1. Knight's Move
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    Knight's Move Member

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    Writing Children

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Knight's Move, Mar 5, 2012.

    Hey everyone!

    I'm currently writing a story in which most of the characters are children ages roughly 7-10 or so. Do you have any tips/ideas/observations as to how to write believable children? Things to avoid? Things to keep in mind?

    Also, what have you read that had well-written children?
     
  2. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Active Member

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    I can't say I'm great at writing children myself or that I know much about kids, but what I've noticed about kids is that they pay very close attention to detail, but they don't yet know how to read between the lines and they don't really have perspective. Things that seem like small problems to adults are often huge problems to kids, while kids might not catch on to adult problems at all.

    What to avoid? You want to avoid making perfect little angels. You also want to avoid making miniature adults, which entails not losing sight of what would motivate or fascinate a kid. This is probably the hardest part.

    We did a good exercise in a writing class I took last semester where we had to write out a childhood memory in two pages. The memory had to take place before we were seven years old, and it had to be written in the present tense. It wasn't easy, but after the first few lines, I managed to get into the voice and it became an OK little tidbit, although I was forever toning down my vocabulary to make it sound like a kid might have written it.

    I think Beverly Cleary understands kids pretty well. I read all the Ramona books, and I felt like Ramona seemed pretty true to life. Judy Blume is pretty good, too. I adored her Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing when I was around nine or ten, and she wrote some older characters later that I liked. There are several books about Peter and his little brother Farley (Fudge) that I thought were good, although I haven't read them in years so I'm not 100% sure.
     
  3. Show
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    Believable kids might not be interesting kids. :p ;) Also, trying to make kids "believable" might end up doing the opposite.

    Anyway, I write a lot of children characters. I write them the same way as adults in the sense that I don't just generalize them as children. They are people, each with their own unique personality. I think to best advice you, I'd need a little context as to this story's plot. What is most appropriate for a bunch of child prodigy superheroes might be very different from a story about a bunch of first-graders kidnapped by some madman. I do think that the best way to make sure they seem fake is to constantly remind yourself that they're children. See them as characters who happen to be a certain age. While you must keep in mind some things for the sake of realism, a lot of times writing children need not be any different than adults in writing. They each got their own personalities and traits. Treat them as individuals.
     
  4. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Lord of the Flies is a book with children protagonists, if you haven't read it, I'd recommend it.
     
  5. Erato
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    Erato Contributing Member

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    We were all kids once, or even are kids. Draw on your own experience. If you don't really remember it, then take jo's advice or observe some kids. The way kids think can be largely inferred from the way they act. Unless, of course, you're writing geniuses.
     
  6. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Jo made a great point. Kids don't have a lot of life experience. This means that they can't see things in perspective the way adults can. For kids, every small problem can be magnified in their minds into a tragedy, and every small success is a triumph. Kids have a huge range of emotional responses to normal everyday events that adults just take in stride.

    Also, kids (at least smart kids) are easily fascinated. I remember the first time I played my guitar for my nephew and his jaw dropped. I don't even know if he was listening to the music; he was just blown away by how it was being produced. He was only three or so, and there were no musical instruments in his house, so I think the only music he'd ever heard had come from a radio or CD player. A couple of years later he would become absolutely engrossed in building elaborate things with his Lego blocks, almost to the point of being in a trance. He'd pay no attention if you called his name. To get him to realize that you were talking to him, you'd have to shake his shoulder. He's ten now, and a great kid.
     
  7. Imprive
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    Kids also have a difficult time justifying their actions. They might do things that adults could consider rude or mean, for no real reason, or at least one that they couldn't successfully articulate. I read a YA book (before I realized it was a YA book) called Midshipmans Hope. Its a sci-fi piece written from the point of view of a kid, who is on the crew of a navy ship (the navy in this book do everything, from transporting cargo and passengers to defending worlds, he is on a passenger ship). The navy is based upon the 17th-18th century navy where the captain is the final authority. The kid rarely justified his actions, and he acted how he thought he was expected to.

