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?


Let’s Restore Superman’s Image #MyPalSuperman

DC has allowed Superman to grow stale and #MyPalSuperman can fix that. Hear me out…

A major bucket-list item got checked off when I thanked Dan Jurgens at the 2022 NYC Comic Con for helping me become a reader. For those of you who don’t know, Dan Jurgens is the man who wrote The Death of Superman comic book ark in the early 90s. And as we come up on the 30th anniversary, I’m reminded that the whole event not only had a major impact on the comic book world but on my life as well. 

To be honest, I wasn’t much of a reader until well into high school. The first full book I ever willingly read cover-to-cover was the Rodger Stern’s novelization of Superman’s death and return. 

And then I just kept reading. You may have noticed. 

I’m now an AP English Language teacher who has written a dozen books and a dozen more short stories. I have a good career and a happy life and I feel that I owe a lot of that to the Strange Visitor from another planet that got me reading in the first place.

So now it’s my turn to do some good for #MyPalSuperman.

While I was talking to Dan Jurgens, I asked him if the panel had any plans on restoring Superman’s image. Over the last decade, people have been more interested in twisted versions like Homelander, Omni-man, and Brightburn. DC capitalized on this fad in the short term with the Injustice storyline, but that doesn’t fix the problem I recognized in my teens during the 90s. Superman had been allowed to become corny in a way that made him unwelcome. Edgier heroes like Wolverine and Spawn started gripping readers. Antiheroes became cool and true heroes became silly. Now, even the people who Superman rescues roll their eyes at him on the Harley Quinn show. 

So Dan Jurgens, the man to whom I owe much of my voluntary literacy, stood there nodding as I rambled this at him and, to my surprise, this famous author shook his head and agreed with me, saying, “I don’t know why DC would degenerate their own IP.” 

That got me thinking. About a week later, I figured out how to rehabilitate Superman to a modern audience. 

The best part is that #MyPalSuperman is not a new haircut or an updated suit or grumpier personality. It’s not a recast or a cheap gimmick or fad that will be cringy in ten years. The work I’m doing is a shift in how Superman is SEEN by the people who owe him their lives. 

As of right now, the #MyPalSuperman folder has a half-dozen ideas for scenes that show an ESTABLISHED Superman that can be added to the upcoming Man of Steel 2 or Black Adam vs Superman movies without interfering with the long-term plans that are being worked out as you read this. 

Dwayne Johnson already said that Black Adam should be the one who throws the first punch against Superman. Don’t you want that moment to matter? #MyPalSuperman has that moment mastered along with a finish to this matchup that develops both characters further without either one losing face.

And I’m willing to tell James Gunn and Dwayne Johnson these ideas for nothing. Nothing. If they’re not interested, then I’ll happily thank them for their work and genuinely wish them well. If they like what I have to say, then we can keep talking because my ideas don’t stop here. That’s all I really want. For real, I have a great teaching job in Perth Amboy with top-tier students and a pension and health benefits. Yeah, I have a mortgage and car payments because I’m a regular guy, but I’m not struggling or looking for a change in my lifestyle at all. 

I just want to do right by Superman. 

So what’s it going to be? Three minutes on a video call with me will change how this world sees Superman for a generation. 

I’m asking all of you, everyone reading this, to please share this post or video below until I get three minutes to pitch #MyPalSuperman to Dwayne Johnson and James Gunn. You won’t regret it. They won’t regret it. Promise. 

Please share this video: https://www.tiktok.com/@jeremiahkleckner/video/7161158980570582314?is_copy_url=1&is_from_webapp=v1&lang=en 

Let’s restore superman’s image!

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Not In The Mood To Write? You’re Not Alone…

A simple truth about teaching is that my whole year starts in September. Once Labor Day comes and goes, EVERYTHING changes. Days get colder, blankets are unpacked, and demands on my time become ridiculous. As a result, many of my writing projects get shelved in the basement alongside those gross window air conditioners. 

