Writing Child Characters

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I absolutely love writing kids in fiction. I’ve always preferred kids to adults in real life, and after spending more than eight years nannying and majoring in Developmental Psychology at NYU, I can say with quite a bit of confidence that I know how kids think, behave, and speak (child speech is really important to get right in writing). I’m often surprised by how many authors, even good authors, do a poor job of writing child characters. Whether they feel inauthentic or underdeveloped, it’s easy to miss the mark when you don’t spend a lot of time with children. So, to that end, here’s a quick guide…

Kids are just people. Develop their personalities as you would adults’.

Bottom line. This is my number one piece of advice in writing kids. Children aren’t another species, and they have full personalities just as adults do. Writing kids is actually not as different from writing grownups as you might think. They’re little people. They have limited knowledge and aren’t great at controlling their emotions or making decisions, below a certain age. But they’re not stupid or simple. I’ve met kids who are some of the most complex people I’ve known.

If you’re around children often, really observe them and write down ideas for moments or behaviors in child characters.

I love doing research, on everything from human behavior to history, and I love watching people and looking to the world around me for inspiration. I think it’s the most effective way to come up with characters, situations, and settings that feel authentic. When writing kids, this is super helpful because many common behaviors are things you won’t find in a developmental psych textbook. Kids at any given age tend to share some common traits, but they’re also incredibly unique. Quirks are essential to creating strong child characters. Some examples—-one kid I nannied needed to have all his food on white dishes, and none of it could be touching. He also changed clothes several times a day for no reason. Another kid I nannied for didn’t want anybody walking behind him, and insisted on having all his favorite toys in the tub with him whenever he took a bath. KIDS 👏🏻 ARE 👏🏻 WEIRD (and wonderful)!

Regardless of whether you’re frequently in contact with actual children, research typical child behavior and milestones.

Try to stick to psychological / medical texts and parenting websites and magazines. This will give you a better idea of how kids behave at certain ages. Even though these things may not help with planning a young character’s individual personality and endearing (or annoying) little idiosyncrasies, there’s a nearly infinite wealth of knowledge to be found in textbooks and empirical research papers. These “official” sources are great as far as understanding what milestones kids have reached at a particular age.

Kids are unreasonable.

Even very intelligent children usually don’t have nearly as good of a grasp on their emotions as adults do, although this varies a lot from child to child, and by age. I’ve heard people joke that toddlers are like little drunk adults, and it’s actually kinda true. They’ll go from laughing to yelling at you to napping in the course of a few minutes, and freak out at small inconveniences. This is less true as kids get older, but under age six or so, many, many children are kind of ridiculous in their emotional responses. One (hilarious) example of this—a little boy I nannied for, age three, once threw an absolute fit because I flushed his poop down the toilet before he got to look at it. This is not abnormal behavior for a three-year-old.

Young children are egotistical and self-centered by nature, even “good” kids.

This is just science. Even though a lot of Freud’s psychological findings have been found to be total bullshit arising from his raging mommy issues, the idea of babies and toddlers being “pure id”, or entirely self-centered, is often pretty accurate. Some kids are surprisingly empathetic at a young age, and most normal kids understand why we treat others as we want to be treated—but a preschool age child is not going to care if you had a horrible day. They want their favorite snack exactly how they want it, and if you’re impatient with them because you’re feeling down, it’s highly likely they won’t cut you a break. It’s not that kids are mean—their world is just totally centered around themselves.

Don’t make child characters too precocious, but also avoid making them unrealistically naive for their age.

Most kids, even smart kids, don’t act like mini adults. Nor do they know absolutely nothing about the world. Most children are somewhere in between. For example, as a kid, I was quite intelligent and had memorized the parts of the brain by age three (at risk of sounding obnoxious…but I totally know I’m not an anomaly and there are a ton of gifted children). I also spent most of my time pretending to be Disney villains, taking care of my dolls, and once threw a fit and bit my mom because she wouldn’t let me tap dance down the stairs like Elmo. Kids are complex, and at any age beyond infancy, most children will surprise you with their depth and breadth of knowledge, and two seconds later remind you how limited their understanding of the world really is.

Children often develop intense interests and LOVE talking about them to anyone who will listen.

Oh my God. This. Most kids I’ve worked with have had something or other they were totally obsessed with, and they’ll talk about it until you beg them to stop. I was obsessed with anatomy as a kid, and Disney villains. I also have ADHD, which can fuel REALLLLY intense interests and hyperfixation. But kids in general tend to latch onto things they like. Whether it’s bugs, a sport, outer space, etc. It would not be unrealistic for a child character to repeatedly bring up their favorite topic many times throughout the story.

Feeling safe and secure is usually a child’s number one concern / need aside from physical needs like food and sleep. This can be embodied in a variety of ways.

