Remove the barriers
When creating content and particularly when developing characters, we can find ourselves looking for the hook. How do we draw children in? How do we get them to like this?
This is often seen as an additive process. This character will be cool so kids will aspire to be like her and also we’ll give her purple hair because kids love purple and she should be made of electricity because kids are all about the electronic devices and… and… and…
That’s not always a bad approach but it misses one key thing about kids (and often adults too): they go in wanting to be drawn in. They want to like it. You don’t always have to work so hard to pull them in. Instead, what you could look for are the barriers. What is stopping them from liking this?
I’m working on an interactive project right now and this is so easy to see with the mechanics in testing. If a character doesn’t respond the way a child wants, there is an almost instant disconnect. A barrier now exists between the child and the experience they want. The more bugs, clutter and barriers there are, the harder it is for a child to like what you are giving them.
The same is true for the characters and for narrative content, though it is sometimes much harder to see. Often those things you’ve added in your search for the hook can become a barrier – a disconnect between who the child is and the characters you are presenting them with. The more elements you throw into the mix, the greater the chances are that you will find the one thing that will sever the connection with some members of the audience. This is one of the key parts of my job when script editing: identifying those moments that will jar, taking kids out of the story. That is also why we can see a ‘blank canvas’ character do very well (what do we really know about Dora the Explorer?). A child can very easily project themselves on to a character if there is simply very little there to get in the way. And because we creators so often like to throw the kitchen sink into projects, that usually becomes a subtractive process. What traits can I remove from this character to reduce the number of potential barriers?
It can seem counter-intuitive at times. I want a great character, not a character who is barely there. Thing is, if you make it easy for people to see themselves in a character, you have a great character. This is especially true for young children.