But I’m not alone. Even famous and notoriously-prolific authors have admitted how hard it is keeping their productivity up during a semester. Something Stephen King wrote still sticks with me years after I first read it: “Teaching school is like having jumper cables hooked to your brain, draining all the juice out of you.” I’m pretty sure that quote was in his book On Writing, but I’m not 100% on that. Either way, it’s still true.

The trick to staying productive is to figure out what it takes to motivate you to do the little things that make big things happen. That’s really all that productivity is… the little things. Scratch an outline on notebook paper. Read for inspiration. Allow yourself to daydream. Type a couple of words. Repeat. Forever.

What Gets Me Writing 

My favorite motivator is an ambitious submission deadline with a hard end date and no room for forgiveness. The funny thing is that this is the antithesis of how I teach children. But I’m no child and I sometimes need a bit of a stiffer push to get things done.

The current project I’ve been obsessing over is a call for submissions for Horror Novellas that was first published in Interstellar Flight Magazine back in May.

The word count of a novella is under 40k, so it is totally doable compared to the idea of writing a full novel in just a couple of months. In Netflix language, think of a novella as an episode of Black Mirror as opposed to a novel which would be the full season of Midnight Mass. Episodes of Love, Death & Robots are all short stories at heart, but we’ll get into all of that another time.

To get started, I’ve been reading fiction in the horror genre from acclaimed authors like Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (Check out my reviews on TikTok for more details – NBBT and TGB). These books have all been great for helping me develop a feel for the pacing and delivery of horror writing and they give me a chance to think of wild “what ifs” that can be seeds for future stories. 

When considering which story I wanted to dedicate my time and attention to, I had to consider a few things. How complicated is the plot? Novellas can’t be too difficult to follow or have as many people to keep track of as a full-length novel, but they require more depth than short stories.

How I Publish Short Fiction

The website I use to find an audience for my short fiction is Duotrope. It is essentially a submission aggregator that lists agents, publishers, and contests with clear guidelines and focused search filters so you know that you are sending your work to the people who are looking for what you have to offer. 

From Duotrope’s About Page: “Duotrope is a subscription-based service for writers and artists that offers an extensive, searchable database of current fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and visual art publishers and agents, a calendar of upcoming deadlines, a personal submission tracker, and useful statistics compiled from the millions of data points we’ve gathered on the publishers and agents we list.”

An easy way to see what short fiction I have sold through this process is by looking at the Table of Contents for Watching From Behind Glass Eyes. A majority of that anthology is work that was first published through Duotrope submissions.

Put Yourself In Control

The sad fact is that nothing gets done unless you do it yourself. Find your motivator and get working on that draft you’ve been neglecting. Your imaginary friends miss you. 

And while you’re looking for motivation, keep an eye open for my NY Comic Con shenanigans on TikTok and Instagram. It should be a wild time.


Podcast Review of “Not a Vampire”

Story from Scratch #74: Tales from Speculative North


“This week, in a special episode, Yale and Justin take an in-depth look at two stories from tdotSpec’s Speculative North Magazine. First, we examine Not a Vampire by Jeremiah Kleckner (which can be found in Issue 2), and then we discuss The Alchemy of Curses by Joshua Grasso (which can be found in Issue 1). If you’d like to check out those stories or any of the other amazing works published by tdotSpec, you can grab a free digital copy at tdotspec.com or buy a paperback version of any of the Speculative North issues through Amazon.”


IG: @storyfromscratchpodcast

Twitter: @storyfscratch

“Contain and Detain” by Jeremiah Kleckner

“Contain and Detain” is a 988-word near-future post-apocalypse flash fiction story about our very human reaction to overcoming a zombie outbreak. Sam Herd is a state-sanctioned bounty hunter whose main objective is to prevent the further spread of the virus in our rebounding society.

You can read “Contain and Detain” on Dark Elements: https://darkelements.us/2021/01/13/contain-and-detain/