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Writing children characters can be challenging. They’re unpredictable and don’t always respond to stimulus the way adults do. If you’ve never written a child character before, the best way to start is to identify what you need the character to do, then write it in such a way that a child would do it. Keep in mind that children aren’t stupid. A child would react the way they do for a reason, even if that reason is only known to them. Keep in mind, too, that the same child may behave differently in different situations.
Ideas come from experience
All experiences are potential research for the writer. This is true of writing child characters, for both their more mature forms and their young forms. To provide your children with the level of detail required, you must use the things you’ve experienced as a child to create this character. Make sure that your characters’ physical descriptions are detailed and accurate, but also that the personalities of your child characters are equally carefully researched.
Look back at your childhood and think about which qualities helped you stand out in a group. Do you have an anecdote about being too chatty, or too adventurous? What were you like as a child, both as far as behavior and how people viewed you? Do you remember when you first experienced strong emotions, whether love or fear? Was there an adventure you had, or a moment of rest or revelry? These are the kinds of descriptors you will find the most use for when writing your child characters.
Listen to children
This doesn’t mean rushing out to your nearest day care center and sweet-talk every child in it, though there’s always time for that. But listen to them when they talk to each other, when they’re being interviewed on television or in movies, when they talk around you at the park or in school. This will allow you to listen in on their conversations and pick up on things. Many times, people write for an older age group than they think, or they describe a character based on remembering themselves as a child, or they base a character in a box. Many times, people don’t realize they’ve done this until they listen to a bunch of children, and then they realize that they need to tear the whole thing apart and rethink it.
Another major mistake that people fall into is working too hard for the slang. They try to find the easiest, exact phrasing in the dictionary. Listen to the children around you, and you’ll realize that many words have no correct way to spell them, and many more have multiple ways to spell them. However, most importantly, the connotations will shift from sentence to sentence. Words have meaning, and figuring out the connotations of words in your head will help you understand the flow of the words, and therefore, the intent of the speaker.
Know the character’s age and experience level
Imagine your child character’s life and the things he or she would care about. Is that important to how he or she sees the world? It should be. More than that, is it easy for your child character to understand? If it’s not, you risk sounding like a grownup trying to write about a kid, instead of a kid trying to write about a missing space dog.
An excellent way to get into a smaller character’s head is to start by describing the world through their eyes. Start with angles, for instance — The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe starts with Lucy’s narration from above, making us feel small in the word herself. Next, move to sight lines, describing what the character sees. Have they seen the aforementioned missing space dog, or is this their first time visiting the woods? Is your character indoors or out? What’s he doing out of the house, if it’s time for a nap? Make sure to employ the senses you will get the most use out of, in the moment and in future scenes. This is a setting where it’s valuable to set plain character-stage. Swaddled in blankets, sounds thrumming through bare feet, a pre-nap lethargy settling in — all of this is fodder to go back to when things turn in directions you didn’t see coming. Is it too much? No, ideally, not at all. It’s storytelling with as few filters between you and the reader as possible.
Use viewpoints appropriate to the age
One common pitfall is thinking that because children are smaller, they are somehow less intelligent than adults. It’s no surprise that writers will write children as speaking the thoughts adults would expect to hear from children. However, a better way to deal with the age issue is to make sure all characters, including children, are credibly represented. For example, have your child character lie or gossip maybe a little more than you should imagine a child doing in real life, because what really distinguishes a teenager from an adult is their level of self-consciousness and ownership of knowledge. Readers aren’t just hung up on whether or not the characters deliver thought-provoking arguments, rather they are paying most careful attention to the human truths that are found in the closely observed smallest details.
Make sure to know the age group your character falls into. No one wants to read “kiddie” dialogue or get loooong descriptions of how cute the baby is. Child characters should be talking like believable little humans, not cute little angels. They should have the vocabulary of children in their age range. They should know the storybooks, television shows, songs, and so forth that fall within the space of their familiarity. Sometimes, with teens or pre-teens, the author may need to add a bit more information about pop music, movies, game apps, and other stuff that teens like to chatter about, to keep their dialogue from sounding false. But make sure to do this just through more casual conversation, this way it looks honest and realistic.
Focus on their emotions
Imagine a child character laid out like an onion. Just as an onion is made up of many layers, so are children. When writing child characters, for layer one you will ask yourself which kind of kid this character is. Is he an extrovert or introvert? Consider that their first layer of personality will change the core of every subsequent layer. Next, ask yourself what kind of upbringing he or she has. Does he have a loving family? Is he deprived of love? Do they live in the suburbs? The city? Once you lay the foundation of their emotional life, you will be equipped to help them develop a convincing character arc.
