Writing Child Characters

If you write a child character, how do you write him or her? Do you fall into the trap of writing children as stereotypical adult constructions (sugary sweet, for example)? Do you write children as basically smaller versions of adult characters? Do you write by perceiving children through an adult lens? Having worked with children at play for most of my adult life, I’m in a good position to write a child character as real.

The reality is that there’s no such thing as a ‘normal’ child, so why write that stereotypical perception of the norm? Children are complex, just as adults are. Any adult character written as a stereotype would quickly be seen as two-dimensional. Children aren’t sugary-sweet, typically belligerent, excessively demanding all the time, or any other extreme such as these. Children are multi-dimensional.

When writing the many dimensions of a child character, the writer should give consideration to plenty of other factors that affect that child: the space they’re in; the affect of adults on them; the lighting; the noise; the weather; the season; darkness; the scale of things. The list goes on. The phase of the moon has also been noted to affect a child, in some empirical quarters. Think of what will affect the moods, the play, and the interactions of your child character.

Children are humans, of course (though I sometimes wonder if some adults realise this), and are, as such, subject to similar emotions to those of adults. However, children should not be written as simply mini-versions of adults. Children have their own ways of communicating, their own rules and moralities, their own ethics. Adults pollute these emergent sensibilities. Children written poorly are those tainted by this adult pollution.

Children’s communications aren’t just about words: adults’ ways of speaking should be avoided from child characters’ mouths, but so should child characters not exhibit the same sorts of adult body language or gestures. Observe a three year old, for example, and how they might wipe the hair from their forehead with the whole of their palm. Even mimicry of adult actions has its own interpretative flavour. Morality and ethics have similar ways of being transformed.

If a child character is written, it’s all too easy to write that child with a moral compass, for example, that’s just a skewed version of an adult’s. This is what many adults do when they perceive real children: they see the child and their actions through the adult lens. We have all been children. To write a child character, think back to yourself as a child. Think of it as a form of method acting!

If we don’t see what the child does from their perspective, we won’t see that child clearly. The child character won’t read true. Adult lenses are clouded by expectations. I once talked with a group of four and five year olds at play. We were discussing a certain adult’s age. One child guessed forty-two. Younger, I said. Forty-one? Younger, I said. Forty-nothing? Even younger. She looked at me and said: Nothing is less than forty-zero. My expectation was that she’d know about thirties and twenties if she knew about numbers in the forties.

When writing child characters, just as when writing adult characters, we need to make sure we write them as true and real. Children are complex, emotional, funny, angry: in fact, many of the things that we have inside us as adults are also in children. That said, they’re not just shrunk-down versions of us: children deserve to be written as themselves. When we can come to terms with this, we can discard our adult lenses and see the world from the child’s perspective, truly. After all, you used to be a child, so you once knew what it was like. Write your children fully, carefully and well.
Note: this article was first published at www.writersdock.com under a pen name.

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