How To Write Characters Who Are Children

8 Necessary Tips for How to Write Child Characters

How To Write Characters Who Are ChildrenWith 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.

In figuring out how to write child characters, avoid Shirley Temple syndrome.

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.

When I'm figuring out how to write child characters, I think back to myself as a child.

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.

Want to know how to write child characters? Study Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

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:

Jack Wild Oliver 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!”

Perfection.

Little Men Tommy Banks

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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written a child character? What was your chief concern in how to write child characters? Tell me in the comments?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Joe Long says:

    What do you consider the upper age limit for a child?

    My youngest character is a 12 year old girl in the midst of puberty when the story begins. She’s the youngest of three children in her family.

    My main story is a teen romance. My major characters are spread across the teen years, 19, 17 14 and 12 at the beginning. I examine relationships (marriage, dating, courtship, sex) and how the differently aged characters have varying experiences.

    The youngest character is smart and observant, but doesn’t understand all the nuances and usually takes things at face value. She is then frequently frustrated and irritable at being resented or excluded by the older ones, which eventually leave her vulnerable to being manipulated.

    One of my betas had suggested an ‘ending’ for her, and given that inspiration, I created a subplot which I wove into already written chapters, creating the proper action-reactions and foreshadowing. Knowing the resolution of her story really helped me flesh out the character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think 15 is right there on the finish line of childhood. Puberty’s the corner certainly, but there’s still a lot of childlikeness left over for a few years. The teens are their own “section” of life, but there is a little overlap I think. It’s a bit arbitrary, really.

      • Joe Long says:

        In addition to what I already mentioned, they 12 year old is whiny. The 14 year old says she’s all grown up, tries a grown up life, but is inexperienced and gets in over her head. The 17 year old guy is maybe too experienced, while the 19 year old main character is socially very late to the game and his maturation is the main arc.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s nice to mix things up and skew characters a little off the “norm” (for good plot reasons). None of us are 100% “normal.”

  2. Nice post. I’ve never seen anything on how to create children so this was nice. Good points to balance our development of them as well. I’ve got two little bambinos ages 5 and 7. They’re bright kids and certainly aren’t dumb. As you said, a child’s intelligence is either misunderstood or underestimated. Even a 7 or 8 year old brain is surprisingly keen. They’re always very curious, observant and don’t miss a beat!

    I think the main thing this is pointing out is not to misrepresent children in our fiction, or misapply them according to clichés.

    Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would think it’s particularly helpful, when writing children, to have an actual kid in the house. It keeps everything fresh and real.

  3. Worst child character writer who regularly includes children – Orson Scott Card. They’re miniature adults. The literary equivalent of Velasquez paintings.

    Best child character writer – J. K. Rowling because not only do her kids talk and act like kids, but they are age appropriate and they grow over the length of the series. She’s the best.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In Card’s defense (although I hear where you’re coming from), his kid characters usually *are* geniuses.

    • Well, keep in mind Orson Scott Card typically writes children that are forced to grow up at an early age. Ender would be more child-like had he not endured so much, even before he excepted going to Battle school. His sister and brother also went through a lot. And the children in Speaker for the Dead are the same.

  4. Kate Flournoy says:

    Mmm… good post. I actually have at least five really ‘little’ siblings to use as guinea pigs, so it’s never been difficult for me at all! 😛
    One thing among many that I’ve noticed about kids is that they are less reserved about expressing their feelings or wishes— as in your example from Little Men, which by the way I’ve always loved. 😀
    They are also more likely to say things they don’t mean— I hate you, for instance. It’s usually nothing but a moment’s irritation.
    They overreact in many, many ways because while they may be intelligent, they lack experience to know that it would be wiser to keep silent. They can scream and whine and fuss one moment, and the next be happy as a clam, because they haven’t learned to bridle their feelings, or at least keep them private! 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, they don’t always have the foresight to judge how their actions will affect others. They’re always trying new things to see what new reaction will result–and filing it away for future use!

    • This is the lack of self -control that comes through growth. But you have to admire their honesty. They’re much more genuine than adults! We tend to mask our true feelings too much.

    • Cathe Swanson says:

      Very true, Kate Flournoy. Their “filter” isn’t complete. They say what they think, even if it’s a transient, willful idea that occurs to them – “I hate you.” They are impulsive. They are not always truthful!
      Depending on their age, they react instead of respond to things. That changes as they get older. Eventually, “I hate you!” becomes manipulative instead of just an outburst of self-centered thought. (As does “I love you.”)

