EVENTS Creating characters

Piers Torday's workshop was the latest in a stream of 
brilliant workshops organised by SCBWI Scotland. 
Writer/Editor, Claire Watts reports.

Think of all the most vivid characters in children’s fiction, and you’ll find characters who pop off the page with life: Horrid Henry, Paddington, Mildred Hubble, Miss Trunchbull. Characters, Piers Torday (author of The Last Wild trilogy, The Lost Magician and many other middle-grade titles) told us, are what people remember about stories. When someone describes a book they’ve read or a film or TV show they’ve watched, they start with the people. Characters are not just things that exist within a story. Characters ARE story. What characters want and the characteristics they possess are the driving force behind the story.

Children are looking for characters who are larger than life. Heroes who are better than them: heroic, brave, precocious, funny. Antagonists who are unequivocally bad.

Piers Torday's The Lost Magician and a letter he received from Roald Dahl


Above all, Piers said, writers must read. Think about the books you loved as a child, the books you came back to again and again and couldn’t stop thinking about. How do these books bring characters to life?



Piers used Alice (the main character in Alice in Wonderland) as an example. The voice is distinctive and authentic. From the first paragraph you know Alice’s character: she’s precocious, easily bored, curious and opinionated.


Very often memorable characters have a distinctive appearance that children can immediately visualise (often with the help of a great illustrator!) – something that lends itself to all that dressing up for World Book Day. Think Paddington’s hat or Pippi Longstocking’s plaits and big shoes.


What drives the character? What questions are they seeking to answer? The answer doesn’t have to be simple; children can take in complex ideas mixed up with make-believe.

Character biography


If a plot is happening around a character or in spite of a character, the story isn’t working. The character must be making decisions that drive the story.

We considered some of the generic events of children’s stories:

Start with an oppressed child or a vulnerable animal 

Children identify with this. They feel powerless. People don’t listen to them.

Dead/missing/remote parents 

By removing the parents, you give a child character agency. They must do things children do not normally do.

Cry for help/call to adventure 

This takes the character away from an ordinary world where they are safe and don’t need to act.

Meet other characters 

They begin to discover who they are by making new friendships.

Jeopardy/high stakes 

They meet tricksters or deceivers and have to make decisions and take actions.

Triumph over evil with allies 

They get back home, find the treasure, solve the problem.

But this isn’t the end.

Looking back 

The book ends with a feeling that the character has discovered who they really are along with inner strength. The journey of the plot mirrors formative life experiences. Stories for children that are full of hope and moral courage are inspiring and comforting.

If you’re getting stuck with your story ask yourself if your character is making too many right choices. Sometimes they need to make brave, unexpected choices. Sometimes they need to do the wrong thing in order to end up in the right place.


Start your story by plotting your character’s journey using these six questions to guide you:

1. What is your character’s current world?

2. What makes them leave it?

3. What is the new world?

4. Who are their allies?

5. Who are their enemies?

6. What is their goal?

If you can answer all six, you will have created a strong character arc.


Our thanks to Piers Torday for a thought-provoking evening. I’m about to plan a new book and I know just where to start!

*All images: courtesy of Piers Torday and Claire Watts


Claire Watts is a children’s writer and editor.


Twitter: @evangelinecluck

Instagram: @evangelinecluck 


Stephanie Cotela is the Network News & Events Editor for Words & Pictures Magazine.

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.