Creating Distance Between Your Reader and Your Character

Most often, we try to find ways to bring our readers closer to our characters.  We give the characters traits with which our readers can identify.  This might involve making the character slightly older than the reader, putting her in a similar circumstance or have her experience a similar emotion.

But sometimes we want to give our readers a little space.  Maybe you’re writing a book about bullying or tattling or something else negative.  Make it too personal and you are likely to scare your reader away, especially if she is familiar with your character’s emotions.  At times like this, it helps to create some distance between the reader and the character.

If you are writing a picture book, perhaps the best way to do this is to make your characters animals instead of children.  That’s what Jeanie Ransom did when she wrote Don’t Squeal Unless It’s a Big Deal.  Again and again, Mrs. McNeal explains to her students that they should be tattle tales.  “Don’t squeal,” she says, “unless it’s a big deal.”  Time and time again, her students need this lesson.  Then the day comes where Mrs. McNeal is hurt and the students have to decide if they should squeal.

If Jeanie had written a story about a group of child tattle tales, the characters would be super annoying.  The children most need to hear what Mrs. McNeal is saying would be deaf to the message because they wouldn’t want to identify with the child characters.

But Jeanie has a great sense of humor.  The students that are being told not to squeal are, as is obvious on the cover, piggies.  Pigs being told not to “squeal” is funny and Jeanie plays up the humor.  The animal characters give young readers the space they need to find the message funny and accessible.

Often helping our readers connect to our characters means bringing them as close as possible.  But there are times when maintaining a little distance makes the story much more appealing.