      I liked your article very much, Ms. Weiland, and especially what you said here: “Their different lifestyles and educations placed them on basically level ground, despite their age differences.”
      I think this is the whole key to writing characters of any age, but it’s most noticeable in children. This is a big world and children’s lives vary. Some suburban children start school at the age of 4 and then move in lockstep with other children exactly their own age until they graduate from college at the age of 22. Others live in urban areas, sometimes in “bad” areas. Some live in remote areas, pleasant or unpleasant. Some watch television and play video games. Some don’t. Some have a lot of responsibilities and some don’t. Some spend all their non-school time in sports, lessons and organized social activities. Some don’t. Mine were raised mostly in the country, homeschooled, until they went off to the military and/or college. They interacted with people of all ages and occupations from an early age.
      All of those children are probably perfectly well-adjusted, normal kids, but they are all very different from each other. That is the key to creating youthful characters. They will mature, but while they are still children, their worldview, thoughts, responses and behaviors are shaped by their limited environment.

      What you wrote in your article still applies to all of them, though. One of my favorite writers is repeatedly guilty of the “wise child” error. It draws me out of the story every time (but I like her stories enough to continue reading them). Children are not miniature adults, but they are individual people and should fit into the world of the story as smoothly as the adult characters.

      Children are not innocent. They are little sinners just like adults. 🙂

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        “Children are not innocent. They are little sinners just like adults.”

        That’s perfect! Babies and young children have zero understanding of morality. They must grow into an understanding of it, so in some sense, they’re greater “sinners” than are adults.

        I think one of the reasons the “innocent” child trope gets perpetuated is because they often make their mistakes without a full understanding of the consequences. When they lie and steal, they don’t necessarily intend or understand the harm they cause to others. And, as adults, we understand that and don’t take it personally the way we would if another adult did the same thing.

        • Joe Long says:

          The first thing children know is what they want/need (it takes to later to distinguish the two concepts). All they can do at first to get attention is cry, but even with just that they start to observe those around them, seeing what works for them and other in getting others to satisfy their needs.

          What takes longer is understanding a concept of future, with which comes 1) delayed gratification and 2) consequences, for themselves and others.

          Lastly, it’s moving away from only being concerned with themselves and taking others into consideration

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            They’re focus on their want/need makes their character arcs a lot easier to get at!

    • Lots of lessons learned through your reply. I was kind of neglecting the over-reaction part, but thanks for the heads-up Cathe. 🙂

  5. I love this! I’m neck deep in the first draft of a story in which my two main characters are a 7-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy. This list was encouraging and gave me some great ideas!

    I intend the story for an adult audience (not MG or YA), and I worry that I have the problem mentioned above – that my children sound and act more like adults than like kids. And while they are intelligent characters, they’re not exactly Demosthenes and Locke either. Any more tips on writing realistic child-like (vs. cutsie childish) speech and actions?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Studying the source themselves is the best place to start. We have to streamline their dialogue–their lisping, their false starts, their rambling–to some extent, just as we do any realistic dialogue. But it’s a great start for understanding how kids think and express themselves. I see you have kids of your own (thanks for the FB friend request!), so you’ve already got in-house research sources!

  6. I’ve only used kids as minor characters. I like point 2 of the don’ts. Horror movies seem to like breaking that one for their fey child trope. I think those kids are supposed to be an update of the ancient tropes about the least credible person being the one with the most clue in the story. It *may* work when the supernatural is a factor, but usually isn’t that convincing even then.

    I haven’t used kids much. In my WIPs two small children get a Greek-chorus role, where they just ask someone a minor question that the audience is asking anyway. I show two little boys playing with their toy soldiers as they’re escaping with the heroines and the rest of their family. The first heroine, who is their cousin, sees their innocent play and prays for their survival. That’s about as cute as I was willing to get with the kids.

    In the same story the first heroine has a 12-year-old cousin she’s close to. The girl is present when the heroines are discussing the danger they’re in. The girl stays very quiet and the heroine pretends not to notice her. She senses the girl wants to know what’s going on but is afraid her parents will banish her from the “council” if they realize she’s there.

    I included that moment partly because some of my readers are likely to be teenagers and may consider the heroine a cool older sister because of that “pet the puppy” moment. They know what it’s like to want to be at the adult’s table 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, this is a great example of how kids can be used for “pet the dog” moments–although we have to be careful with that, since saving/being nice to children can become cliched or sappy if not handled deftly. Sounds like you did it right.

  7. I haven’t written a child character in a very, very long time, but I’m contemplating writing a short story from when my protagonist in my series was about 14, and the thought intimidates me quite a bit, mostly because I was soooooo different–and sheltered–at her age. I want to do it, but I think I’m going to have to gear myself up for it.

    • Cathe Swanson says:

      But who is your target audience? Maybe people like yourself? You know which population group is the largest market for youth books? Homeschooling families. They buy books – a lot of them. There are thousands of books written for angsty teens in horrible situations, but not as many written for and about “sheltered” teens in healthy families. I say “sheltered” as the word might be used in regard to teen sex, drugs, family dysfunction and school life, etc. They know about those problems, but they don’t usually live it out and don’t want to read about it in every.single.book available in the YA library. There are a lot of fantasy/sci fi books these days, and that’s been a good thing, but very few other modern books for mid-grade or teens in that market. It’s a big and potentially very profitable market.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Good point, Cathe. It’s also true that sheltered teens have their own problems and concerns and they like to find relatable characters with the same problems in fiction.