    And younger children do tend to copy adults, though I'm not sure at which age. You might want to read up on phsychological theory, nothing heavy just some developmental theory. I took an intro course to pysch last trimester, and the developmental theories were quite interesting. Take a look at Piaget's theory of cognitive development, especially. At different stages children look at things differently. Like from 7-10 they are in the Concrete operational stage which is characterized by appropriate use of logic including the elimation of egocentrism. You could write it from the point of view of a child who sheds his/her egocentric attitude and develops appropriate use of logic.
     
  8. BFGuru
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    BFGuru Active Member

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    Anyone who says realistic children may not make an interesting read has never met my children. They constantly amuse me. They shock me. They are little imps of energy bolting from one activity to the next, always hovering too close to their dad and I so they don't miss a thing. A 4 year old that constantly messes up things, or shares his perspective on the world. "Mom, in fehteen years, you gonna turn into uh boy". An 8 year old who is enamored with Discovery Channel, "Hey Mom! Did you know that shark babies eat their brothers and sisters before coming out of their mom's bellies? Cool!" And an 11 year old who on learning the definition of the word "bitch" when being corrected that the boy she was mad at couldn't possibly be what she was claiming suddenly blurts out "psh! well. Hmph. If boys could get periods he'd totally be a boy bitch then!"

    Kids offer a fantastic comedic relief. They also offer gut wrenching honesty about the world. Watch a child grieve, and you will see a heart shattered in a million pieces and many times unable to even describe what has rent their heart. There will be emotional outburts, there will be angry outburst. There will be begging in such a way that you don't know how to respons. "Please, please, can we just go up to heaven and bring grandpa back?"

    Children are awesome. They present a perspective on the world that adults often forget. Develop them, learn their fears, learn what they find funny. Learn their quirks. Every kid has one, even your characters.
     
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  9. Show
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    There is a difference between realistic and believable. A lot of the things people find unbelievable about child characters are actually quite realistic. People tend to underestimate children. The very fact that we need to really ask how to write children shows that we're underestimating them. Do we ask how to write adult characters?

    A lot of stories, in an attempt to make children believable, make them unbearably cliche. And whenever somebody dares to make a kid different, they are accused of being unrealistic. Your kids might be labeled "unbelievable" by some if they were characters. I think "believable" is almost becoming an excuse for flat child characters. I agree that real kids can be fascinating. But the problem is that somebody will always find the kid unbelievable if they have any individuality.

    Characters need to be written as characters. Know your character and write them. The fact that the character in question is only 10-years-old shouldn't be something you use to define them. Age is just a part of them.
     
  10. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    May I suggest a manga (Japanese comic) called Yotsubato. This is a beautiful and funny manga, written from the POV of a strange little five year old girl. It surprisingly helped me a lot when it comes to writing children, because it brought back many of my childish thoughts and feelings. Made me feel nostalgic too, making me teary-eyed even though nothing sad ever happened. I think that is one of the most accurate portrayals of children in any book I have ever read. You can download it for free on mangatraders.com.
     
  11. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Another thing is that kids can be very smart, but still misinterpret things. One time, my niece wanted a new style of shirt because all the other girls at school had it. So she asked her mom (my sister) for it. But she said, "We have to get it at Wal-Mart!" My sister asked why. My niece answered, "Because their slogan is 'Lower prices every day', so if we wait long enough, it'll be free!"

    Kids' brains often interpret things too literally.
     
  12. jc.
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    jc. Contributing Member

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    About two weeks ago I posted a piece in the Non-Fiction portion of this site about four year old me and my experience with an animal attack. I got the same review from just about everyone. The depiction was too dark and mature, and it was hard to picture a child thinking or feeling the way I wrote. I'm still working on the re-write, but I've learned a few things.