Young kids frequently have separation anxiety, as they rely completely on their parents for all their physical and emotional needs. If they’re what psychologists call “securely attached” to their caregivers, which is a good thing, they’ll usually be somewhat upset when their caregivers leave. Separation anxiety is present from infancy, but as kids reach preschool age or so they also become very aware of their saefty and threats to that safety. Fears change by age, but young kids may be afraid of natural disasters, violent crime, wild animals, or things like monsters and ghosts. All of this goes back to the universal need human beings have for safety in a scary world.

Kids often ask a LOT of questions.

It can be really irritating (a common one is, of course, “why?). Kids will often fire off one question after the other, and many things they ask may strike adults as odd, random, or completely obvious. But children, especially young children, are still unfamiliar with the world, learning at a rapid rate how things work and how people behave. When writing kids in fiction, don’t spend too much time having a kid ask extraneous questions, but if it fuels the plot or notably develops their character, it can add a touch of authenticity to have child characters constantly questioning the world around them, because this is, by nature, what kids do.

Kids below a certain age tend to believe anything a trusted adult tells them. Their ability to reason isn’t fully developed yet, no matter how smart they are.

Going off my last point, young children tend to think their parents and other trusted adults are always correct and assume they’re telling the truth. If they have a healthy relationship with their caregivers, many kids will literally argue with an expert on a subject if their knowledge contradicts what their parents have told them. This isn’t always true, but in my experience it usually is.

Kids frequently have no filter.

One kid I nannied for once said to me, out of the blue, “You’re fatter than my old babysitter but skinnier than my teacher.” Um…okay? This is not in any way odd behavior for a young child. They’re rude, but they don’t mean to be. I actually find it to be an endearing trait in many cases. Kids have no agenda—they simply say what they mean. This usually becomes less true as children reach school age, although there’s certainly still some element of it. Politeness and social norms are learned, and this learning process takes a while.

Remember that beyond preschool, children generally have a good basic grasp of language and can be understood by adults.

This is one way in which many writers, particularly those just beginning to write fiction, fall short. While minor speech impediments are fairly common, most kids beyond the toddler years will not do things like use incorrect pronouns (ie. “her ran away” instead of “she ran away”) or say words completely incorrectly such that they’re unintelligible, although they may struggle with certain letter sounds. Kids are still learning the rules of language, and may make errors when they’re unfamiliar with an exception to general rules of their language. They also mispronounce words frequently (I referred to hamburgers as “hanga-burs” until I was like five despite being corrected). As far as what kids do know and language quirks, I’ve found that many kids love using new vocabulary words they learn, even when they sound slightly awkward or don’t quite fit. As a young child, my mother once took a bite of a french fry and announced, “this fry is very tender”, to the amusement of my grandparents, because what she said is technically correct but sounds a little odd. Kids also tend to repeat themselves many times if they don’t get an answer, even once the moment has passed. There’s a classic home video of me and my sister at ages 4 and 2 in which my parents are trying to get her to tell them what species Po the Teletubby was (I am counting Tubbies as a species). After they asked her if Po was a dog, I asked her if Po was a cat…like ten times, even when a full minute had passed and everyone was onto something else. Lastly, kids sometimes have completely random verbal tics, which are actually not odd below a certain age. Ie. One of my friends constantly yelled out “hike! hike hike hike!” as a young child, until her parents begged her to stop. She’s a quirky adult, but not maladjusted at all. This is just something little kids (sometimes) do.

A quick overview of how kids tend to behave at different ages…

Infants (0-2): Babies usually walk by one, talk by two, and are toilet trained by three. Within these parameters, the age at which kids reach milestones varies a lot. By one year, babies usually have strong separation anxiety, and often begin resisting separation from parents by six months. They’re also usually using nonverbal gestures by around that age, like pointing to things they want. Babies begin having some sense of self and become possessive of toys and sometimes people by eighteen months. Their motor skills also improve a lot around this time and they can usually throw things and build small structures. They will usually begin responding to their name by seven or eight months, but this varies quite a bit.

Toddlers (2-3): By around age two, toddlers can run and go up and down stairs, which is part of the reason that despite being adorable, kids this age are kind of a nightmare. They have little to no concept of safety and are very curious. They usually have a vocabulary of a few hundred words, and use simple phrases (Ie. give me, I want, I hungry…language skills are often still very basic, while some kids may be more advanced). Two year olds are notoriously difficult. They want what they want, when they want it, and will throw tantrums when they do not get what they want. They’re also super sweet and cuddly, but they may be slow to warm up to strangers and can very suddenly become upset. They can follow simple directions at this point, although they may be defiant. By age three, the toddler begins to act more like a child than a baby. They ask questions, enjoy learning, speak in full sentences, have strong gross motor skills and quickly improving fine motor skills (by the end of the third year most kids can draw simple pictures that aren’t just scribbles). They can feed themselves, and are usually potty trained (but usually need help wiping). Kids typically begin developing empathy around age three. They’re still self-centered but will show concern when someone is upset, and are capable of taking turns and sharing. They usually love playing pretend, and begin having some fears beyond loud noises and being separated from their parents. Kids gain a sense of gender identity around age three. Kids will also start to lie towards the end of this period. And of course, at any age there are kids who are far more advanced than the norm. Some kids can read simple sentences at three, but this is rare. If you’re writing a gifted child, that’s something to put careful research into.

