Eighteen months ago, I took up karate. It’s a great workout, but the biggest reason I train is I want to be a formidable senior citizen. If someone tries to nab my purse or deny my senior discount at Denny’s, I’ll be able to answer with a quick roundhouse kick to the solar plexus. By laying the foundation now, I’ll be a badass when I’m 65.
But the coolest thing about taking up karate when you’re a woman in her mid-40’s is that people don’t automatically expect it. If you’re just a casual acquaintance, you won’t know I’m working toward my black belt. And by the time I’m collecting Social Security, the possibility won’t even cross your mind. Unless you try to steal my purse.
In life most people become more complex as we get to know them. This should also be true for characters in children’s books. At a conference recently, Lyron Bennett, editor for Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, called it “the slow reveal”. It means giving your characters enough varied qualities that some can be withheld until called for in the plot.
The slow reveal is especially important when writing a series. If J.K. Rowling had allowed Harry Potter to reach his full power as a wizard in Book 1, would fans have waited nine years and six more books to learn if he finally defeated you-know-who? But equally important is planting the seeds early on for who you want your character to become. From the start, readers saw Harry’s potential, and Rowling allowed greatness to surface in Harry when it was least expected. Those qualities grew along with Harry as the series unfolded.
You don’t want to give away everything at once in stand-alone books either. Picture books and easy readers, with their lower word counts and straightforward plots, do best with characters who have one or two surprises up their sleeve. In Peggy Parish’s classic easy reader Amelia Bedelia, the child sees that Amelia is doing a bad job on her first day as a housekeeper because she doesn’t understand the list her employer left her. But even before Amelia starts on the list, she whips up a lemon merengue pie. What the reader doesn’t know is that Amelia makes the best pies anywhere, which eventually saves her job at the end of the book.
Parceling out your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses keeps the tension taut in a novel. In Gary Paulsen’s beloved Hatchet (ages 11-14), Brian, a city kid, is stranded in the Canadian wilderness after the his bush plane crashes, killing the pilot. Neither Brian nor the reader know if he’s got what it takes to survive on his own. Can he figure out how to start a fire? Yes, quite by accident. Can he fish? Eventually. Kill and cook a bird? How about survive a moose attack or weather a tornado? Brian evolves from reacting to his predicament and stumbling upon solutions to carefully taking control of his situation. But nothing Brian does is out of character. Though he must teach himself to live in the wild, he draws upon bits of information he learned from watching television or at school, and reserves of strength that were in him all along.
Even if you’re writing a single title, make your children’s book characters complex enough to live for several books, just in case. Fans loved Brian so much that Paulsen was persuaded to use the character in several other wilderness adventures. Picture book series (such as Mo Willem’s Pigeon books) or easy reader series like Amelia Bedelia generally grow because the protagonist’s quirks are open-ended and funny enough that readers don’t mind exploring them over and over in different circumstances.
The slow reveal works particularly well in mysteries. In this genre, the readers gradually get to know the victim (perhaps an honor student who is discovered to be running an Internet business selling test answers), and the villain (who may seem like a good guy at the beginning of the book). Or, how about a first person narrator in any genre who appears normal and likable early on, but becomes more unreliable as the story unfolds? Read Robert Cormier’s timeless young adult I Am the Cheese for a masterful example of a shifting first person reality. If you prefer a broader perspective, try Avi’s Nothing But the Truth: A Documentary Novel for ages 11-14, which looks at one incident from several viewpoints, gradually separating fact from fiction. So when you first breath life into your characters, don’t stop too soon. Add layers that can be exposed later on. These surprises will keep readers enthralled, whether you’re writing about a boy wizard, a demanding pigeon, or a ninja grandma.