    Observe actual children in that age range. If you have neighbors or friends with kids or ever pass by a park, it really helps. Kids tend to be more simple and slow with their thought process. Not saying kids are dumb, but when depicting them you really have to write things more simply/literally as others have stated. There's also a lot of obvious thought mapping.
     
  13. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Don't make the children overly cutesy, pure, golden, etc. Don't get me wrong, kids are cool, but people tend to portray them in these unrealistically rosy lights. Also, avoid making kids too naive -- sure, some adult jokes may go over their head, but they're far more capable of getting things than adults give them credit for.
     
  14. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    However, a lot of times, people go the other extreme and make them such brats that they border on sociopath. (yet are still portrayed as normal.) it seems when it comes to kids, writers sometimes forget that kids are people too.
     
  15. Gonissa
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    Gonissa Contributing Member

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    The thing to remember about kids is that they're weird. They are not normal adults. Their imagination is brighter, and they are not troubled by this thing we grown-up people call romance. They like to do things just for the sake of doing them, and it's not until they hit 11 or 12 that they really start caring overmuch about what people (other than their closest loved ones) think of them. If they have an impulse, they want to complete that impulse, giving it much less thought than we might. They prefer their gratification sooner, unless they grew up in a family where money is a little more tight.

    Kids also like to rationalize far more than adults. While adults do it too, generally the adult wants to find out the true reason or make his opinion seem as true as possible. Kids, on the other hand, simply come up with theories for why the world is the way it is based on the incomplete knowledge they have. Their ego is not involved, and usually they're better at accepting new knowledge unless the new knowledge is especially terrible.
     
  16. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Active Member

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    It's a fair point. Nonetheless, it's worth mention that empathy is something that grows over time. Kids can be surprisingly callous (looking back on it from an adult standpoint). For instance, there was a boy in my class with autism in elementary school and we teased him very badly for a while. Only much later did I look back on it and realize how awful that was. It's not that we were sociopaths--that would be an extreme overstatement, and we certainly wouldn't have hurt him physically. We just didn't understand that it was wrong to make fun of someone who didn't fit in and we didn't really get that it wasn't his fault. All we knew was that he wasn't like us, but he was always trying to tag along and it was sometimes annoying. It took until high school for him to really belong, although he still had a harder time there than most kids.

    Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that kids are sociopaths. But kids can be startlingly and often unknowingly cruel. It takes time to learn what is OK and what isn't, and the only way to learn is to make mistakes and overstep boundaries along the way.
     
  17. AmyHolt
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    AmyHolt Contributing Member

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    Somewhere around the age 8 (give or take a year or two) most children are able to tell right from wrong and have a strong desire tobe perfect and might be very self-critical. They feel guilt and shame.
    They take directions well and have the attention span to follow through a 3 step direction (finish your snack, put your plate in the dishwasher and take out the trash).
    They can wait their turn.
    They avoid and withdraw from most adults. However they can converse on an almost adult level.
    Encouraging/ positive feedback will create a true friend.
    They can be helpful, friendly and kind one minute and rude, selfish and bossy the next.
    They want to know the reason for things, the how's and why's things happen.
    Most make friends easily and perfer friends of the same sex.
    They want to feel like they are part of a group and are more influenced by peer pressure.
    They can be obsessed or motivated by money.
    They start wanting more privacy and things like locked journals or boxes are appealing.

    There are exception to all of these but that would be a personality trait; like my son loves to talk to adults and so even though his peers avoided adults, he had no problem talking to/ hanging out with them but like most kids his age he loves to lock things in a box that only he has the key to.
    Hope this helps. :)
     
  18. Tessie
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    Tessie Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have had a lot of experience with kids, both in a family environment and at a school level, and I've come to enjoy watching how they interact with each other and with other adults. At times, I think I understand the intentions of children better than adults because they are always honest to themselves and to their perspective of the world, whether or not one specific kid is shy or bratty and not well liked.

