I feel a moment of triumph each time I click save after completing the first draft of a picture book manuscript. But the feeling is sometimes fleeting once I realize how many characters I’ve created. I wrote a story once about a little boy who didn’t want to give up his stroller. It was intended for very young children and my cast of characters included, the boy, his mommy and daddy, big sister, neighbors, apartment building super, pre-school teacher, and pet puppy.
Where first drafts often have too many characters, my brilliant critique group at the time helped me to realize that I had too much going on! There were too many characters distracting from the main idea and flow of the story. After a few ruthless revisions, I removed most of the extraneous characters and the boy, his mom, his teacher and the apartment building super remained. Finally, the story had more focus, depth and flow.
I don’t know if there is a magic number of characters a picture book should ideally have. However, I’ve learned that less is more concerning the elements of picture books. Any character that survives the revision process should be purposeful and move the action forward or contribute to the development of the main character.
On the other hand, I don’t want to limit myself when writing a first draft. I want to pour all of my ideas onto the page when I’m creating a make believe universe with all of it’s inhabitants. Now, when I see that I have too much going on in the character department, I ask myself these questions:
1. Is the character absolutely necessary to the development of the plot?
2. Will he/she/it be missed if I take them out?
3. Why did I include them in the first place?
4. Are they more interesting than the main character and are they fighting for center stage?
5. How many characters can young children pay attention to?
6. How many character names can young readers remember?
7. If I include parents, do I have to include both?
8. How will cutting superfluous characters affect my word count? It usually decreases it :)
Sometimes it’s hard to let go of supporting characters, but if they’re interesting enough they may be able to have their own story. In the end, revision after revision, I’m most satisfied when I find my core characters, the final cast, auditions are over and I click save!
And if by chance I'm still in doubt, I look to the expert examples of some of my favorite character-driven picture books for young kids.
How do you decide whether to keep a supporting character or let them go? I’d love to hear from you!
Carol Higgins-Lawrence wrote her first story at the age of five. Her father paid her a quarter for it and she's been writing ever since. She's taken a variety of courses in writing for children. Multicultural perspectives are of particular interest to her. Carol is of Jamaican descent and was born and raised in Canada. She has a BA in Communications and Sociology and she has completed coursework towards a MA in TESOL. She has worked as a literacy educator for the past 15 years. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two young children.
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