Whew! We’re almost to the finish line in our series. Can you believe it?
Today we’re talking about a topic that I think gets overlooked – writing youthful characters accurately, especially in non-YA or children’s stories.
I was an elementary teacher for more than a decade, and part of that was studying child development. We learned what to expect from children of certain ages in cognitive, emotional, social, and speech milestones so we would know what to do when a child fell outside the norms. For example, a kindergartner should interact with his peers in a playful manner. If he doesn’t, or if he avoids any kind of interaction, that could mean something is off with his social development.
So with my background, I notice when a young character falls outside the norms. But unlike reality, instead of seeing developmental lags the majority of the time, in fiction I usually see “super kids.” Those are kids who have reached milestones well beyond their years – they are Olympian-level athletes, or they can solve complicated mysteries, or they speak like college professors. I’ve put down more than one book by well-known authors because they wrote their kids this way.
Now, super kids do exist in real life, but they are rare. Think Bobby Fischer rare. A normal eight-year-old (as most writers produce stories about “normal” people) would not be memorizing Shakespeare or singing arias. So unless the story is intentionally about a super kid, I urge writers to shoot for the “average” milestones.
Two of my favorite stories do a great job of showing kids accurately. One is The Sandlot.
The way the boys talk to each other, play baseball, and even stand up to bullies is exactly how real kids would act. Since the story was told from the point of view of one of the boys, the dog was a big scary monster for a lot of the movie – until he was revealed to be a normal dog. Then they put him in a T-shirt. It was brilliant. And the one kid who was exceptional, Benny Rodriguez, was noticeably older than the others. So he set the stage for them.
The other story that showed kids well is The Hunger Games. Even in the futuristic, dystopian world, the teenagers were a bit mouthy, Prim was quiet and scared, and Katniss loved to eat. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager related to that.
We were all kids once, but for some of us it’s been a while and we may not remember when we did certain things or acted certain ways. If you’re writing a young character, hang out with a kid that age if you can (just don’t be creepy about it). Volunteer at a school, or offer to take your niece or nephew out for dinner. Watch how the neighborhood kids play and interact with each other and with their environment. Listen to how they talk. When I wrote Dayla’s character in Project Renovatio, I modeled her after my motor-mouth son. It’s been great fun hearing the audiobook narrator read Dayla’s lines.
And if you can’t interact with kids directly, talk to someone who knows how kids operate – like me! Send me a message and I’ll be happy to help.
What are your experiences with writing kids? Did you base your characters on kids in your life?