    My advice is to imagine yourself (or your character) in a light where you don't have very many limitations as far as how to act or behave socially. Children do tend to have more complex reasons for their behavior, but then again so do adults (adults, however, have a better mechanism for informing themselves of how and how not to act in certain social situations). Don't be too concerned about making a child's character overly justified, though, because some kids have the ability to maintain regular personalities/attitudes.
     
  19. Show
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    I don't deny that they can be, but so can adults and any age group. The problem I have with a lot of these answers is that they are broadly generalizing children. Children are weird? They seek instant gratification? They are callous? Maybe they can be, but that doesn't mean they are necessarily 100% true for all or even most kids. Kids can be surprisingly empathetic as well as callous. Some kids aren't all that weird at all and are very good at being patient for what they want. The point is that kids are not some stereotype that you can apply rules to. Perhaps the younger they are, the more stereotyping you can get away with, but once they are in the 8+ish zone, you really can't go around holding these generalizing rules about how "kids" behave. Kids are characters like any other. We should treat them as such. If we want them to be callous, that's fine. Make them callous. But we shouldn't really go acting like kids are naturally callous and so we HAVE to make them that way. Kids can be a lot more empathetic than adults in some situations. That's not to say that kids have no limitations at all in what they are emotionally capable of. It's just that people tend to box them into such a specific personality that it's no wonder that many people find child characters so uninteresting. Treat them as characters and develop them.
     
  20. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Active Member

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    I don't want to send this spiraling into irrelevance, but I want to respond to this. OP or anyone else, feel free to say I'm off topic and send this back in the direction you want it to go.

    Anyway, Show, you're more right than not, and an author almost always does better to see the character on his/her own individual terms. But with all due respect, children are NOT "characters like any other." A 10-year-old is simply not going to see the world the same way as a 30-year-old merely because the thirty-year-old has lived longer. While children are all unique, there are certain common experiences that unite them, the most important being that they are dependent on others and have not lived long enough to have seen or experienced very much.

    You suggest that this question and all of us are misguided, but I have to disagree. It's a sensible question and these answers are intelligent. Generalization is useful as long as you don't rely on it as gospel, and certainly no one here is trying to say that all kids are the SAME. Kids are admittedly a wide demographic, but they share the fundamental circumstances of discovering the world around them and being dependent upon someone else's care. These are factors worth keeping in mind when you write a child character regardless of his/her personality or circumstance. They will effect pretty much everything the character does and thinks.

    Where you say "If you want them to be callous, then make them callous," I think you're kind of missing the point of my anecdote: kids don't WANT to be callous; they are usually callous because they don't have the kind of perspective that allows them to have empathy. From our point of view, we were children who were having fun and this kid was wrecking our fun. Nothing else mattered to us then because we didn't know it was supposed to. But comparatively speaking, we were not any more callous than other kids our age. I'm sure, because literally no one else in the whole school befriended the kid, not just me and my three friends. Because he was different, no one would talk to him. In order to understand what we did, you can't just label us "callous" and call it a day. Our behavior may have been callous, but in the context of our ages, it was unfortunately quite normal.

    I think what you say about the 8+ish zone is actually quite incorrect. From my rather limited experiences, it seems like kids get LESS quirky over time because they become socialized or "acculturated." They learn what behavior is accepted and what is looked down upon. My parents told me stories about what I did when I was three and under, and they were pretty bizarre. Among other things, I used to line my stuffed animals up in perfect rows on the staircase and I collected colored spoons. I also thought that dogs were the most interesting things in the world and I stopped every time I heard a dog bark. By the time I was eight, I didn't do any of this. I went to school and played hopscotch and Chinese jump rope with my friends and I drew pictures of smiling suns with sunglasses on and whatever you do when you're eight. Once you have a sense of self-consciousness and normality, you stop your weird, individualistic quirks and start copying other people.

