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Monday, October 22, 2018

Helps for Writing Children

I recently was asked about writing dialogue for young characters, and in the process of answering that, it morphed into this blog post about writing young characters in general.

Keep in mind that this is not a post about how to write middle grade or YA fiction. It's more of an article to help adults write young characters, when they are having trouble. It might help when writing to younger audiences, but please keep in mind that the approaches differ.

So, here are some questions to consider that might help.

How old is the character?

You know, a five-year-old is a lot different than a sixteen-year-old. They have different attitudes, perspectives, interests, and in some ways, feelings.

My recommendation is to see if you can spend time with kids in that age range and listen to 1- what they talk about, and 2- how they talk.

Really young kids are still learning how to talk, so they're going to have simpler words. "Mama," "Dada," "Uh-oh," and such. Then of course we move on to full sentences. For the most part, kids talk in rather simple sentence structures. The younger, the shorter the sentence.

The good thing about the internet is that even if you don't have access to children, preteens, or teens of a particular age, you can easily hop on Youtube and find some to listen to. For really young children, you'll be looking for videos their parents uploaded. Older kids might have their own channel. Keep in mind that talking to a camera is still somewhat different than talking candidly, so ideally, look for videos that are more candid, though into-the-camera videos will provide their own kind of insight.

You can also research online to see how a child's speech changes as they grow. But also look at what their perspective and interests might be for their age. For example, a six-year-old girl may be interested in playing with dolls, but an eleven-year-old is typically no longer interested.

Younger kids typically can't stay still when they are talking, so you'll see them playing with sticks, or shuffling their feet. They generally have fewer inhibitions and haven't yet learned how to censor their thoughts and feelings.

When they get older, like many teens, the opposite may be true. They may have too many inhibitions and lots of thoughts and feelings they don't share, especially with adults. It can sometimes be very difficult to know how they feel about something because they've learned to keep their expressions a blank slate (sometimes this relates to inhibitions, sometimes not). Also, for some, they begin defining themselves based on dislikes, and it's not cool (or "safe") to like certain things. It's way easier to go through life disliking everything.

Teens obviously use more slang. In my opinion, it's usually better to use longstanding slang than the current trends. "Cool" will be around for ages. "Totes cray cray" probably won't.

How well can they communicate and express themselves?

Kids yell. Cry. Throw tantrums. Can you imagine what it would be like if adults did that?

Oh wait, you don't have to. Someone already did something similar.

When we get older, we learn how to communicate better while also learning how to censor our thoughts and manage emotions.

Kids haven't learned those things yet.

If they are mad, they may throw their plate on the floor or go hit the dog. That's how they are communicating and expressing themselves.

What do they hear and see others say and do?

A lot of what kids say and do is based on something they've heard or seen (even if they don't realize it). If you spend time with kids, you'll know this is true. When I was a kid, I knew some girls who were always gossiping about other people (something I didn't care about), but guess what? Their mom was the exact same way. If an adult tells them something, they might go say something similar to someone younger than them if given the opportunity.

Other influences may come from older kids or fictional role models. (I've heard multiple stories of girls quoting Ariel from Little Mermaid to their parents when mad--"I'm 16 years old. I'm not a child!")

Keep in mind that what they repeat may not be in the exact same words (though if it's short, it might), and what they retell may not be exactly accurate.

Kid History is a great example of this. Here is my favorite episode. Very funny.

How do they view and experience the world?

For one of my nephews, just about everything is like a video game, or relates to a video game (I love that kid). Also, play includes humming epic music for dramatic effect.

So consider how the character sees and experiences the world. Sometimes this is affected by their physical body. A child that is sensitive to sound may view the world differently than one who isn't.

When I was a child, I watched a scary movie (when I wasn't supposed to) and for months I was terrified of mirrors, convinced someone might come out of them.

Children haven't yet experienced enough life be able to clearly discern fiction from fact, and they also have active imaginations, which influences how they perceive the world.

Here is a great (and very fun) video where a dad brought his son's imagination to life using special effects.

Because I love them, here's another.

What are their interests? 

Children tend to have intense interests. They'll listen to "Let it Go" until you want to bang your head against the wall. They'll learn every name of every shark in the ocean, or recite every available fact of a frontman in a band.

