On Writing Children

 

Writing child characters is one of the bigger challenges writer’s face, causing many to not do it at all. The problems are easy to see. Make the kid too “kiddy” or immature and they become an annoyance, a pest you just want to go away. Make them too invisible and they become little more than window decoration that limits the adults without adding much in return. Perhaps what draws the most criticism is writing kids as too adult, making them precocious little teenagers in little bodies. I know I’ve been accused of the latter, and it’s hard to really avoid altogether since people have such varied ideas of what kids should act like. Maybe that’s just it, though. Kids are people too.

If somebody asks you how an adult character acts, you’d probably respond that everyone is different and how a given character acts depends on the character. Some characters are measured and calculated while other are reckless. Some are open and free-spirited and others are secretive and shut people out. Kids are no different. While some famous literary children have been praised for their accuracy, such as the infectious and adorable Jack from Room, it’s a bit hard to say that such kids are an accurate representation of all kids. They were accurate portrayals of their characters, believable like any good character should be.

See, kids come in all different personality types too. Some are immature, some are precocious. I think we underestimate kids sometimes. Overhearing the things kids say, sometimes it baffles what they may pick up from adults or just how complicated their emotions can be. Most kids probably don’t have the vocabulary in casual conversation that most adults do, but some do.

The overall point is to stop trying to write “believable kids” and focus more on writing believable characters who happen to still be children. I don’t know why I’ve been drawn to write kids so frequently in my books. Perhaps they are a source of natural conflict, natural stakes. You can’t kill the kid, after all. Right? Kids have a habit of carrying this innocence to them that makes readers care. Maybe it’s an easy way out, yet it’s not. All of these benefits to writing kids can all go out the window if it falls on its face. Leaving them out is the safer option, if anything.

Many of my signature characters are my kid characters. Ask any of my readers the first character that comes to mind and they’ll probably say Patrick. He’s first seen as a kid in my debut novel, Blood Chain. And I pretty much put him through some emotional trauma that will probably make some of my readers detest me. Yet he’s the character many latch onto the most. They cherish him and become protective of him. And I think I was able to really paint on the page a real person, with complex emotions and relatable dreams and fears. Kids are a world of untapped potential and embody so much of what makes reading attractive to us. If you want to write a kid character, find one that speaks to you. Just as you would do for an adult character. You have to keep logistics in mind, don’t get me wrong. If your kid is going to radically buck stereotypes and averages of what a typical kid their age would do, be prepared to explain why. But don’t keep your kid in too tight a box. Let them teach you and show you who they are. You might be surprised at just how complex and, dare I say, adult a character they can be.

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3 thoughts on “On Writing Children”

  1. Thanks for writing this post! Kid characters are something I struggle with, I think because I don’t spend a lot of time around small children. (I only have one sister, who’s relatively close to me in age, and at church and Bible Study and such, I tend to stick with people my own age. Small ones tend to be too unpredictable for me to feel comfortable around . . .) I’ll definitely have to remember your advice here. Thanks again!

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    1. I don’t spend too much time around them either. And doing “research” with strangers could get you labeled a creep. lol But I also think sometimes readers reduce children to how theirs act or how the kids they have met act.

      Another point is that usually the characters in fiction are a bit more “competent” than the average everyday Joe. Even with adult characters, most stories aren’t typically about the average everyday Joe being frustrated with the traffic on his 9-5 commute. So since we are okay with reading about adults who are somewhat extraordinary for the sake of being more interesting, I don’t see why so many are so opposed to a child character who sounds a couple of years older than your typical teenybopper in the mall might.

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