Preschoolers (3-5): Cognitive abilities improve rapidly from ages three to five. By the end of preschool, most kids can count to ten, know the alphabet, and can identify common colors and shapes. They have a strong identity and do not like being treated like a baby. They’re often still anxious when separated from their parents, but can usually be soothed and will be okay in a classroom setting or with a babysitter. They gain some understanding of time and change. They still don’t have a good sense of other people’s points of view and incorrect beliefs (Google “Theory of Mind” for more on this). While they don’t really know how to see things from someone else’s perspective, they can typically adjust their behavior based on who they are interacting with (ie. parent vs. friend vs. teacher). Kids in this age group usually have a well-developed sense of humor and are especially amused by adults being silly or doing things incorrectly. By four or five, children begin to show leadership, and can follow instructions with multiple steps. They can hold conversations, and tell stories that make some degree of sense as far as linear progression, although the story itself is highly likely to be pretty simple and contain fantasy elements. Kids at this age may still be scared of monsters, but they do have some understanding that some things are make believe. They usually are not yet capable of abstract thought (more on that in a minute), and have only a basic understanding of death. They may not understand that it is permanent.

School Age (5-12): By the time they start school, kids usually have very developed gross motor skills, and fine motor skills are quickly improving. They can mostly color inside the lines, are beginning to learn to write, and often learn to tie their shoes around the time they start kindergarten. They are better at planning, often enjoy making plans, and start to develop goals for life…although these goals are frequently things like “be a rockstar” or “go to space”, which are obviously unlikely. Many children also learn to read around age 5-6. Their identity expands, they have a greater sense of their place in the world, and crave acceptance by peers. They can self-groom / get ready for the day on their own, although the outfits they pick out are often pretty wild. They begin to understand sarcasm and develop a more sophisticated sense of humor, although they also usually lovvvve potty humor. But kids do also become much more sensitive to embarrassment at this age, and private about their bodies and bodily functions. Obviously, “school-age” is a wide age range. Five-year-olds just left preschool. Twelve-year-olds are on the cusp of adolescence. Kids ages 8-12 are very different from their younger peers because they are beginning to see the world in a much more complex way and developing strong self-control. Their private feelings are often different than the ones they show the world. Lying usually peaks at this age. Relationships with friends their own age become increasingly important, and they may begin to rebel as they continue to develop an identity apart from their family. While many younger school-aged kids may strongly prefer spending time with peers of the same gender, as kids approach middle school, they may have crushes and sexual orientation becomes more clear. There’s something of a contradiction in many kids towards the end of elementary school in that they’re becoming more and more capable of empathizing with others, but also may be more likely to gossip and ostracize those who are different. They gain a sense of social standing, and a strong sense of morality. Look up Kohlberg’s stages of moral development for more information on morality at different ages. One of the most interesting changes that occurs at this age, especially as far as writing tweens, is that kids become capable of abstract / complex thought. They can understand concepts that are not concrete or worldly, develop their own ideals and beliefs, and their fears begin to change. While they frequently still fear things like war, sickness, or being kidnapped, they also may develop a more complex fear of death, failure, humiliation, even time passing (my phobia of growing old began around age 11/12). They have a genuine understanding of death and may become curious about the supernatural, and either become more invested in or question religion. Kids at this age are basically little adults with unstable emotions and limited knowledge of the world.

Leaving out teens, because they’re a whole different ballgame (often a really difficult ballgame where the third inning feels like the ninth). I’ll be doing another post on writing teens soon-ish.

One last point—while it’s super helpful to observe child behavior and research child development before writing, sometimes it can be just as helpful creatively to look to portrayals of children in literature…but not all literature, mind you. I love-hate the Twilight series because it’s poorly done and in effect hilarious, and I would give Edward and Bella’s creepy, awkward child as a prime example of how not to write kids. She’s eerily mature and stoic, and despite being perfectly able to talk communicates with people by touching their faces and projecting images into their mind. Her parents are obviously incredibly awkward too, and interact with her as I imagine parents spoke to their children a hundred years ago. It’s weird and stilted. On the contrary, one of the most well-written child characters of all time (IMO) is Rudy Steiner from The Book Thief. He’s weird and sweet and frequently a little shit, with complex relationships and plenty of endearing quirks (he’s a kid living in Nazi Germany who looks like the perfect Hitler Youth but totally opposes Nazi ideology of Aryan supremacy and idolizes Jesse Owens). Look to examples like these for inspiration as far as writing kids, so you know what to do and what not to do. And if you can, ask an actual kid to help you plan a character around their age. My little cousin (who is absolutely brilliant) was really helpful in developing a young character in a book I’m currently editing.