How to Create Characters for Reluctant Readers by Paul Westmoreland

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Paul Westmoreland

Paul Westmoreland

I write first chapter books for young children, and this age group is home to a lot of reluctant readers. Maybe more than most. So my job isn’t just about getting children to read more, it’s also about getting reluctant readers into reading.

One way of doing this is to write great stories that leave every reader wanting more.

Another way can also capture their imagination and instil a love of reading, and that’s the way to hook reluctant readers. The way you do this is by creating some great characters that your readers will care about and want to spend time with.

This is because characters are the glue that hold your stories together. We might love their adventures, the villains they defeat, the dangers they face… But great characters are the real reason we open a new book, or on occasion queue outside book shops at midnight to bag the latest instalment in a fantastic series.

So how do you set about creating characters that have the power to engage even the most reluctant readers and give them a love of books?

The short answer is: Give your characters great personalities.

The long answer is: It takes several things and how you use them depends on the type of characters and stories you want to write.

I always start by writing outlines for my stories. But before I make any notes for that, I ask myself questions about my hero: Are they silly? Brave? Smart? What skills do they have? What do they like? What don’t they like? Do they have a superpower? Do they come from an extraordinary family? Do they get things done, or do they get everything wrong?

The questions can be anything and endless, but it doesn’t take long to get a feel for who your hero is, and as they begin to take shape their personality will emerge…

Strong personalities also come with a side-effect that can really help writers. They give your hero the power to raise eyebrows, induce eye-rolls, stretch their friendships and even annoy the characters around them.

Rudy and the Monster at SchoolBy putting your hero at odds with their closest friends, the secondary characters are able to raise reasonable questions and cast doubts over your hero’s course of action. This immediately raises the stakes of your hero’s quest. So if they fail, they risk losing their friends, their pride will take a hit and they will owe their friends an apology. But above all, it will make the hero’s victory all the sweeter when they succeed—and you will reward your readers for believing in your hero.

Alongside developing a strong personality, your hero will also develop flaws. They might hold them back in certain situations, but they’re vital. Flaws and weaknesses should endear your hero to the readers, so make them relatable—it’s why Indiana Jones has a phobia of snakes! By knowing how Indiana Jones feels when he’s faced with a hundred cobras, the audience feel his fear and celebrate with him when he overcomes them.

Backstory is another step that helps you, and your readers, discover more about your hero. Did they have a good or chaotic background? Did something dark or tragic happen to their family? Or was everything so normal and mundane until the rug got pulled? Whatever it was, it will shape your hero and make them who they are and give them problems to solve!

But you’re still not ready to write their adventures, not just yet.

Next try to imagine your hero’s voice. How they speak should be as personal as what they look like and how they react in a tight situation. They could have a quirk, a particular manner or speech pattern. Are they brash, timid, up-tight, funny, or do they rework the structure of every sentence like Yoda?

By now you’ll have a lot of ideas you’ve discarded for one reason or another. But they’re not useless. It’s now time to create your secondary characters and they’re just as important for two reasons:

Firstly, a lone hero will struggle in any adventure, and they’ll struggle to hold your reader’s attention.

Secondly, making readers care about your hero helps to make them captivating. After all, no matter how interesting a character is, if we don’t care about the world they’re trying to save or the quest they’re on, most people will lose interest and reluctant readers will be first out of the door.

The simplest way to make your audience care is to give your hero a family. It doesn’t have to be Mum and Dad and a gang of relatives, just a group of people who love them. In the case of Rudy—the hero of my books—he has his parents, but in the stories his friends are his closest family. This way, whenever he goes on an adventure, with or without them, we care what happens to Rudy because we know his friends will be sad is anything goes wrong.

It’s the reason why people who make war films nearly always give their heroes a sweetheart waiting back home, or tell a story about the brotherly bond of soldiers—these things make us care!

Secondary characters might not have the same draw as your hero, but they deserve just as much consideration and definition, as well as personalities and speech patterns that make them distinct.

If you don’t believe me look at The Wizard of Oz. I loved the book and the movie as a child, and the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Wicked Witch of the West—even Oz himself—are all great characters in their own right. And when your cast becomes a great group to hang out with, your story will get off to a flying start and your readers will follow them along the yellow brick road and wherever else they go. Most importantly, they will always want to read more books.

So create your characters with as much care as you write your stories, and you won’t just attract reluctant readers, you’ll captivate everyone.

(c) Paul Westmoreland

About Rudy and the Monster at School:

Rudy and the Monster at SchoolWith boundless energy and an impulsive nature, Rudy is always ready to follow the scent of adventure! And with his loyal pack of friends by his side there’s nothing he can’t achieve.

There’s a new boy in Rudy’s school called Frankie, and everyone says he is SCARY. Which is really saying something, as Rudy’s class is full of ghosts and ghouls, and his teacher is a vampire. But when Frankie gets upset and runs away, Rudy knows he has to help him. The trouble is, Rudy’s wolf senses lead him towards the really spooky castle on the hill. Is Rudy brave enough to follow his nose, and find out the truth behind the monster at school?

Howlingly cool illustrations and an irresistible character finding his way in the world make Rudy and the Monster at School the ideal choice for those looking to bridge the gap between picture books and independent reading.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Paul Westmoreland is the author of Rudy and the Wolf Cub and Rudy and the Monster at School (Oxford Children’s Books, 5+), with more books to follow.

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