      • Joe Long says:

        I’m not sure if you’re advocating for more or fewer in regards to “sheltered.”

        My WIP is this kind. I have two “normal” middle class, suburban families. The teens go to parties and are exposed to beer, liquor, marijuana, porn and sex. Should kids in college socialize and date those in high school? Should there be a bright line at 18? If not, where? Committed relationships vs casual sex. Parents who keep liquor around the house for martinis. Petty teenage jealousies. Parents who belittle their kids. Dealing with anxieties. Pregnancies, abortion…and faith.

        So much stuff to deal with as a teenager, and these are just some of what I have in my story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like a fun challenge! You’re writing what you know, since you *were* a fourteen-year-old girl, but you’re also getting to explore new angles and use your imagination with someone whose teenage experience is different from your own.

  8. Hannah Killian says:

    What about using your younger siblings as a model for your child characters? While still making the characters totally different from the actual person, of course, but still.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally. I use my memories of myself and my siblings at young ages, as well as other youngsters I know.

  9. Christine says:

    For one WIP, I have a four year old as a main character. Caroline is opinionated and daring, but at the end of the day, she is just like any other four year old and needs her mama. For my other WIP, I have a seven year old little girl, Molly. She is the main character’s daughter, but she isn’t even born yet. The only time you meet her is in the prologue and the epilogue. Her part is first person, present tense, so it is fun to explore how a kid sees things. I am glad that it is only a few paragraphs, though, I don’t like writing present tense, haha.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Child narratives are fun, since, as you say, their thought and speech patterns are decidedly different from adults. Makes it easier to find their voices sometimes. I didn’t use a POV for my girl pickpocket in my Wayfarer WIP (although I’m thinking I will in the sequel), but I gave a POV to the mute little boy in Storming, which was a lot of fun, since it was the only way he was able to communicate in words.

      • Kate Flournoy says:

        One book I especially recommend for studying a child’s POV done right is Gene Stratton-Porter’s ‘Laddie’. The narrator is an eight/nine year old girl, and Gene Stratton-Porter did a fantastic job of translating how a child sees the world through that character’s eyes.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I can’t remember if I read that one or not, but Gene Stratton-Porter, in general, was really great.

  10. Rob Munro says:

    My two most recent (unpublished) novels have tween-aged boys as their protagonists, but as characters are singularly different from each other. Each have their own idiosyncracies, their own unique voices, and their own particular ways of addressing their predicaments. One novel is SF, the other fantasy; both protagonists modelled after my own experiences because both books were conceived after my own boyhod interests, however neither protagonist could be identified as a projection of myself, as I always mould my characters as distillations of people I have encountered in my life rather than after myself. I vividly remember my childhood and the considerable panoply of individuals who drifted into and out of my circle of experience, good and bad and every shade in between. After re-reading each novel, I remain convinced I have rounded, authentic and engaging characters, and I am pleased to have gone through your list of tips and nodded agreement with each.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s great when you can take two characters in the same distinct character type–children in this case–and create very different personalities, to explore different facets of the type. It’s a really great way to bring things to realistic life.

  11. Thankfully, being a ‘Brit’, I’ve never had the temptation to have any character utter ‘Ah gee Mister…’ – Oh, hang on… Yes, I had an adult say it to another as a piss take. Irony isn’t dead.

    Seriously though, there’s some good advice in your piece. I hadn’t thought of it, as I haven’t featured characters younger than teenagers in any of my books… yet.

    Thanks for that. It’s given me an idea for the book I’m writing at present. I’ll need to seed a child character into the earlier chapters to give continuity and credibility, but an ‘obnoxious brat’ could prove quite useful to my preferred ending.
    A kid’s unexpected appearance could just delay the gunman’s trigger finger for that brief, but necessary moment.
    Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Obnoxious brats are a ton of fun to write! Insta-conflict. Children are great for bringing out otherwise invisible facets of adult stories. They bring a whole different dimension to the plot and theme.

