Tara Lazar: Bring Out the ACT in CharACTer!


Tara Lazar

The curtain rises on your picture book manuscript. The audience, eyes wide, applauds with great anticipation. Is your three-act triumph ready?

As a former actress (sorry, no Academy Award credits to my name), I utilize my acting skills while writing. And you don’t have to be a practiced thespian in order to do so. Just think of the word “ACT” and its related words:

  • ACTion – how a character behaves
  • reACTion – how a character behaves to a specific situation
  • interACTion – how characters relate to each other

These are the three things your illustrator will be thinking about when they bring your picture book to life. So, you, as the main character’s puppeteer, should be thinking of these things as well. Not only thinking—but revealing—that your character exhibits a unique way of behaving.

Now, action is a tricky thing in picture books. You can’t describe everything away—remember, you’ve leaving the brushstrokes up to your illustrator. So what you have to dig for is emotion. Emotion informs actions. How you act when you’re happy is very different from how you act when you’re angry. Or afraid. Or lonely. Emotion will inform your illustrator and your readers.

Like Kathryn Erskine encouraged you to slip on your character’s shoes, I often stand up and act out the emotion—what the character is saying or doing—to see if it feels genuine. I say lines aloud and listen to the natural inflection of my voice. (Your family might think you’re crazy. But do it for your art.)

Then I pace through scenes. Is there something happening in each scene? If your character is standing still, in the same location, scene after scene, it makes for a boring book. There’s nothing new to illustrate each page turn. Going places or doing things is action.

Next, there’s reaction! Your character should be reacting to what’s happening. Is she nervous? Shy? Thrilled? Have you given your character something to work toward? To struggle through? The way your character reacts to the barriers in the story will make her unique and interesting.

For instance, in my upcoming book NORMAL NORMAN (Sterling, 2016), Norman is an unusual orangutan. When the young scientist in the story peels a banana, Norman freaks out! He screams! Noo-ooo-ooo! You’re ripping off that poor creature’s skin! And the illustrator’s sketch (which I just received this week!) shows Norman with a horrified expression. Norman’s reaction to the banana informs the reader that he’s not an ordinary animal.

Finally, how your characters relate to each other also serves your story well. Are they friends or enemies? How does their relationship change over time? Again, dig for the emotions. How do they feel when they speak to each other? Is it loud and messy, or quiet and controlled? Do they ignore each other?

In THE MONSTORE, toward the end of the book, pesky little sister Gracie says to Zack, You’re the best brother ever! Mbestbrotherevery illustrator took the emotion of that line and translated it into Gracie giving her brother a loving, eyes-closed bear hug, with Zack surprised yet bursting with affection. I didn’t write all that out, however. That’s too much to say in a picture book! I let Gracie’s words speak for themselves…and James Burks did the rest. (I know you’re going to ask if I wrote an art note for this scene—I did not! The words expressed the sentiment and James illustrated them far better than I ever could have imagined.)

That scene is the turning point in the story, when the siblings learn to cooperate instead of plot against each other. There is a new kind of interaction between them. And how did the story get there? Through the actions and reactions that came before.

So when you’re writing, think of ACT-ing, my dear summer school students. And when you’re finished with your manuscript, you can take a bow!

tarafall2011picStreet magic performer. Hog-calling champion. Award-winning ice sculptor. These are all things Tara Lazar has never been. Instead, she writes quirky, humorous picture books featuring magical places that adults never find.

Her debut picture book, THE MONSTORE, is available now from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. Her other books coming soon are:

  • LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD (Random House Children’s, 2015)
  • 7 ATE 9: THE UNTOLD STORY (Disney*Hyperion, 2016)
  • NORMAL NORMAN (Sterling, 2016)

Tara is a member of SCBWI and speaks at conferences and events regarding picture books, brainstorming techniques, and social media for authors/ She is a life-long New Jersey resident. She lives in Somerset County with her husband and two young daughters. If they had a dog, it would be a small white fluffy thing named Schluffy. Contact Tara through her Website taralazar.comTwitter @taralazarPinterest pinterest.com/taralazar, or Facebook facebook.com/authortara.

Tara is giving away a picture book manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #KidlitSummerSchool.

And check out the Exercise Book for Tara’s tips on Bringing Out Your Character’s ACT!

Not registered for Kidlit Summer School yet? No worries! Click here to REGISTER.

184 comments on “Tara Lazar: Bring Out the ACT in CharACTer!

