Most well-known magic artists aren’t famous because of the tricks they perform, but because of the personality of the magicians themselves. Magicians like Daryl, Don Alan, and Johnny Thompson found their fame by portraying themselves as someone audiences could relate to, enjoy spending time with, and root for. The same is true of the stories we tell. While the story may entertain, if our readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t stick with a book for very long. This week, and next, we’ll take a look at four characters readers care about and see if we can learn a little about how to make our own characters a little more memorable. First up, a patriotic second grader with a big dream.
In “Ellie May on President’s Day”, a chapter book written by Hillary Homzie and illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler, Ellie May’s big dream is to be picked to be flag leader in her second-grade class. Her quest lasts the entire week before President’s Day and begins with her realization that she hasn’t been picked to be flag leader for some time, while some of her classmates have been picked more than once. So, why do we root for Ellie May?
We meet Ellie May the Monday before President’s Day. When her teacher asks for a volunteer to be flag leader, Ellie May is out of her seat, her arms swishing “like windshield wipers”. We can instantly relate to her desire to be picked. When she’s admonished to return to her seat, we feel for her. She pouts as another student is picked and, while the rest of her class gives the student a “ten-finger woo”, Ellie May stayed in her chair and kept her “hands super still”.
Pouting isn’t always an attractive trait but, in this case, we can relate to Ellie May’s disappointment. Plus, she quickly turns her feelings into action. By the end of the first chapter, Ellie May makes a pledge: “This week I will be flag leader.”
Will she succeed? The reader will have to stick around to find out. Our introduction to Ellie May in chapter one builds a connection to the reader that will have them rooting for her even as her spirited personality and misguided decision making gets her into trouble over and over again. By the end of the book, we’re really pulling for her to her succeed. Her flaws are endearing to us and every reader can find a little bit of themselves in Ellie May. If you’re looking to create a relatable, realistic character, check out “Ellie May on President’s Day”.
Can you make a lazy, self-centered character likeable? A.B. Greenfield did. In “Ra the Mighty: Cat Detective”, illustrated by Sarah Horne, we meet Ra, a cat who wants nothing more then to lay in the sun by the pool while servants deliver snacks to him. He is Pharaoh’s cat, which means he is adored and revered, but why do readers relate to him? Perhaps the answers lie in Khepri, Ra’s scarab-beetle friend and sidekick. Like many sidekicks, Khepri helps to steer Ra towards doing what’s right, keeping his idiosyncrasies from alienating readers. For example, when a cat named Miu approaches Ra and asks for his help solving a mystery that could protect a young servant girl, Ra refuses. It is Khepri who pushes Ra to do what’s right.
Even after Ra agrees to help, it is Khepri who pushes him to continue the investigation and to continue to think of the girl. The key is, however, that Khepri knows Ra better than anyone, and he knows that Ra is actually kind on the inside. So, when he nudges Ra to take action, he knows that Ra has it within himself to care for others and help. Early on in the story, while Ra is still refusing to help, Miu goes off on her own. Her route will take her directly into the path of the royal hunting dogs. This would spell doom for Miu. Khepri blackmails Ra into stopping Miu from going that way, but it becomes clear that Ra is willing to do it, just with a little prodding.
Ultimately, this lazy, privileged cat proves time and again throughout the story that he does care about more than lounging and eating snacks (though those two things might be his favorite pastimes) which helps readers bond with him and care about what happens to him and Khepri. If you have a protagonist whose most visible personality traits might be a little less that endearing, consider using a sidekick to help bring out the best in them.
That’s all for Part 1. Next week, we’ll take a look at a robot marooned on an island and fictionalized version of a famous writer as we wrap up our look at building characters. Until then, have a magical week!