  12. I’ve used kids a couple of times to create both a grounding and a hope for the protagonist, when his life is at a low ebb.
    One child appeared out of nowhere. I didn’t plan him, and his presence in the story took on a wonderful, unexpected twist. How do I explain it?
    A DP (displaced person) after the end of WW II, a boy about 10 is unable to speak. He has been fostered by the ex-wife of the protagonist, a German general. The defeated general, groping for his future, meets the boy. They call the boy Michael. Nobody knows his real name.
    In a sharp exchange with an American officer of the occupation, the general speaks in English to prevent his ex-wife from understanding the argument. Afterward the boy follows the general on foot through Heidelberg…

    …On the slope between the upper and lower Philosophenweg they walked among the garden plots. The boy took Erich’s hand and pulled him to the markers, red ribbons on four stakes outlining one plot among many… Erich bent to pull a weed. He stepped forward and pulled another, and then another. There were not many weeds to pull.
    “English?” A whisper beside him.
    Startled, he straightened and looked down at the boy.
    Silence.
    He waited.
    The boy stared at him intently, willing him to speak.
    “Are you English?” Erich asked in English.
    The smallest whisper, “Yussss.”
    It took a couple of hours to pull the story out. They spoke in English. At first the boy used only single words in whispers. Erich had to find the question, and then waited through long struggles for the answer. Word by word the boy’s voice grew stronger, but he spoke in fractured sentences with the vocabulary of a five year-old who had never gone to school. When at last the story came together, Erich sat in the warm afternoon sunshine, running soft moist earth between his fingers, his mind benumbed…

    Yes, we use children carefully. Here my intent was to show a number of things through the boy. The brutality of the German occupation of France, the receptiveness of a tough career soldier, the bonding of two enemies in friendship, the promise for a peaceful future.
    But above all, I remembered that this child was only a child. The subtext was a result of a child’s innocence, linked with the horror of watching war desecrate his existence.

  13. Just a quick scan of the tips you send me via email and I can say the information is very helpful for aspiring children books writers

  14. Great tips. I wonder if they would also apply, if the children are cutesy little forest creatures? 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point. And I’d say: definitely. When you said that, it immediately put me in mind of my little brownie-like creatures in my portal fantasy Dreamlander. They’re very childlike, even though they’re full-grown, so almost all of these things would apply to them–especially in keeping them from being too cutesie.

  15. Max Woldhek says:

    Any advice on how to write neuro-atypical children? I myself have Asperger’s, and from what my parents have told me, I very much fit the “little professor” image, as Hans Asperger called it, by the age of 7 or so.

    • Cathe Swanson says:

      There is a growing market for that, if you can do it realistically and naturally. I think you would need to establish (relatively early) WHY he is a “little professor.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      For those writers with no experience with these things: research. For you, though, you have first-hand experience and can write similar characters from your own knowledge. The guidelines I’ve listed here are definitely only guidelines and can be safely ignored whenever there’s a sound plot reason for doing so.

  16. Samantha says:

    Great do’s and don’ts’s. Maybe because I used to write stories and journals when I was a kid, I’ve never had the problem of making my child characters cutesy or stereotypical. A few things I’ve noticed my kid characters have in common are:

    1. Imagination plays a big role in their lives. They can entertain or scare themselves with it and unintentionally lie by ‘coloring’ the truth.

    2. They’re curious.

    3. Right and wrong is more black and white. Motives/feelings don’t play into things quite as much, unless they’re trying to weasel themselves out of trouble.

    4. Kids, they just wanna have fun. 😉 If you can’t help them with that, they’ll create their own.

    • I like your number 3. In eighth grade I had a science teacher with a reputation for being very strict. One day, I forget why, he suggested we devise a punishment for an infraction, I forget what. The one the class came up with took him by surprise.

      “My goodness! I’m supposed to be the strict one! You guys are harsh.”

      I remember being confused by his assessment. Coming from him that remark was really saying something, but we just could not see the nuance. I wondered what I was missing.

      I forgot about that incident until now. Good insight. Maybe I should go read my own journals from back then 🙂

      • Samantha says:

        Funny story, Jamie! Ha! Firsthand experience is the best tool for fiction, in my opinion. You should definitely dig out those old journals. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great observations. I wish I’d kept my journals and writings from when I was young. I’m sure I’d find some interesting insights in re-reading them now.

  17. I don’t often write child characters mostly because I struggle with them. I’m saving this post. These tips are helpful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Child characters are definitely challenging, but they’re a lot of fun. I say go for it!

  18. Love this! Not a lot of articles delve into creating child characters. I love that you said a child’s intelligence is either misunderstood or underestimated. Children are certainly not dumb; they are playfully curious and observant. Thanks again, Ms. Weiland. Your articles are very timely and provide encouragement to aspiring authors like me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think one of the mistakes we, as adults, make is to think children are a breed apart. They’re just little adults with an undeveloped awareness. The essence of the soul is just as complete in them as it is in us. We’re wrong to underestimate them.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

  19. Stephen Mc Devitt says:

    You should give this advice to David Cage, a self-shaped auteur who makes video games like Heavy Rain with one of its many many many problems being the plot revolving around a missing child, who’s not so much of a character as he is the idea of a child. All the children in that game are stupid, no show character of their own and are impossible to take seriously due to the poor acting.

