Five Prompts for Writing Relatable Characters in Children’s Stories
By Rose Atkinson-Carter
Children’s stories, perhaps more than any other genre, rely on the relatability of their characters. To get kids reading, and to keep them turning the page, you need to create a hero or heroine that they will want to spend time with.
These five writing prompts are designed to help you do just that: write characters that children will immediately resonate with. What’s more, they’re a perfect excuse to have some fun writing freely and playfully, just to exercise the muscle of your imagination.
1. Find a household object and give it life.
Grounding your story in a real-world environment kids are familiar with is an ideal shorthand for world-building, and no environment is more familiar to a kid than their own home. If you’re looking to write characters that a kid will instantly recognize and immediately have some sense of their place in the world of the story, why not bring a familiar household item to life?
Perhaps your story’s hero is a loose sock who has woken up on the bottom of the dryer all alone. How will it be reunited with its pair? Will it overcome the obstacles it comes up against over the course of its journey, like the family dog, or the Roomba? Is it doomed to fall into the parallel dimension that all missing socks seem to disappear into, never to return? Will it lead other missing socks into a global revolutionary movement?
2. Choose an animal and have it hope for a life unlike that of other animals of the same species.
Many children struggle with their identity and with trying to balance a sense of belonging with their own unique individuality. Perhaps they’re feeling constrained by others’ expectations of them, and wish to diverge from the path they’re on. Using the animal kingdom as an analogue can be a great way of exploring these concepts in an approachable, kid-friendly way: just think of kids’ classics like Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, or the giraffe in Giraffes Can’t Dance.
Maybe your story is about a joey who doesn’t like to hop. Try as he might, he can’t get the hang of it, and he doesn’t want to spend his days hopping around like his kangaroo kin. Perhaps, over the course of the story, he comes up against other animals and tries their methods of locomotion, to little success; he can’t slither like a snake, or swing like a monkey, or swim like a fish. But he discovers his own method of motion in the process, and when he returns to the comfort of his mother’s pouch that night, she loves him just the same in spite of his desire to be different.
Alternatively, to take things up a notch, the joey’s dream might be to represent Australia on Eurovision, and you could tell the story of how he overcomes people’s prejudices—will he make it, or will he innovate another way to share his moves and vocal talents with the world?
3. Write about an ordinary kid with an extraordinary skill, hobby, or ability.
Every kid wants to be the main character of their own story. But perhaps their day-to-day routines don’t lend themselves to storybook adventures — most of our childhoods don’t! So why not help them find the potential for magic in the everyday by casting a kid who’s life is extraordinarily ordinary, but who finds adventure nevertheless.
Imagine your main character is a little girl living on an ordinary street in an ordinary town. She longs for adventure but isn’t finding much of it between school lunches and math class. But when she decides to learn the clarinet, she discovers she has a remarkable talent—her playing makes people get up and dance on tables! She uses her musical powers of distraction and diversion to get up to all sorts of mischief. And hey, maybe being forced to learn an instrument isn’t so bad after all.
4. Write about a character on a ridiculous mission.
A narrative goal doesn’t have to be super serious to drive a plot forward; we’re not writing literary fiction, after all. And nothing is more relatable to a kid than a little silliness—consider the kangaroo Eurovision mission from earlier. Channel children’s penchant for playfulness in your story by setting your main character a ridiculous challenge to complete, complimented by some equally ridiculous obstacles in their way.
Perhaps our heroine is a world-famous chef at a Jello-making competition. Things are going great until they realize they’ve forgotten the key ingredient—the wobble! They now have to find some wobble before the competition timer runs out, so they ask every wobbly thing they can find if they have some to spare: a crooked chair, a bobble head, a loose tooth, maybe even a jellyfish. Will anyone give up a little of their wobble to help our heroine win? I can already see the picture book double-page spreads in my mind.
5. Think of a very old person you've met and write a story about their childhood.
Across generations and decades, there are certain things about childhood that stay the same. Setting a story in the past but centering it around a fellow kid is a great way to get children to relate to a seemingly remote setting. So why not draw inspiration from ex-kids (or “adults”) and imagine their childhood in your story?
Think about the old man you see each morning on the bus. Did he ride this bus when he was little? What was he like as a kid? What does a child seventy years ago have in common with kids today? What differences between then and now might intrigue a child reader? (Pro tip: kids love all things weird and disgusting, so any stories about showering infrequently in the old days are sure to delight them.) If you know your subject, all the better—ask them about their stories and experiences! And if they’re simply your silent neighbor on the bus, let your imagination do the work.
The weird and wonderful world of kid’s book characters is truly limitless, and hopefully these prompts have provided you with a helpful introduction to your next one!
Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, advising authors on all things publishing, from finding a ghostwriter and making audiobooks to understanding ISBNs and book copyrights. She has previously written for Shortcuts for Writers, Gorham Printing, and more. She lives in London.