The Youngest Characters
Writing realistic children is something that many authors, even very talented ones, struggle with. I’ve read novels where there are excellent story-lines, well-rounded characters, and epic villains, and yet, the moment a young child steps into the room, the author has trouble.
Many authors have no trouble writing characters. They know people well, but when it comes to a child… People don’t know what to make their characters do. I think that, living with so many brothers and sisters in the house, I have an advantage over other young writers. I can look at the young children around me and learn from them on a day-to-day basis.
What I have found is, that there are many things that authors should have been told to avoid, but were not, and many things that authors should have been told to do, but were not.
Avoid the Sweet Little Girl. Really. I know authors and know of authors who have little children who are way~too~sweet. Children are more than smiles, hugs and victims who are pathetic and need rescuing. Give them more then smiles and waves. No one can love a cardboard cut-out. I’ve found that, unless your child is really a villain, don’t make them perfect. Don’t even make them seem perfect. Throw in a temper tantrum or two if the need arises.
Some children seem to be strangely independent for their ages. While I know one little boy who always wants to be held, more are willing to be set down on their feet and run around. They’ll want to show your readers and your other characters how adorable they are by running around and showing off. They’ll find a ball and run back to an older character to tell them “Ball! Ball!” If it’s in their character, let them show off.
Children show their emotions. When children are happy, they laugh. When they’re angry, they yell or cross their arms and glower at their adversary. When they’re excited, they clap their hands if they’re young, or bounce up and down on their toes when they’re older. They have less worry about what people think of them, and are more real. If they’re shy, they don’t stammer and avoid confrontations like older people do; they find a trusted person they can hide their face in.
Yet when they get older, they want to be “big kids.” The main character in my current novel is a twelve year old. When children start to reach a certain age (different for every person, but usually somewhere between seven and twelve), they start to want to be seen as an adult. My character, Carlie, doesn’t want to cry. She’s too old for that; or so her pride says. Children have an odd sense of pride. Little boys are more likely to decide they’re too old for crying when they’re younger, but I remember as a child hiding my face in the cushions of the couch so that no one would see my cry (it never occurred to me that people noticed that and knew what it meant). Little girls might be more likely to shove their toys in a box and pull out a book she finds to be exponentially boring when visitors arrive.
Children are not adults. Try not to write them as such, unless there’s something unusual about them. Children don’t need to know who another person is before deciding that they should be friends. If someone will play with someone under seven, usually they’ll be friends, whether they’ve exchanged names or not. Children, unless they’ve been emotionally scarred, are less suspicious than adults.
Sometimes children misbehave. I know, I know; it’s a novel thought (but that is what you’re writing, is it not?), to have a child you weren’t intending to make a “naughty child” do bad things. But all children make mistakes and break the rules sometimes. Some more than others, some rarely ever. But in very young children, they simply don’t understand sometimes; in older children, sometimes they’ll break the rules because they think they can get away with it, or if they simply didn’t think before doing it. Children are impulsive. They might not think before they act. Some children might be the type to hug a villain because he used his words very nicely to make the child feel sorry for him. Some might be the type to charge a villain and physically attack them if the villain is making the child angry or afraid. (I have a character who has done both of these. Different villains, though.)
Children pay attention. This particularly goes for younger children, because there’s so much new things everywhere. They see so much around them that’s new and exciting that they’ll notice inconsistencies in the way people act. If brothers and sisters suddenly start acting strange, a young child will notice it. Children might not be able to figure out what exactly they noticed, but they easily pick up on the fact that something strange is going on, and they’re highly attuned to emotions.
Children act how they’re raised. My youngest sister is not yet two, but she knows that when the dogs bark, you tell them “Hush;” when someone is hurt you ask them “Okay?”; when food is on the table, you tell people “Come eat!” They don’t necessarily copy things exactly, but they pick up on the behavior they’re raised with, whether they know why they’re doing it or not.
And yet. Children have characteristics just like older characters. They’re not all the same. Every child has a different identity and different actions. Sometimes they’re shy and need to have words coaxed out of them, and if you manage, you’re amazing. Sometimes they simply won’t stop talking, and if you can make them be quiet for five minutes, you’re more amazing. When children have experienced trauma in their lives, they’re more withdrawn and less likely to trust people; if they grew up in a position of high authority, they’re more likely to be arrogant.
Children grow up at different times in their lives. I have a young man who is eighteen who I refer to as a “boy,” and have had a fellow of twelve years who was a “man.”
There is way more that could be said about children, but since I’m more interested in keeping readers interested until the close of an article than inspiring people to re-paper their walls, I will abstain from trying to go to the end. Spend time around children. Find books that seem to represent children well. Two that I know of are Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Vieled Rose, with young Leo being a rather realistic child, and N. D. Wilson’s 100 Cupboards series, with Anastasia appearing rather believable, if a little bit un-sweet at times. Remember who you were when you were young. How did you think? How did you react to things?
If you put children in your stories, it is important to show people realistic children, whether they’re exactly normal or not (because who has a child who stays normal throughout an entire novel?).
What are ways that you write children? Do comment. Thoughts go in the box!