    Finally, you say that kids can be "a lot more empathetic than adults in some situations." I know where you're coming from, but I don't think what you're referring to is really "empathy." Empathy implies emotional understanding of another's situation. Kids haven't fully developed this yet, and I don't mean some kids; I mean no kid has fully developed empathy. You just can't really understand or appreciate someone else's position until you've lived a little longer and seen a little more. Kids sometimes appear to be more empathetic than adults, but that's probably more because kids' minds are less limited by prejudices or assumptions their parents have. You might look at this and say "see, empathy!" But it's not really the same thing. A Jewish kid playing with a Muslim kid is not the sort of thing that comes from a profound understanding of each other's cultural and religious position. It's the kind of thing that comes from two kids together at recess who both want to play jump rope. It's not "empathy" that makes them do that; it's just that unlike a lot of adults, the first thing they think of isn't their religion or race, and even if it was, they don't have the same associations with these things as adults do. It's a wonderful thing in some ways, but it's not empathy; it's a very blissful ignorance.
     
  21. Show
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    The problem is that people see the world differently no matter how old they are. Plenty of adults cling to childish worldviews. Also, many children have experienced "more" than some adults simply because of what they've been exposed to. I'd imagine that could dramatically alter their worldview. No two characters should have the same worldview. And I don't think you can really say that all children have some common worldview. Living longer might change what you believe but that doesn't mean that children can really be painted with some broad brush. There's no one way that children behave. You can't skip the character development process and it seems these general rules about how children all act attempt to do just that.

    I am not saying you are all misguided. I just don't see these broad generalizations about children as true. Children ARE characters, just like adults. Are there things to remember to keep things realistic? Of course. That applies to any character of any age. If we built characters without any care for believability, we'd likely have a bunch of cartoonish twits. But that being said, I feel that most child characters become extraneous and cliche because people seem to have these stereotyped notions of how kids are. Child characters are simply characters who are children.

    I also disagree that kids are uncontrollably "callous." Nobody played with that kid in your school but that doesn't mean that no kid anywhere would've. Many adults also shut people out in places where there is a herd mentality. A lot of the traits you describe as being part of childhood are more than prevalent in adulthood as well. Shutting out people who are different isn't something only children do. If anything, this problem only gets worse with age. And I don't think many people WANT to be callous, adult or child. Many just are, but plenty are not. And even if we did call that behavior "normal," I still don't think it should be some rule in writing children.

    I never said that kids got more quirky with age. My point was that stereotypes only have any place for really little kids, if that. Perhaps I estimated a little high with the number but I digress. There's no one way to write kids. And yes, many kids are socialized into socially acceptable behavior but at the same time, many still retain identifiable quirks. (Hence why we have adult characters that aren't all the same.) I think we forget that kids are people. Yes, there's a good deal of stuff to remember. But I don't see these broad brushed statements as helping much. Kids are people. Some will be imaginative. Others might not be. Some might be callous jerks. Others might be really nice and mannerly. Just like with adults, there are literally endless possibilities.

    And on the point of empathy, we can debate back and forth all day about what is and isn't true empathy, but I'd argue that plenty of adults are just as incapable of empathy. How many people actually have a profound understanding of the other's position? The political discourse should be evidentiary that most adults also don't have that. And even if children cannot have a full understanding to be able to empathize, I think their behavior need not be "callous." IMO, it's not one or the other. Kids can feel compassion and they can be selfless. And while your example may not be an example of empathy, it's certainly not callous.

    Ultimately, my point is that characters are characters. Children characters are still characters. Write them as such. Choose which traits fit best for them. It doesn't really matter what the age of the character is. They are your character and trying to make them a member of any age group based on broad stereotypes is asking for uninspired cutout characters. I've seen how these stereotypes translate to stories and it leads to children characters typically being uninteresting, annoying, and ultimately pointless. Maybe this is what you want, which is fine. But if you want children to be believable, then write them as people. We don't go around asking how adults act because that would be foolish. There is no one way that adults act and there's no one way that children act. I knew several kids growing up who would not fit into the generalizations mentioned in this thread. (I'd have fit into very few of them myself.) There are just so few personality rules about children that can be applied to all of them. These are the author's characters, and the author has to build them. Adult or child, a character is a character.
     
