Successful children's fiction begins with the main character. Many writers create a biography or detailed character sketch, listing every physical and personality trait imaginable, so they have a clear picture of who their character is. Then they give their main (and important secondary) characters a list of goals.
What does he/she want to accomplish? What does he/she need to do in order to grow as a person? The goals must be believable within the realm of who this character is. These goals are as important in picture books as they are in novels. How your character reaches his large and small goals provides the bare bones of plot.
But in order for a story to be really interesting, your character can't just think of a goal and then effortlessly reach it. As a writer, it's your job to throw obstacles in your character's way.
By developing obstacles that make sense, you add conflict and tension to the plot. If you progressively raise the stakes for your character throughout the story, you'll keep your readers turning pages to see what happens next.
The first obstacle your character will encounter is that of the critical situation. This is the point in the beginning of your story at which the character's life changes. Without this critical situation, the character's life would have gone on as before; but with it the character is forced to experience the story's events and challenges. This critical situation should relate directly to the character's goals, creating major shifts in the character's life.
Once you select the critical situation, get out your list of goals and select several that lend themselves to creating opportunities for relevant obstacles throughout the story. Some of these obstacles can be developed into sub-plots. For example:
When developing an obstacle for your character to overcome, you can examine the obstacle from various perspectives:
Another way of creating obstacles is to ask yourself the following questions:
Also think about the obstacle's placement in the story. What needs to happen before the obstacle takes place so it can have the most dramatic impact? What should you foreshadow? And what information does the reader need to make this obstacle interesting and believable?
Finally, does anything about this obstacle lead the character into the next goal and the next obstacle? Ideally, the character runs from one problem to another until finally he either succeeds or fails at his goal.
Remember, for an obstacle to work it must be logically and intricately connected to everything else that's happening in the story. But that doesn't mean it has to be predictable. The obstacles can be humorous, suspenseful and above all, surprising. Then you'll have characters your readers will want to root for.
Copyright © 2001 Children's Book Insider, LLC
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.