Writing (Young) Characters

Characters are such complicated creations. They are yours to do with as you please, but their words and actions rarely feel right unless they are doing what feels natural to them. So how do you know what’s natural? Keep reading and we’ll sort this out together.

For this first post in a series about writing characters, I decided to handle the type that I find to be the most wild and unpredictable: children. 

To be clear, I define “children” as any legal minor. As a teacher for two decades, my perspective is that as long as I am responsible for you as a mandatory reporter, you are a child. Now I am admittedly not a neuroscientist or a psychologist, but I have the behavioral training that comes with being locked in a room with thousands of young people over the last 18 years, so I might know what I’m talking about.

When trying to write these chaotic creatures, I keep three things in mind:

  • Staying Current
  • Know Their Fear
  • Omit Information

Staying Current

Image is important to young people, so research how they see themselves. If your setting is contemporary, you have a wealth of resources to keep in touch with what young people value. Music videos from different genres are an excellent shorthand for popular slang, clothes, and markers of success like transportation and what counts as wealth. Not only that, but these exaggerated and fictionally inflated markers of success should give you even more insight because they deliberately prey on the exploitation of their obvious insecurities. 

But what if your setting is far in the past or in a completely different world? If that’s the case, then you’ll have to know your setting well enough to answer these questions for yourself. No matter where your story takes place, you’ll want to write young people who question authority, subvert plans, defy roles, and explore their identities. Whether they’re Indonesian, Brazilian, or from Cape May, NJ, young people are looking to explore who they are and what decisions are comfortable for them. Those are core human behaviors. 

A great example of the feeling that is the basis for these behaviors is in the song “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana, in which our main character rejects the path set for her in favor of the unknown.

Know Their Fear 

There have always been monsters hunting the smallest and tastiest of us in the dark. Lions, snakes, and wolves had been a problem for millennia and that fear is why we still worry about what is hiding under our beds. It’s normal, but it’s basic. 

So what’s scarier than being eaten? Social failure and existential dread. 

Let’s talk about social failure in terms of winning and losing. I coached wrestling in the middle grades for ten years. And I’m not trying to knock any other sport, but wrestling requires a different level of toughness. I would not be the person I am if not for wrestling having taught me how to accept losses with dignity and learn how to win with some kind of grace. It’s given me a lot of insight as to what gets kids invested in doing the hard work that is going to improve them or going to solve the problems they are currently facing. 

Existential dread has a lot to do with a young person’s fear of not knowing their place in this world. This is why they change hair styles and friends as frequently as they change their clothes. This usually happens in phases…

  • When you are young, you search for your place.
  • When you grow older, you believe you have found your place in this world.
  • When you finally grow up, you realize there is no such thing.

The best example of this is in the song “Surface Pressure” from Encanto, in which one of the sisters sings about how she took on a lot of responsibility because that is who she thought she had to be for her family. And even though it takes the whole movie for her to learn not to put that much pressure on herself, she develops through all three steps.

Omit Information

Children know more than you think they do, but nowhere near as much as they think they do. We underestimate how little these children know about what is happening. They think they understand what’s going on and they feel like they have legitimate and reasonable answers. 

I’m going with The Goonies example for this one because I’m sure most of you have seen the movie. What do these kids actually know about the situation? The bank is bad because they are coming after their homes, so they seek out buried treasure and come away with one bag of gems, which is not going to solve anything. The gems might help them put a down payment on a condo somewhere else, but the check was due many final notices ago. Life doesn’t work the way that the movie ends, but the decisions made by these kids are shortsighted and shamefully realistic.

We should keep in mind that we’re writing fiction and too much information may get in the way. The E.T. example works well here. The young protagonists saw a hurt alien and wanted to help it get to its mommy. Would their decisions have changed after a 20-minute backstory about the guy with the radio or a StarTalk episode about the intergalactic species of hordiculturalists? Absolutely not.  

Another way to use the absence of information was done beautifully in Encanto, starting with the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” Children don’t learn family secrets until they get older and the main character uncovers this information through inquiry and defiance.

So after all these examples, I aks you… How would a young hero ACTUALLY handle conflicts in your story world?

“I Don’t Grant Wishes” by Jeremiah Kleckner

“I Don’t Grant Wishes” is my 600-word flash fiction story published by New American Legends on March 31, 2020.

Synopsis – Tommy’s home remodel has been delayed for months. And when a magical creature emerges from within the wall he’s demolishing, Tommy struggles to understand the benefit of what is being offered to him.

Read “I Don’t Grant Wishes” for free here: https://newamericanlegends.com/2020/03/31/i-dont-grant-wishes-by-jeremiah-kleckner/

Outsourcing Jobs to Fiverr Leaves More Time for Writing

There comes a point when you have to admit that you cannot do it all.

Writing.  Editing.  Book Cover Design.  Book Interior.  Sales Copy.  Marketing.  Social Engagement.

The more time you spend on one task, the more you ignore the ones that are actually important.  As far as I’ve figured out at this point in my writing career, there are really only two ways out of this hole…

Get Published in the Traditional Way

One of the ways in which I avoid wasting my time is by submitting stories to magazines and contests.  If they accept your work, traditional publishers will create graphics for covers and do all of the formatting for you.  You’ll still have to market yourself and engage socially, but it beats the hell out of learning new programs.

Not only that, but the lag time that it takes for a publisher to review your work is a good window for you to get more writing done.  Even if they reject it, you’ll have more material as well as feedback on your old work.  There’s really no downside, especially considering that you can always self-publish if you get too frustrated.

Fiverr – A Self-Publisher’s Business Partner

Fiverr is an online marketplace for people to offer their services for as little as $5.  There are add-ons and extras that can bump up the price, but these are optional.  I’m not even going to bother mentioning the types of services, because they range from resume writing to graphics to advertising.  There’s even a whole subset of people who do amazing things with puppets.  (I’m not kidding.)

Recently, Jeremy Marshall and I talked about continuing to work on stories in the Captain James Hook series.  This required me to give our current books a facelift.  We needed covers and new sales copy, so I went to Fiverr.

I got two new covers and copy for both book descriptions for a total of $42.50 (that’s including $5 tips for each job).   I used Book Covers by PixelStudio & Sales Copy by Emmaki.  Samples of their work can be found on the updated CaptainHookNovel.com page.

Even if you have a budget of under $100, you can get some serious work done on this site.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.

The First Audition for the Audiobook of Captain James Hook and the Curse of Peter Pan

In the effort to expand the book’s reach, Captain James Hook and the Curse of Peter Pan will soon be available as an audiobook on Audible and iTunes.  In order for that to happen, we need to find a voice actor.

The Audiobook Creation Exchange allows authors to find voice actors and producers pretty easily.

  1. You post a sample of the book.
  2. Actors submit their auditions.
  3. You choose one and move on from there.

We are in the “choose one” phase of our search and I’m asking for your help.

This is the first audition tape.  There is a poll below the file for you to submit your responses.  Every vote helps us make our decision.

Are you a voice actor who wishes to audition?  If so, click here for your chance.  Auditions close at the end of July.

Thank you all again for participating.

Building an Audience Means Taking the Next Step

People won’t just come to you.

Now that there are so many entertainment options choose from, people (rightfully) feel that they should to be courted by creators who want them to read/watch/hear their work.

In truth, it may have always been this way.

Selling the First Wheel

So, if these systems have been in place for millennia, then what can I do to compete?

Building An Audience

Step One:  Blog Regularly

The weekly blogging schedule I’ve taken up has helped keep me sharp and focused.  It doesn’t hurt that I changed my branding a little bit to better fit my personality and interests.  The Writing Teacher was fun and I liked the dual usage of the word “Writing” in the title as both an adjective and a verb, but it didn’t allow me to comment on the topics that most engaged me.

Cynical Sci-Fi gives me some range and helps me be truer to who I am, which is important.  This authenticity has contributed to an increased follower-ship on my Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Step Two:  Broaden My Market Base

It is hard to find new ways to promote old work.  Captain James Hook and the Curse of Peter Pan has had thousands of readers and I am very proud of how it has influenced the Peter Pan mythos, but it is a three-year-old book among many, many, many newer similar titles.

Therefore, I am working with the Audiobook Creation Exchange to make both Captain James Hook titles available on Audible and iTunes.  As of this post, I have one audition already submitted and I am using my audience base to promote this opportunity to others.  (Expect to get updates on this process as it unfolds.)

Step Three:  Collaborate With Others

Working with others in a creative field can be a real pain.  Many will actively try to cut you down so that you do not get a leg up on them or will try to rip off your ideas while discouraging you from pursuing them.

It is important to find a partner (or group) that will encourage you while being constructively critical.  I am fortunate that my writing partner is as talented as he is insightful.  Hundreds of thousands of words have passed between us:  read, commented, and revised.

This isn’t for work that we share credit for either.  These are solo titles, made better through joint effort.

The followup step is to get myself into book talks, social groups, and conferences.

Step Four:  Create New Work

This is often the hardest part.  You tweet.  You post.  Distractions pull you this way and that until hours have passed and you find that your daily word count is under 1000.  It doesn’t have to be this way, though.

  1. Develop new ideas
  2. Set a schedule
  3. Stick to it

This simple process has given me two new series of short fiction, the first titles of which are already done and ready to go.  More are on the way as July and August are typically big drafting months for me (teacher’s schedule).

Step Five:  Experiment

I’m taking a different route with the new titles.  Their lengths allow them to be submitted to genre magazines and I feel that they have a good shot, so I’m trying that first before diving into a self-publishing model.

As with the audiobook creation process, expect that future posts will include updates on which magazines each title will be submitted to and what the responses are.

New is only new for so long, then you have to learn what comes next.  These are both new journeys for me and I’m excited to take them on as a lifelong learner.