With their alluring mix of innocence, alertness, selfishness, and idealism, child characters can create all kinds of interesting opportunities for irony, symbolism, character identification, and humor. But figuring out how to write child characters is territory fraught with potential pitfalls.
This topic has been on my mind a lot these last few years, since both my recently published dieselpunk Storming and my upcoming historical superhero tale Wayfarer feature prominent roles filled by eight-year-old kids. In writing these characters, my goal as been simple: avoid the following bad example, which is permanently and regrettably imprinted in my brain.
I can’t remember the name of the book (which is probably just as well), but I still cringe every time I think of its opening paragraph: a cutesie little girl cozying up to a stranger, with an, “Ah gee, mister.”
All too often, this is how we’re tempted to write our child characters. But, please, resist the temptation. Not only are these sorts of children 2D caricatures, they’re also a wasted opportunity. Wielded with power and understanding, your child characters can transform your fiction.
8 Guidelines for How to Write Child Characters
Consider the following eight dos and don’ts of how to write child characters.
4 Don’ts of How to Write Child Characters
1. Don’t Make Your Child Characters Cutesy
There’s only one Shirley Temple–and I sincerely doubt her “ohmiword” would have been as cute when conveyed on the stark black and white of a novel’s page. If your child characters are going to be cute, they must be cute naturally through the force of their personality, not because the entire purpose of their existence is to be adorable. Forced cutsiness rarely works any better than forced humor.
2. Don’t Make Your Child Characters Sagely Wise
“Out of the mouths of babes” may have its moments of truth. But–with the rare and organic exception–don’t turn your child characters into little fonts of wisdom. It’s true kids have the benefit of seeing some situations a little more objectively than adults. But when they start calmly and unwittingly spouting all the answers, the results often seem more clichéd and convenient than impressive or ironic.
3. Don’t Make Your Child Characters Unintelligent
Don’t confuse a child’s lack of experience with lack of intelligence. Don’t have your child characters offer wide-eyed “I dunnos” or stand around with a finger in their mouths and a blank expression on their faces. It’s fine if they don’t know what’s going on, but don’t forget for a minute that their brains are whirring behind the scenes, trying to figure it all out.
4. Don’t Have Your Child Characters Use Baby Talk
In writing child characters, the same rules apply to their dialogue as to the use of any kind of dialect: don’t abuse it. Don’t spell out their lisp. Don’t make a habit of letting them misuse words. And, at all expenses, avoid “ah, gee, misters.”
4 Do’s of How to Write Child Characters
1. Write Your Child Characters as Unique Individuals
Don’t ever put a “child character” into your story–anymore than you would “an American character” or “a female character.” Create a fully realized individual who has a reason for existing beyond mere accessorizing.
Adults often tend to lump all children into a single category: cute, small, loud, and occasionally annoying. Look beyond the stereotype. Remember yourself at the age of your child character? Remember how smart, determined, curious, and individualistic you were? A trick I like to employ to get myself back into the child mindset is to look at photos and videos of myself at the correct age.
2. Give Your Child Characters Personal Goals
The single ingredient that transforms someone from a static character to a dynamic character is a goal. It can be easy to forget kids have goals, because when we think of goals, our adult brains tend to think of lofty things like earning a million dollars, finding true love, or saving the planet. In fact, however, kids are arguably even more defined by their goals than are adults. Kids want something every waking minute. Their entire existence is wrapped up in wanting something and figuring out how to get it.
Consider Harper Lee’s enduring Jem and Scout Finch and their determination to lure their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley out of his house so they can see him. If I had to pick one single reason why How to Kill a Mockingbird is so enduringly beloved, I wouldn’t choose its powerful themes. I would instead point to Scout Finch’s passionate desire for something or other on every single page. This, all by itself, is what makes her such a fascinating and dynamic character.
3. Make Your Child Characters Smart
I look at my two-year-old niece and I see a brain every bit as intelligent as my own looking back at me out of those big brown eyes. She may not know as much as I do, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t as smart.
Now, of course, you don’t have to go out and write a bunch of little Einsteins. But don’t make your child characters “dumb on purpose.” In Wayfarer, I had a blast writing the relationship between my twenty-year-old country boy protagonist and his eight-year-old street-savvy sidekick Rose. Their different lifestyles and educations placed them on basically level ground, despite their age differences–which created all kinds of interesting story scenarios.
Kinda like Dickens’ ever-epic Artful Dodger:
4. Don’t Forget Your Characters Are Children
Most of the pitfalls in how to write child characters have to do with making them too simplistic and childish. But don’t fall into the opposite trap either: don’t create child characters who are essentially adults in little bodies.
One of my favorite passages of all time is from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men, in which the little boys ruin the little girls’ tea party. One of the boys, banished from the room, lies down on the floor to listen under the door as the girls are comforted by being told the boys are surely sorry, to which this particular miscreant bawls, “I ain’t!”
The beautiful dichotomies of childhood offer so many wonderful opportunities for creating subtext and irony within fiction. Use them wisely and with as much insight and understanding as you’d apply to any of your adult characters. The result may be one of the most powerful characters you’ll ever write.