the comments!