Children like repetition more than adults. They'll want you to read the same book every night. I'm not an expert, but I heard this is because they are still developing and learning patterns and enjoy predictability (when they are still trying to figure out so much of the world).

Interests, likes and dislikes, can be very important for kids, to the extent that some define themselves by that.

What are their social skills and interactions like?

I was helping out at a nursery several weeks ago (kids ages 1-3) and within a few minutes one of the girls decided I was her best friend. In fact, she got a little bossy telling me how I had to sit and play with her. Other children are too shy to come up to or even look at strangers. Still others are in their own little world and are simply not interested. One of the boys played cars and barely talked to anyone, and when he did, it was only one word.

As a kid, I usually felt okay interacting with other kids, but I was always afraid of interacting with adult instructors--whether school teachers, dance teachers, gymnastic teachers, whatever. I was just terrified for some reason.

Some people may want to think that kids are the most innocent and non-biased beings in the universe, and in some ways, that is true.

For example, months ago, this story was in the news about how this boy wanted to shave his head so that his teacher couldn't tell him apart from his best friend.

Here is what they look like:

From my experience, most children are rather "color blind." I know I was.

Other times kids can be surprisingly biased. In my fourth grade glass, pretty much everyone hated this one specific kid. Looking back, I'm not sure why we hated him. He wasn't mean or anything. I think it might have been just based on his looks and behaviors. I've known other kids who wouldn't play with a peer because they were "fat." Kids can be incredibly rude to each other. Sure, they can be rude to adults, but they usually don't have much power in comparison to adults, so it's not the same effect.

What is their gender? And how typical are they of it?

This is the part where I get hateful comments. Some people believe gender is a complete social construct. Others believe everything about gender is biological. Personally, I'm somewhere in the middle. I think a lot of our human understanding of gender is based on culture and society. I mean, back in the day, makeup, high heels, and dance was for men. You can also go to other countries and see how men and women act different based on their culture and society. However, there are studies that also suggest it's biological.

When I was helping out in a nursery weeks ago, there were 8-9 children. We got the toys out and immediately ALL the girls were playing with dolls and pretend kitchens and ALL the boys were playing with cars. Studies have been done with apes in the wild that had never seen toys before. Scientists gave them dolls and cars. Guess what? SAME results.

This is not to say girls can't play with cars and boys can't play with kitchens (and eventually two of the kids in the nursery did swap toys for a short amount of time). Heck, I preferred action figures. Robocop and Batman were my favorites. But there are typical behaviors based on gender. How much does the child adhere to those?

Whether it is cultural or biological, the reality is typical differences exist. And whether a child adheres to or is different from that affects their experiences. I'm not saying they can't be different, but again, it affects their experiences of the world.

To me, Disney Princesses were boring. But I was obsessed with Lion King. I showed Lion King once to my niece years ago. She could have cared less, which surprised me at the time.

What is their personality and emotional range?

Beyond gender and age and interests: children aren't the same. Not any more than adults are all the same. Even babies are different!

I know people as adults that I knew as teens and children. Guess what? They still have many of the same qualities. They just manifest differently now that they are older. My friend who loved being the center of attention and performing (even when we played pretend) went on into the entertainment industry.

We all have different emotional ranges and spectrums that we are prone to. Typically, I'm a pretty easygoing person. And my mom tells me I was an easy baby.

Some people have tempers. Some people are very sensitive. Some are cautious. And some never seem to look before they leap.

Sure, some things do change. Someone might overcome their temper by adulthood. But often I wonder--did they really "overcome" it? Or just learn how to manage it?

I could go on, but I hope this helps when it comes to writing children. It might be helpful to base your character on a few specific children to get you started.

One of the most important things, especially if you are writing to children is to not ever write down to them. Don't patronize them. You aren't writing about children. You are writing about people who happen to be young. And I really believe this. Children are people, and should be respected. They just happen to have tendencies and behaviors that relate to their development. Heck, we all do. But for some reason when we are adults, we are off the hook (probably because we don't have a person in higher authority hovering over us constantly).

Now if you are writing to these age groups, you are going to approach this differently, though some of these may still be helpful.

What are your tips for writing children? What have you noticed about kids that may help some writers out? Leave them in the comments.


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