    Though Clementine from TellTale’s The Walking Dead is the best example of how make a child character as an actual character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The “idea of a child”–is, essentially, the root of all the problems, ever, with poor child characters.

    • I have yet to play Heavy Rain, but in games, there is this amazing inspiration of a child character, Ellie from “The Last of Us”. What I liked about her was even in all the harsh situations, she always seek fun and adventure (as mentioned above being a part of children mindset). And is the biggest impact in the character arc of the adult protagonist.
      He is forty something, but learns a lot as the story unfolds from this little girl. Kinda first inspiration for my current WIP.

  20. The plot of my book is entirely carried by two thirteen year olds, so this was a good post to read. I’ve thought about it quite a lot, actually, although 13 is a good deal more mature than 8 🙂
    I do try to remember back to when I was that age. I can remember big dreams, idealism, my first crush, all that imagination and curiosity; I wasn’t self conscious in many ways, but I was convinced of how awesome I was at certain things (which I can now look back and see I wasn’t so good at). I was naive. I was ready to try anything, and when the horse I was riding nearly bucked me off, or I fell out of a tree, I didn’t get scared and give up.
    Children are wonderfully complex, little packages with all sorts of things packed in. No wonder they’re hard to write!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I look back at myself at 13 and I’m always shocked how grown-up I was. It puts my observation of other 13-year-olds today into a whole different perspective. Same goes for most ages, actually.

  21. I’m actually working on a story now with three young teens (14-15), where one of them is a teen with probably 2-500 years of experience, while still staying closer to childhood than adulthood (think Peter Pan). That’s going to be interesting!

  22. Great topic! One of the best child characters I’ve ever seen pulled off in fiction, in a role that was incredibly challenging for numerous reasons, was the character Sieh from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The authors total nails his childlike nature and explains beautifully what it means to truly act like a child, with all the selfishness, impulsiveness, love, and fun that comes along with it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I haven’t read that, but I can see I shall have to!

    • I had it with me for quite a while. But with all the TBRs I hadn’t given it much heed. But now I guess I will have to read it.
      It’s research you know. Not an excuse to read a novel.

    • Rob Munro says:

      Sounds like a great read!

      I’d add Terry Pratchett as a good author for child characters, especially his early Discworld novels (e.g. Esk in “Equal Rites”) and his recurrent ‘Tiffany Aching’ character.

      I reckon a lot of his writing for young female characters was inspired from watching his own daughter Rhianna growing up.

  23. I’ve only got one child character in this particular book. I mean, there are a few others, who aren’t really in for very long, but one main character who is a child. She’s eight, and growing up in a dystopian society. Most people in the lower class are born with some sort of superpower (nothing big, mind you), and this child is slightly telepathic–she just doesn’t know it yet. Kids don’t discover their powers until they’re about eight or nine, but this little girl comes up with some unexpected conclusions. She’s sweet and innocent, but now I wonder if I’m not making her too cliche. She doesn’t have parents, and the main character (who’s sixteen) and the guy (he’s seventeen) are the closest thing she’s got to family. She’s sad about her parents’ deaths, but enthusiastic about the future.
    But yeah. I’m going to have to go back and reread some of it to make sure she’s not too cliche, now that I’ve read this article.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Lots of interesting possibilities with a burgeoning telepath!

    • Interesting idea.
      I have my character’s parents death as well. But I am kind of going in less sad girl part. Since as far as I can tell from my childhood memories, children are also pretty good at blocking bad thoughts and somehow, someway, find contentment and happiness.
      Of course there can be different kinds of children and some situations are harsher than others. I would love to see how other writers pull it off.

  24. I generally find that if a child is a minor enough character, it’s fine to give them basic stereotypes so long as there’s something that sets them apart. In the one book I wrote, the series main character has twins that only appear on a handful of pages, so they’re portrayed as very energetic, they love martial arts (in this book they’re 9) and they’re sometimes troublemakers. For children who only appear in around 10 pages in a novel, that’s probably enough.

    If your child character is either important to the plot or the drama though, you’d better give them the same kind of character depth that you’d give an adult, while still remembering that they’re a child. Relying on base character traits is a good way to make your readers hate your child characters.

    Even 5-year-olds have an idea of what they want to be when they grow up, even though it’s most likely to change a lot. Some are quiet and observant, some are shy, and some are bubbly – you can even have a mix in the same family. As a kid I was very shy at times, and I had a legalistic mind (at least when I behaved), while my older younger brother was very loud and a bit of a troublemaker. My youngest brother was always somewhere in-between.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Same goes for any walk-on character. We don’t want to characterize them too much, or readers will feel they’re more important to the story than we intended.

  25. I forgot I’ll be writing about the early childhood years of some of my main characters. The catch is, they’re not human. So I have to figure out what they’ll be like at a young age. I’ll do my best to humanize their experience as children, definitely don’t want to go off the deep end.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s extra fun! You get to explore all the aspects of your unusual world.

  26. I read a lot of writing advice on the intarwebs, and most of it is rather questionable, in my opinion. This blog is the only one I find to always be both pertinent and on point, without ever sounding preachy or condescending. Thank you, Ms. Weiland, for all your work.

    By the way, I didn’t realize you were an editor on Game of Thrones 😜

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/52i421nzl1h7j4w/Katie%20Weiland.png?dl=0

  27. I posted this comment on Goodreads first, before I realized you had a separate site:

    Good post. I’ve got some child characters in a couple of my WIPs, two of whom are main characters I follow to adulthood, and one of whom is a side character who stays a child throughout the story. Based on these tips, I think I’m doing pretty well with them so far.

    I’ve helped teach children’s Sunday school at my church for the past several years, and I also took a bunch of early childhood education classes in college. Even though I did those things because I like kids and just wanted to learn how to teach them better, I think the experiences I’ve had have indirectly helped me a lot in creating realistic child characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Like any kind of unknown quantity in fiction, the more we can be around children and experience them, the better we’ll be able to write them. I need to go hang out with my niece more!

  28. “2. Don’t Make Your Child Characters Sagely Wise”

    This is the one that irritates me the most. You see it so much, especially in horror movies. Yes, kids can be smart, but when the six-year-old is solving all of the mysteries while the dumbfounded adults stand around scratching their heads, it just pulls you out of the story and reminds you that what you’re watching or reading isn’t real.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Well, you know, when the kids have an in-line source to the demon, it does kinda make sense they’d be more in the know. 😉 But, yes, I totally agree: done to death.

  29. “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.””

    *Violent cringe.* Don’t forget to add “Yes, dear Mother” (usually from girls) to that list. 😛 These child character types date back to the early days of TV when character development (and allowable content) were much different. I think too many writers look at those old TV shows and take their cues from that and forget to objectively observe reality– like child relatives or their own experiences. But children in those older shows are not typically reliable as references, especially in today’s entertainment.

    I have to say one thing, though. Even though he does come off as a child stereotype sometimes, I LOVE Opie Taylor in the Andy Griffith Show. He’s somewhat of a stereotype in that he’s the super-well-behaved little angel (and “Ah gee, mister”-ish), and I’ve seen him exhibit those extremes in maturity level, but I still find him an enjoyable character. In particular, my favorite episode is “Opie and the Spoiled Kid”. (Andy Griffith Show fans know exactly what I’m talking about.) This one is different from most of their episodes because you get two children in contrast with each other, and the writers took this time to poke a little fun at that “little angel” stereotype I just mentioned. 😀

    • Mirkwood says:

      Also the episode “Opie’s Rival,” where Opie fakes being sick so Andy can’t go on his date, which causes trouble. We get to see a naughtier side of Opie there, too. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You raise a good point, in that, as authors, we should be taking most of our source material, period, from real life rather than other people’s fiction. It’s impossible not to draw inspiration from books, movies, and television, but we always need to return to our real life experiences to keep ourselves from perpetuating other people’s falsities.

  30. Hey, K.M.
    You know what I really appreciate about your blog? You actually tell us what we CAN do instead of just what we can’t do. So many speakers and teachers say, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” and we’re left wondering, “Well, what in the world can we do?”
    So, thanks for being practical and realistic.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! 😀 Well, I well admit there are about a gazillion more ways to do thing right than to do them wrong. But I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog!

  31. Catherine H. says:

    I have a total of 12 first cousins (don’t get me started on extended family), most under the age of 7, whom I see every week. And yet, I still angst over getting children right. Still, lots of good story material. The boys were just recently musing over what crayons tasted like, to which the youngest replied “Doughnuts”.

  32. Sometimes I feel you are somehow keeping an eye on my Scrivener and writing just what I am stuck with.
    My little side-kick character is a twelve year old girl. Recently lost her father and has a dynamic savior-who-annoys-the-hell-out-of-her kind of relationship with my protagonist.
    Every step is a challenge for me. I know she is a smart kid, who has seen a lot. She is also on the sweet scary spot where kids take the first step to adulthood. But in all of those, she still is a kid.
    Every dialogue uttered by her, every step of the way, I have to stop and double-check myself.
    And the ability to learn and the understanding that they aren’t know-it-all makes them harder to write than even dynamic adult characters. Thanks for rising this in your blog, this will be the kind of post I will even read all discussions of. Since I really want to learn about it. 🙂

  33. I have enjoyed the dynamic, unexpected element that younger characters bring to a story. Even if they’re only minor characters, they can add zest and fun and some comic relief. Likewise they can call depths out of more prominent characters, and they can bring poignancy and pathos too.
    I love it all.
    I have invested in two younger characters myself. I don’t deal with their actual growing up, but they do end up with their own arcs in the greater scheme.
    One has what might easily be considered a charmed life, while the other has a life of divided loyalty and love, though of great privilege. He carries weight beyond what his youth can bear, and it marks him.
    Whereas she…
    Yes, she begins with a charmed life. But she comes to have a cursed one too, and it is in this that she finds her agency and her voice, and the strength of character to make her life her own, and to make it a good one, whatever else is going on in the world.
    It is not young adult literature in her case so much as it is her own arc within the greater scope of what is going on with the main character.
    Nor are his troubles necessarily focused on a son and a daughter larking off into the world against his say-so, or whether she in particular ought to feel his teeth again.
    As they say, he has bigger fish.

    My two pence, for what it’s worth. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds good! Complex child characters are great–and, interestingly, they’re little utilized. So when they do appear, they’re all the more interesting for their scarcity.

  34. Franzinyte says:

    Hello! This is a very helpful post! There aren’t a lot regarding children.
    I guess I’m on the right track for my 8 year old boy/girl twins even though there’s no kids around me. They have a very interesting love/hate dynamic and I agree that children are very fun and refreshing to write.
    When I started last year’s NaNo they were complete tag-alongs. As I rewrite I did not expect them to turn out to be this complex, especially because it’s a fantasy adventure. I don’t even have to think about their dialogue, they already do it for me. I have to make sure they don’t derail though.
    And yes, individualizing the twins helped me a lot. I don’t even call them that anymore, they just are.
    Of course, I still have a lot to learn (and me from them).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Characters who write their own dialogue are the best kind! Twins sound like fun.

  35. Hey there! Love your podcast and blog, absolutely some of the most insightful material ever. I’m a comics creator, not a novel writer, but I find your advice applies just as much to stories across different mediums.

    This article was perfectly timed for me because I’m in the process of publishing my adventure webcomic Bonabyl, where the main characters are children, but the audience are adults. Thankfully, I don’t think I’ve fallen into the tricky traps you mentioned just as yet, but being conscious of them now, I can actively avoid them in the hundreds of pages ahead of me 😁

    It’s strange writing a long-form webcomic because instead of writing for years, editing, making sure it’s how you want and then publishing, you’re actually publishing each page as you finish it. Then a couple of years later you publish the last page and your audience has already read the book. Haha.

    Thanks again for your amazing work!

  36. Hannah W says:

    Thanks for the great advice. Writing an origin story on the Bogeyman from his POV and this info is very handy for writing the kiddies he “interacts”with!

  37. My characters are mostly in their 20s, and Amelia’s cousin is based on my own. I did add in my cousin Bianca, and she might come in, though she’s probably going to be a minor character.

  38. Never thought of it in those steps.

  39. Great article. Quite interesting.

  40. Skull Bearer says:

    I wrote a 12-13 year old, and the best way i found of writing him was deciding how he relates, not to adult, but to other kids. Who does he like, who can’t he stand, who does he idolise. It was far more useful to developing his character than how he related to adults.

  41. Teacups and Murder says:

    Oh boy. My favorite brain child of mine is a 6 year old little girl. What makes her really hard to right is that she’s been a child for thousands of years. She’s not an adult in a child’s body, but her vocabulary is slightly more advanced than your average kid. Ir’s hard to write dialogue that sounds young and ancient at the same time.

    Anyway’s thanks for the great advice.

  42. I think the thing I find hardest in writing children is knowing what they are capable of at each age. My brothers and I were close in age, and I’ve not spent much time around young kids (12 and under). Is what I’m writing too advanced for the average 4 year old? Is what I’m writing too babyish for the 8 year old? While you can allow individual differences, in general you need to hold close to the norm. So, as others have mentioned, it takes lots of observation and research. And if you know someone with a child the age you require, ask them!

    I have had one instance where readers argued with my depiction of a certain child, thinking her behavior implausible. And, in general, she was right. But this child was intended to be “different”. I wasn’t saying all kids her age would act that way, only that she did. It was part of who she is.

    Good article to address. I’m sure there are many writers who struggle with this more than I do. And even those of us who don’t, it’s good to be reminded of possible pitfalls.

  43. I was starting to wonder if one of my child muses, who I based heavily off myself at that age, was too ‘adult’ like. I’m glad to see that she wasn’t! I did have to make her a child genius, though, as I’m currently VERY bad at, uh, dumbing down my language. ^^; …I’m fifteen and have had adults gives me looks for how I talk.

  44. KRIS HAYNES says:

    I am attempting to write a story with a 6 year old little girl as one of two main characters, the other being her “Aunt Daisy”, a colorful character who isn’t really the aunt but takes in the little girl when her mother is dying of cancer in the 1960’s. I want to tell the story from the POV of the girl, using first person present tense.
    This is posing a particular challenge because while I can easily draw upon my own memories at 6, writing them in the way a 6 year old would speak, or even organize thoughts, needs to be realistic but readable and interesting.
    Would you suggest I write from Aunt Daisy’s POV instead, or perhaps there is a method of relaying to the reader that while the story is present tense, the character is looking back in remembrance?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Any of the approaches you’ve mentioned can work well. It really depends on what will be the best focus and voice for the story.