  22. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Active Member

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    OK, in two sentences, my point is this:
    1) Age matters in creating a character insofar as it is closely related to how the character thinks and acts
    2) Generalizations in this case are valid and useful as long as one understands that individuals are individuals

    I could argue with you all night, but I have a paper due in a few hours and I'm procrastinating here, so I'll leave you with that. Your speech is long and inspired, but I think you're being just a tad overzealous in rejecting all generalizations about age and children. When you research, you have to generalize somewhat or you won't learn anything. For the most part, being an adult vs. being a kid is very different. If you disagree, that's all well and good, but I think the majority of people would agree with me. And please keep in mind that I am only 20 saying this. My perspective on the world still has years of evolving to do, but I can already step back and admire how much my world has grown since I was 10. I am a different person with different motivations than I was then, and my 10-year-old writing never ceases to surprise me.
     
  23. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Generalizations make writing easier. But gener4alizations don't make charfacters stand out. Generalizations don't make characters shine.

    Observing people and cataloguing behavior gives you a feel for the range of characteristics in any subdivison of people. And despite what many people believe, children are people too. There are hundreds of millions of the little buggers scooting around, and every one of them has unique qualities.

    The best way to write ANY character is through active observation. However, observing children in their natural habitat, especially with the detailed scrutiny a writer needs, can bring you under unwanted scrutiny of your own. Hanging around playgrounds, parks, and schoolyards is not recommended.
     
  24. Knight's Move
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    Knight's Move Member

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    I understand the warnings about using generalisations, and I never intended to create clich├ęd or flat characters based on stereotypes. There's obviously no set way in which all children behave, but we all know an unrealistic child character when we see one, and I just don't want that to happen in my writing.

    As Cogito pointed out, it can be hard to observe children if you don't have kids of your own or relatives of the right age (which I don't), so thanks everyone for your input, it has been most helpful.
     
  25. Show
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    You won't win any sympathy points on the age thing from another 20-year-old! :p

    I never said that being a kid isn't different from being an adult. My point is that characters are too unique to really pin down with such generalizations. Yes, I can see how my world has grown since I was 10, but I also see that several of how people say children typically are like didn't apply to me. It's not about children and adults being the same at all. It's about avoiding usually untrue stereotypes. Yes, we have to generalize somewhat when we research. But a character shouldn't just be a research report. They are an individual with specific traits. If you are writing a report on child psychology, then yes, it's probably helpful to generalize how children behave. For writing characters in a story? Generalization likely isn't going to make the character all that endearing to the reader. You gotta have the character design in you and that's gonna trump most generalizations.

    To the OP: I agree, there are a lot of unbelievable child characters in fiction. I think this is largely because people do rely on broad generalizations to write them. If you have this story idea already in your head, I imagine you already have at least a rough idea of who these characters are. You might already be a lot closer to believable characters than you think. (Also, I think it's important to remember that adult or child, a lot of fiction will be about characters who fall outside the typical experiences of people, especially if you're going to be dealing with fantasy. I'd think your target audience will also shape the best approach to making believable characters.) It sounds to me like you know what you want and are simply worried about how people will take to your vision. I'd write out at least something and see how you like the characters on paper. You know your characters best and I think as long as you are true to them, they'll be plenty believable.

    I've written several child characters, some likely more effective than others. To me, I don't think of "How am I going to write a believable child?" when I write them. I think of "How am I going to make a believable character?" Trust that character stuck in your head. You might need to refine a few things but I think writers usually know what they want and I think readers will see it if you betray that in any way for the sake of what is viewed as "believable." I'd like to read some of your characters and maybe offer some more specific tips, or at least know the context of their existence.
     

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