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?

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. 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 ?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. risa lindquist says:

    The main character in my current WIP is a 5-6 year old little boy. I have based him on my nephew of the same age. I am having great fun with this story where he rescues a princess (his sister), goes on quests and has a duel with a child-stealing boggart. He wins the duel totally by accident and instead of celebrating his is devastated because he hurt the monster.

  6. How would you write a newborn in to a story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As a POV character? You’d either have to make him obviously more aware and intelligent than is realistic or just focus on his sensory and emotional experiences.

  7. Thanks for this breakdown of child characters, it’s definitely going in my ‘handy references’ folder.

    My current WIP has my (adult) MC making a dangerous journey in the company of a couple of other adults and a half-dozen children. At first my MC can’t stand the other adults, and only stays with the group because he’s sure that they wouldn’t take care of the children properly without him. (He’s all kinds of wrong about this, but that growth is part of his arc.)

    The children range from 5 to 15 years old, and have different personalities and backgrounds, but it’s still a struggle to write them realistically. The youngest is veering dangerously close to ‘cute’, and the ones in the middle are blending together despite being two years apart in age and light years apart in upbringing. The eldest is the easiest to write, because I can actually remember being her age myself. She sees herself as one of the adults, they see her as one of the children, and neither position is 100% true.

    I’m drafting like mad this month (NaNoWriMo is helping) but I’ll be sure to refer to this list often during the edit.

  8. I’m writing a story for an assessment piece and my main character is a 5 year-old boy. I’m finding it difficult to figure out what vocabulary to use and how to write it. I have good experiences with English narratives and usually get the best marks so I find it hard to keep it simple and not use such big words. Do you have any tips? Also I love this page it really helped with my character development.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, accurately portraying a child is no different from accurately portraying any type of character. It requires research and awareness. I recommend digging up family movies when you or perhaps your siblings were five and studying them for starters.

  9. MJ Dossey says:

    I’m starting off a short film I’m writing with the two main characters (who will later age) as 8-9-year-old boys. I’m barely an adult myself, so I have some clear-ish memories of childhood innocence, but I always worry about their actions and what dialogue there is (only one character speaks, the other is completely nonverbal) feeling unnatural. This is immensely helpful–thank you so much for this article. I’ll have to keep this in mind as I do my revisions!!!

  10. Kiarra Sayler says:

    Thank you, this website is very helpful, I just had a one question, if that’s all right. I am wrighting a book, where a someone is a young child, around 5 or 6, and you said not to over do their incorrect speech, how do you think I could get my audience to understand how they are saying what they are, while adding a few mispruniciations here and there?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would choose just a few words on which to emphasize the lisp via spelling. Otherwise, use the rhythm of speech to indicate it is a child speaking.

  11. Kim, this is a wonderful article! Do you have a Tumblr blog so that I could reblog this for future reference? If not, would it be acceptable to create a Tumblr post with the text, give you full credit and a direct link back to your article so that others can find your site? I certainly understand why you might want to avoid that, but I figured there’s no harm in asking. Once again, love this post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post! I’d rather you didn’t republish the entire article, but feel free to link back to excerpt.

  12. I’d love to read a similar article on how to write old people. I couldn’t find a single article on the subject – even mighty google couldn’t help. We all remember what it was like to be children (hopefully), but none of us remembers what it’s like to be old, right? And if you don’t have living role models in your vicinity, it’s hard not to fall back to stereotypes…

    • Deandra says:

      One thing with old people, just like children, teenagers or anyone else – one size does not fit all. There are 70-year-olds in nursing homes and 70-year-olds still acting in movies. There are 90-year-olds still riding horses (Queen Elizabeth) and 90-year-olds that can’t get up off the couch. Some are mentally old and stagnant, but many are still mentally active and engaged and looking to learn and try new things.

      Maybe that will help a little until Kim puts together something more in depth.

Trackbacks

  1. […] story. Michael Schiff explains the 2 stages of creating a believable character, K.M. Weiland lists 8 necessary tips for writing child characters, and Hannah Heath has 7 tips for writing emotion into your […]

  2. […] How to write child characters […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.