Most writers are well-aware that a main character needs a weakness, but this does not go far enough. Go one step further and break it in half.
What about children’s books? Do they follow the same rules?
Mostly, but not always. Some picture books do not feature characters with weakness. These stories tend to be of the carnivalesque variety. A few standout examples feature the reader as protagonist. These, too, do not follow the rules of story.
Children’s books for older readers do follow the same rules as those applied to narrative aimed at adults. Modern picture books which win big awards are also likely to follow these rules.
According to the rules of story structure aimed at screenwriters and writers with an audience of adults…
Every Main Character Needs
- A PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS: What are the fundamental flaws? (Lacking confidence, scarred by former lovers, afraid of intimacy, overly pessimistic etc.)
- A MORAL WEAKNESS: How does this character treat others badly? (Lacking empathy, overbearing, two-faced, greedy, lying, selfish etc.) The Seven Deadly Sins feature prominently in this part of the weakness.
Like anything, this ‘rule’ of story has developed some tropes. As an example:
Common Weaknesses of Young Women
This trope comes from the Gothic tradition.
The story of the poor girl who overcomes obstacles and makes a good marriage in the end, what might be called the Horatia Alger story, is very common in nineteenth-century fiction, especially fiction written by women. This heroine does not have to begin in absolute poverty — even Cinderella’s family must have been middle-class or her stepsisters wouldn’t have been able to go to the ball in such style. But she does have to be in some way underprivileged at the start of the boo, and she must go through many difficulties before she can marry the prince.
Occasionally she is poor in other than the economic sense, as with some of Jane Austen’s heroines: Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey is poor in intellect; Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility is naive and muddleheaded; while Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is … poor in spirit. Charlotte Bronte, even more daring, made the heroine of Villette plain.
— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s stories
The weakness of being ‘plain’ continues to be explored in young adult fiction today, as beauty privilege continues to be a thing in modern society.
Do Children’s Book Characters Need A Moral Weakness?
Or any weakness at all?
The short answer is that, yes, an interesting modern children’s book character needs at least a psychological weakness, and the story might also support a moral weakness. This wasn’t always the case, as you’ll already know if you’ve read from the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature. It was the amazing Edith Nesbit who changed all of that.
All of Nesbit’s characters have both virtues and flaws: not only are the children’s actions always a push and pull between their better instincts and their baser impulses, but the various authority figures they encounter are equally complicated. The magical Psammead creature is peevish, the Queen of Babylon is kind-hearted but imperious, and the upstairs scholar is helpful but blind to the magic he experiences.
Until Nesbit came along, adults who wrote for children believed children read as medicine. The viewpoint characters therefore had to demonstrate impeccable behaviour, or else be punished for wrongdoing, learning to be good along the way.
The older the reader, the more likely they are reading about characters with both types of weakness. But when it comes to picture books, no. That’s because a picture book character is quite often ‘The Every Child’, and because children are all different, the writer doesn’t always want to tell us much about the character at all. In this case, the child’s main weakness is the fact that they are a child: naivety, weakness, lack of freedom, lack of knowledge. These are weaknesses common to all children and cannot really be called ‘psychological’ weaknesses. This is the main difference between a protagonist in a children’s book and a protagonist in a story for adults.
That said, the most popular, award-winning, beloved contemporary picture books for children often feature characters with a moral weakness.
- The fish in This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen full on steals someone else’s item of clothing. (Bear in mind that he is punished pretty heavily for it… behind the reeds.)
- The boy in This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers wants to deprive a wild creature of its autonomy. Who Wants To Be A Poodle I Don’t by lauren child is similar in that the adult character/child stand-in is not letting her pet dog behave like a dog.
- Millie by John Marsden and Sally Rippin stars a girl who doesn’t listen to her parents.
- Wolf Comes To Town by Denis Manton is an example of a baddie wolf who is in essence a serial killer. Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner? by John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell is similar but better known, for having won a big award.
- Pig the Pug by Aaron Blabey stars a selfish dog who hogs all his toys, contrasted with the caring, sharing Trevor.
- In some of the older types of stories, the main character sometimes gets into bother by failing to follow the rules set down by the parents. The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese is a good example of that. Today, failing to obey rules/parents/teachers is not considered a moral weakness. Rather, we’re in a period where we glamorise and encourage independent thinking and questioning of authority, of which I generally approve, except a lot of these stories also seem to punish those characters who do do as they’re told. (Usually Hillary Clinton types.)
Psychological weaknesses are also common:
- The bear in I Want My Hat Back is ridiculously unobservant (i.e. stupid). Rosie’s Walk is the grandmother of this kind of story.
- Mog The Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr — the psychological weakness is in the title.
- Wolves In The Walls features a child character who is anxious/scared. This is the psychological weakness of pretty much any monster picture book. The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen is a monster story which doesn’t mention monsters.
- Z Is For Moose by Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky features a moose who basically throws a temper tantrum because things don’t go his way. Max of Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is another child who faces his own temper, though in a completely different kind of story.
- Sometimes the psychological weakness is one of the ‘high level’ ones, from the seven deadly sins. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle is greedy and gets a sore belly.
Even in children’s books, the most interesting and beloved characters do have both kinds of weakness. This character isn’t necessarily the viewpoint character.
- Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd — Scarface is mean to the dogs but this particular story shows us that he is also a scaredy-cat underneath.
- Olivia by Ian Falconer is basically a narcissistic little girl in a pig’s body. While I personally have no love for Olivia, she is very popular.
In children’s stories where there is no psychological or moral weakness and won’t learn anything or change in any way by the end of the narrative, your character will (probably) have a Problem. This problem is external to their psychology. Stories like this don’t tend to be as emotionally interesting, but are appropriate for, say, humour.
- In Stuck by Oliver Jeffers, the boy’s problem is that something is stuck in a tree and he can’t reach it down.
- Dogger by Shirley Hughes is about the problem of losing a favourite toy.
- Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley and Trace Moroney features a resourceful, heroic girl who is perfect in every way, but her big problem is that she’s been abducted by an ogre.
There’s another kind of story where the ‘main character’ is the reader. Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek is one example of this: The reader’s problem is that the book asks them to locate a green sheep, but that’s impossible until turning the final page. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown is another example of a perennial favourite which doesn’t seem to follow any of the usual rules of story — again, this book addresses the young reader directly. The child is the character, saying goodnight to the items. This is more secular prayer than complete narrative.
Do all children’s book characters need a Problem, if they don’t have a moral or psychological weakness? Again the answer is not always, actually.
- The Biggest Sandwich Ever by Rita Golden Gelman and Mort Gerberg is a carnivalesque story in which a man turns up and makes an enormous sandwich. In a carnivalesque story, there doesn’t have to be a problem as such, because the unsupervised play itself is the story — equivalent to the battle scene in a more common type of story. A carnivalesque story is a ‘toy story’ — all about play and enjoyment with no ‘broccoli’. However, even in The Biggest Sandwich Ever, the characters do face a problem by the end: After stuffing themselves full of sandwich, they are now faced with the task of eating a giant pie.
- More! by Peter Schossow is a wordless picture book which celebrates the joy of walking (flying) along a beach on a windy day.
A golden rule about problems in story: The initial problem gets more complicated as soon as the main character tries to solve it.
Sometimes the initial problem exists only to get the story rolling. This is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin.