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?