  45. This was a very timely article for me. I’m working on a first-in-a-series novel where my protagonist is 12. But I haven’t been around kids much lately–plus I’m an only child, and I constantly worry about what I miss when writing siblings. But my character is orphaned and will end up living with a group of boys (and raised by a mother-like character), so at least I have some experience with that. Every time I am around kids, though, I forget how enjoyable they can be, especially their imaginations.

  46. Hi. i am not a writer; as a matter of fact, i find it hard to express myself. But i like imagining things a lot. I have so many ideas but i don’t know where to start.

  47. Vicky Jones says:

    I have a set of 8 year old twins in the fantasy novel I am writing, and events of the story have determined that one of the twins die. The death will be suicide – for particular reasons – making it a difficult scene to construct: due to it’s nature.

    I don’t believe the scene can be avoided; you know how stories can write themselves once you have the cogs in motion. I can completely understand the impact such a scene may have on a reader, so I want to tackle it right. It’s making me doubt whether I should stay true to the story to include it, yet it feels wrong to cut it.

    Do you have any tips on how to be sensitive with the scene, as it is concerning the suicide of a young child, whilst staying true to the matter of fact; and sometimes brutal truth of the world of my characters? There has to be a key balance somewhere.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I definitely believe in the importance of staying true to the needs of the story–even when it’s difficult. Two thoughts come to mind in this instance.

      One is that you want to make sure the cause-and-effect are brutally clear. Why is this event happening? And what will be the fallout? This is the only way to keep events from seeming arbitrary or gratuitous.

      Second, this is likely a scene where you will want to consider a “fade out.” Make it clear what’s happening, but weigh the graphic details.

  48. Thank you for this post. I write romance and I know at some point, it’s inevitable…one of these characters is gonna have a kid. So far I’ve been dodging it because writing children intimidates the heck out of me. My own childhood is pretty hazy in my brain (I cannot, for the life of me, remember what motivated me as a kid. Other than a few moments of toe-curling embarrassment, I can’t recall many specific events either), I have zero interest in having a child myself, and I have no friends with children, so my immediate resources/experiences are pretty limited. It’s a little frustrating. It probably doesn’t help that I’m one of those weird women who just doesn’t really like kids either (and I’m terrified my dislike will bleed through my work). This post made a lot of sense, though, so I’m bookmarking it for the day I finally work up the nerve to add a child to one of my stories.

  49. Giovanna Maria says:

    I’m writing about a couple of twin siblings aged between 12 and 13 in Victorian Era. By the time it happens, I make the kids more childish and innocent (at that time there was no internet or something similar, you know) or more mature and responsible than the kids of same age today? (P.S.: they act like children, not like adolescents). Sorry for my possibly bad English, I’m not American.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The best way to decide is to go the source. Research the children of the period (first-hand accounts, especially, if you can find them) to get a feel for what the average kid was like back then.

      • Giovanna Maria says:

        I chose this age for my characters because it is an age when the child has more independence, courage, rationality and a sense of justice, without ceasing to be childish. I suppose that would be similar in the Victorian Era. I’ll search, thank you 😉

  50. I started writing a story about an ten year old secret agent. It’s a light hearted funny story so she will not be a very realistic character. She is more of an adult in a child’s body (it’s intentional) but I wanted to keep childish traits and this post is very useful. Thanks.

  51. In my current work in progress, there’s a six-year-old girl who told her teacher and her class that her father was a rapper in a dance club and her mother was a model – only, it’s a lie because her father is her mother’s pimp; the mother tells her that she did the only thing she could do. The girl saw one of her mother’s “clients” walk out of the trailer in which she and her mother live; the mother explained to her that she and the “client” were practicing making a baby. Aside from the girl having a lady of the night as a mom, she is the average six-year-old: she gets fussy when she has spaghetti for dinner four nights in a row, but she mellows out when she has chicken with her spaghetti; she asks why she has to do homework, she loves visiting her grandparents, and she wonders how Santa Claus can put presents under the Christmas tree when the trailer has no chimney.

  52. I’ve read SO MANY terribly written child characters, even ones from well-known authors. Some were so bad I had to put the book down. So many cringe worthy things…

    I think one of the worst was an older child describing blood, saying it was kool-aid, or something like that. It was awful because the child didn’t seem to understand the concept of blood at all….like, really? He’s never cut himself and bled?

    Another author used a lot of baby-talk and the child was often confusing one word for another. It was unrealistic in the context and painful to read.

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