Friday, February 17, 2017

Beyond Cute, Loud, Obnoxious, and Innocent: Writing Children as Literary Characters

Some of the most enduring characters in literature are children: Scout, the March sisters, Harry Potter and his friends, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, Liesel Meminger and Rudy Steiner from The Book Thief leap immediately to mind. Each of these characters is as fully-rendered on the page as any of their adult counterparts.
Filling your stories with children will add an element of complexity and authenticity to your writing. Whether you are writing children as main or secondary characters, considering these few points will help you create realistic, identifiable characters for your readers.

Children’s emotions and personalities are as complex and unique as adults’ are. It helps to remember yourself at the same age as your character. While you certainly didn’t know a lot about the world at large, you knew a lot about your world. You were curious and smart and kind and frightened by things that might seem silly now. You navigated relationships with siblings and friends and teachers and neighbors. You had your own sense of humor, your own varied interests, your own insecurities, your own rich and secret imaginary world. Write these into your child characters.

Children are motivated by goals and desires. One of the elements that separates static characters from dynamic characters is desire. Children long to fit in at school, for a parent to love them, to be given a guinea pig for their birthday, to negotiate more screen time or a later bedtime. Much of their mental and physical energy is consumed by wanting things and figuring out how to get them. In fact, since most children don’t need to worry about careers, mortgages, taxes, and politics, it is possible that the children in your stories are even more defined by their desires than adults are.

Despite their rich inner lives and wonderful brains, children are children. Your readers will have a hard time believing that your eight-year-old protagonist has the experience and emotional intelligence to counsel a drug-addicted parent, or the culinary knowledge to whip up a gourmet meal. If readers don’t tire of precocious children who spout zingy one-liners or use obscure four-syllable words in their dialogue, they will certainly begin waiting for “the twist” that explains why these children are so uncharacteristically wise. Readers will also be suspicious of impeccably well-behaved children. Children are sometimes loud. They are impatient and restless, and they don’t always adhere without complaint to adult agendas.

If you’re having a hard time tapping into your own memories, it can help to consult photographs and videos from your childhood. Observe your own children, or your nieces and nephews, or your students. Children are everywhere, but if you’re living in a retirement community or feel uncomfortably voyeuristic observing children to whom you have no connection, consult the internet. Child development charts like this one can help you determine what a healthy (or unhealthy) 10-year-old might do.
Children under the age of fourteen make up more than a quarter of the world’s population. Include them in the landscape of your own writing.

Trina Sutton is a second year MFA candidate in Fiction. She loves teaching students to be logical and critical thinkers.

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