A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Do you decide who the characters are before you begin writing?

There’s an easy answer to this question for me… yes, always!  Ah! Hang on a minute, there are times when… Okay, let’s start again.  Mostly, yes.  You see, for me, plot comes from having well-formed characters and not the reverse.  What tends to happen is that a vague concept and a character start to take shape in my head at around about the same time.  I am an inherent people watcher and listener to other people’s stories.  As I listen to a story about a person, I start to see the character take shape in my mind.  But, I also recognise that the shape the character is taking is different to their real one because I am already starting to bend it.  It’s almost as if reality and creativity become inseparable.  It can be a funny incident, or a snippet of information about a child: “He lines up all his cuddly toys on his bed”… “She hates wearing anything on her feet and kicks her boots off”… something as simple as this can get the cogs whirring.

So what moves me on to the next stage then? Questions… lots of them.  Why does he line his cuddly toys up? Does he do this just at night? Is he scared of the dark? Why does she hate wearing shoes? Or does she kick them off for attention? Could this make a good novelty book where the reader has to find the missing kicked off shoe? By answering these sorts of questions, you begin to get under the skin of your character – you have to be able to visualise them and understand their emotions, and this applies to writing for any age group. By asking, and then answering, these questions your plot will start to form of its own volition.  At this point you will want to introduce new characters and you will have to ask questions of them too.  The more you get to know your characters, the more your story will start to take shape.

Buttercup Magic tall iconWith ‘Buttercup Magic: A Mystery for Megan’, I had dreamt about an old neglected house, a mouse who could tell the time (somehow, in my dream, I just knew this), and a black cat who was very mysterious, although I didn’t know why.  So, I asked questions and sought answers: What are they doing in the house? (they are part of a group of special animals) Who lives in the house? (no-one, it has been neglected, then a little girl moves in with her mum and dad) Who are the other animals? (we need a dog, let’s have a golden coloured dog) How does the little girl feel about moving to the new house? (a bit scared, a bit lonely and missing her friends) Should she have a new friend here? (yes, let’s have a little girl next door who looks all elfish, and they get to find out about the animals together).

I know I’ve simplified this a tad and made it look easy peasy, but actually, it is fairly easy at this point (it gets harder later!) Even if you don’t start with a character, but start with a concept, you will find that, like an old and neglected house, the characters move in pretty soon and start to nurture it.  Once you know your characters you know how they will act, what their responses will be.  They will have a voice and become three dimensional.  These factors will shape the plot, then, as incidents occur, you’ll learn more about your characters. In the Ruby and Grub books, Ruby has a big heart and will always respond to Grub’s needs.  Her character is shaped around her love for him and wanting to make things better for him.  So, in ‘Grub’s Pups’, when Grub is moping around because he misses Tilly, what does Ruby do? (she buys him a squeaky toy). When that doesn’t work, what does she do? (she scratches his ears… she knows that will cheer him up) But that only helps a teeny bit, so what next? It’s easy to see how the plot can shape itself once we know how the character will behave.

My current work in progress has followed a similar pattern. I dreamt about three characters – a girl and two men.  I dreamt the setting too, in aDorothy and Whiskers by dort similar way to the Buttercup Magic dream (you can read more about this on my blog site here).  I drew a picture of the three characters as they appeared in my head. It always helps me to draw my characters, even if this is just a simple pen sketch.  It’s just another way of building character… even my daughter thinks so – she did these sketches of Whiskers the mouse and Dorothy the cat from Buttercup Magic. Character profiles are also really useful – again, these create a deeper knowledge of your character.  I have spent the last five or six weeks asking questions about my new characters, and through doing so have now plotted a good wedge of the book and have added half a dozen other characters.  I can’t wait to get to know them all better.

About Abi Burlingham

I write children's books and paint pictures inspired by nature, animals, trees etc, mostly in acrylics. I am a crisp addict.

5 comments on “Do you decide who the characters are before you begin writing?

  1. Jo Carroll
    July 8, 2013

    Interesting one, Abi – I think there’s a dialogue between character and plot that is almost impossible to disentangle. I think I begin with a character and then put her somewhere unexpected and find she grown into someone a bit different – which can be fun, if a bit disorientating!

  2. Abi Burlingham
    July 8, 2013

    I agree, Jo. I’ve had to change my initial ideas of a character quite a lot at times to accommodate the twists and turns of the plot. I’ve also completely ‘deleted’ characters as I realise they don’t have a function. It is, as you say, all part of the fun of it.

  3. kateormand
    July 12, 2013

    V.interesting post, Abi. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. Pingback: Author Allsorts: Posts About Picture Books | Kate Louise

  5. Pingback: Do you decide who the characters are before you begin writing? asks @AuthorAllsorts

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