Protagonists in Picture Books

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As a writer of picture books and picture book tutor and mentor, one thing I often look for in my own stories and stories of other writers is whether the protagonist is active and the writer knows whose story they are telling.

It’s often easy to make the story happen to a character rather than the character shaping the story. This is because

a) Sometimes, writers add adults into stories for health and safety reasons. But they forget that the adults must not be the active agent if the story is about the child.

b) Writers want to introduce clever solutions to children’s problems and hence make the parent tell the child what to do in the story. This again removes the agency from the child. (This applies to real life as well.) While an adult can help the child find the answer, the story must be driven by the actions, emotions and decisions of the child.

c) Sometimes, the story happens around the main character – aunts and uncles chip in, friends help, parents help or make the problem worse. But the main character does nothing to fix the problems or propel the story.

d) Some stories have many protagonists. While there is no rule that says it might not work, it’s harder for the child reader to see themselves, unless it’s well executed. Having multiple protagonists means the different characters need balanced roles, the characters must be active and take turns coming up with the solutions. If not, the story tilts in favour of one protagonist. If that happens, think about who the protagonist should be.

Also the writer must be careful about stereotyping on the basis of gender, race or ability when creating a story with an ensemble.

So what is the takeaway?

After writing a story, put it away for a week or so. Then come back to it and read it. The first question to ask is WHOSE STORY IS THIS?