  1. What you have to dig for is emotion. Emotion informs actions. Fantastic post! I love this.


  2. Thanks, Tara for a post that came right when i needed it. Now I can focus on my WIP better with ACT, reACT, and interACT reminders.


  3. theitaliancob says:

    Brilliant post, thank Tara. Can’t wait to try it out … when no one is looking!


  4. Acting…CharACTering. Great post. I’ll remember the three as I work on my manuscripts. Thanks for the post and the giveaway!


  5. Carrie Brown says:

    As a fellow Thespian, I love this POV! Tara, you are ALWAYS helpful! Thank you so much for being YOU!


  6. Danielle says:

    Thanks for the helpful post! I love the way of remembering it all with ACT!


  7. Fantastic post, Tara! I’m off to enACT your advice. 🙂


  8. Even though I am illustrating too, this is a great way to look at scenes to convey more – thanks, Tara!


  9. Dawn says:

    Thanks,Tara! I’m ready to take center stage and act out my character’s emotions.


  10. gail cartee says:

    I have always talked to myself creating situations and scenarios to keep from being bored with my chores, I may not act out the character’s actions but I sure talk to him and with him. You made a great point, Tara!


  11. Kaye Baillie says:

    I love when you explained ‘how did we get here’, through the actions and reactions that went before. Thanks, Tara.


  12. Yvonne Mes says:

    Wonderful post, Tara, thanks very much. The ACTing will come in very handy!


  13. pattywaymedic says:

    A fun and informative post as always. Thanks, Tara!


  14. Angie Jones says:

    The best stories come from character interaction. Your post clearly explains why. Thanks for the informative post Tara!


  15. nicolepopel says:

    It is now easy for me to remember what things I should be doing in my manuscript…ACT, reACTion, and interACTion. Thanks for making this so easy, Tara! 😀


  16. Carella Herberger says:

    I think the suggestion to have a writer get up and literally act out his/her scenes is great advice! I think it’s easy to think we’ve included more action than we really have! Thanks!


  17. Renee says:

    I always test it out loud, but now I’ll try motion too.


  18. winemama says:

    Tara, thanks for the wisdom as always, @lindsayfouts, would love to win a PB critique from you!


  19. AnnP says:

    great post Tara. I would be illustrating as well so by using this advice to visualize a reaction and setting a pace was wonderful advice! Balance with doing both is the hard part. Great advice! Thanks!


  20. Nadine Gamble says:

    Terrific lesson on the way an illustrator uses the authors words to draw the action and emotion for the characters. Thanks!


  21. You are a class ACT, Tara Lazar! And so are your character tips. This post makes all kinds of sense to me and is so helpful! Thanks!


  22. Amy Benoit says:

    LOVE this — for every action there is a reaction. Your advice to “dig for the emotions” is fabulous.


  23. I ALWAYS learn from your posts, Tara, and this is no exception. Thanks for reminding us to kepp up the action in our stories.

    Great post!


  24. ACTion, ReACTion, InterACTion. What a great way of putting it all in perspective in a memorable way. Thanks, Tara.


  25. CharaACTers! CharACTers! Thank you, Tara, for a valuable post! Great tips to keep in mind as I work on my PBs!


  26. Margaret Greanias says:

    ACTion, ReACTion, InterACTion — something I will think about when writing all my PBs from now on. Great post, Tara!


  27. sherwa says:

    What a clever way to remember three important tips for writing an ACTion-packed picture book! Now I just have to ACT on those tips and get busy writing. Thanks, Tara.


  28. Jennifer DuBose says:

    Interesting idea to act it out loud! I love the line that “emotions inform actions.” Super helpful. (Allows me to trust that the art would follow from the words, and require no notes, unless essential to understand how to tell the story via pics.)


  29. I love the idea of using emotion to show action. Thanks for the new angle to consider!


  30. S Marie says:

    Entertaining post! Thanks for the reminder to keep the action (and reactions) moving along! My kids love The Monstore because they recognize themselves in the true-to-life actions of the brother and sister, while within a fantasy situation.


  31. […] Look for posts NEXT WEEK from Jen Malone, John Claude Bemis, Rebecca Petruck, Kristine Asselin, and Tara Lazar! Their wisdom will pave the way for  you to get psyched and excited about writing. Then […]


  32. alex borns-weil says:

    Not just applicable to picture books. Gets me thinking about my MG novel. Thanks 🙂


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