One of my least favourite writing exercises asks the author to make a list of everything their character carries in his or her pockets. This is supposed to help you get to know your character better. But what if your character is a Bronze Age boy, with no pockets? Or an alien with no concept of pocket? Or someone who carries a bag instead? Okay, you could get around it by saying 'make a list of your character's favourite portable belongings.' But it's only in books that people are forever poring over old photos or lockets left them by their grandma. I doubt I could learn much about any of you by going through your pockets. What do people carry, anyway? Bank cards, keys, semi-used tissues, spare change, a phone.
I don't much like the exercise because it limits you to contemporary settings, and adults, and it all ends up feeling like a Sherlock Holmes short story, where the band on a cigar (anyone carry cigars with them?) tells you everything from the murderer's blood type to his relationship with his estranged dog.
Character is supposedly the holy grail of writing. Plot should develop through character, books are supposed to be about the development of character. A character-driven book is supposedly a Good Book, as opposed to a plot driven book, which is Dan Brown. For children's books, though, I think character is over-rated. Sure, there are lots of excellent children's books that star unforgettably original characters – Jack Gantos' Joey Pigza, the ADHD human pin-ball with a sad story behind him, or anarchic Pippi Longstocking. But for every crazy, plot driving character, you find another, just as unforgettable, about whom you know nothing.
Lucy, from the Narnia books, for example. What does she carry in her pockets when she's at school? Who's her best friend? Does she get on better with her mother or her father? What's her favourite book? You don't know and it doesn't matter.
She is a cipher, a character designed to step back so that the reader can take her place. Lucy comes alive purely through the reader identifying with her wonder and excitement at the world of Narnia. In adult books identifying with the main character is seen as rather an immature thing to want to do – you're not meant to identify with the character, you're meant to sit back, stroke your chin and go "Ah, a fascinating analysis of society as seen through the tragic yet incisive eyes of Olaf the one-legged Lithuanian plumber, such well drawn characters, didn't you think?" What fun. Pass the Tintin.
But children's books are often about identifying with the main character, and if that main character is too strongly drawn, too 'loud', they get in the way of the story. Of the four main Narnia children, Susan is grown-up, Peter is brave and Edmund is sly. They have characters, but Lucy, the main character, has little or none. If she had, it would limit the number of children who could identify with her. Harry Potter, too, is quite average – he isn't a swot like Hermione or an ogre like Hagrid. He's simple and open and easy to identify with, and that's why he's the hero. That's why boring Luke Skywalker is the hero. Sexy Han Solo would overpower the story.
Someone recently said to me that books could be divided into two categories: character driven and plot driven. It's not that simple, the interplay of character and plot is subtle, and sometimes it means consciously greying out your main character to allow the reader to be the most important person in the story.