No matter how glib they may be, when you look closer, every child harbors a secret fear that they may be unnoticed. A special quietness can result in a character who finds it difficult to open up. While they may seem introverted, encouraging child characters to speak up in new situations is an effective way to get them talking and acting. On the other hand, the extrovert child character may seem to come naturally. By contrast, what is challenging is sustaining their energy in the story. What can you do to ground them?
Choose the right literary devices for young characters
The key difference between adult and child characters — besides the obvious difference in age — is that as a reader, you never forget that a young character is still a child. There is always a sense of their being an “other” person, a person of the future. As a writer, you must strike a balance between literary devices and voices that recall this “otherness” to the reader, whilst simultaneously creating characters worthy enough of empathy that they are ultimately “one” with your reader. Despite the young age of your characters, you must still invest in rich descriptions, hinting as much at their sophistication as you can without making it obvious you’re doing so. Child characters are avatars and mirrors. As such, at times it will feel so easy to write them that the characters feel flat. If that’s the case, go back to descriptions, asking yourself how the scene might look if the child were older. Usher in some foreshadowing, hinting at what is to come.
Even more important than the choice of literary device is how you structure descriptions. If you’re writing a child who’s 6, 8, or 16, it is acceptable for their narration to be messy and jumbled. Little children don’t get it all right. The narrative devices you will likely use will run the gamut from repetition and sound effects to playful interruptions and non sequiturs. Older children have more control over their inner narratives but still have moments of uncertainty. In these cases, focus more tightly on achieving lyrical effect through syntax, gracefully burying specific moments of uncertainty beneath nets of implication and understood meanings. Avoid devices that are too straightforward — it could make older children read like adults.
Show society’s impact on your young characters
The child-adult relationship is an incredibly complex one, especially in literature, where adult characters and narrators have the power to describe the inner lives of children, and narrate with a great deal of power and foresight into the future. Whether they’re treated well or badly, grow up in privileged or deprived situations, and live in vastly different times or more or less the same time as the author, the societal influence on young, impressionable characters is changed by their interactions with the adults in their daily lives. So approach writing child characters knowing that the adults around them can have just as large an impact as the children themselves. No matter how strong the children appear, they are deeply affected by their environments.
Think. Are your characters seeing things at face value? Do they have hidden depths of understanding going on? Ask adults you know how they feel about kids and then try to incorporate their answers into your story. The child characters in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye showed how Holden Caulfield saw the world and his life. It is insightful and relatable, as well as written from a child’s perspective.
Write their bad days
A child character should feel like a real person. You should understand how children think, and when they seem more grown-up than they really are. You should be able to translate it properly, to and from, in each scene. As an adult, you have given up your parental responsibilities in most cases. Now it’s time for research. Child psychologists can help you get inside the head of a child, but better yet are the children themselves. You can talk about their future, talk about things they are interested in, but pay close attention to how they feel on a day-by-day basis. See what makes them feel insecure, watch how they deal with their emotions, their anger, their fears. Their dreams and thoughts must be stimulated, and should touch something in you.
It is a challenge. Childlike thoughts and reasoning have grown and been altered by events beyond your control. It’s an educated guess. It’s pacing yourself. What are the chances of growing up in such a way that you are hurt in similar ways? Note the individual’s reactions and traits for the future, just like an author does. Look at the growing relationship among your protagonists, how can one become altered over time? You are the architect of his or her values. It is the first step to psychology basics. The character you are writing should be based on a mix of everything you’ve been and everything you have seen.
Allow for the consequences of children
The world of writing a child narrator is a fraught one. But by allowing the consequences of their idyllic lives to come into contact with the adult world, you can create characters that feel truly believable. Children are also delightful in their egocentrism, and. by focusing on their worldview, you can create characters with nuanced insights into people and situations.
Making a child the main viewpoint character is just one way to show how kids can see situations in unique ways. Lowry’s immensely popular The Giver balances strong themes of oppression with the flatness and distance of Jonas’s child narrator. As she grows older, the desire for more information feels compelling to her younger self, but you can feel how comfortable she is in the mind she has made for herself. In Innocence and Experience, Stephen King’s character of Duddits combines the best elements of both worlds in a child who is vastly intellectually advanced and still very innocent in moments. The child who narrates The Boy tells a story that starts off feeling very sure of itself and its characters, but as the novel continues, the child becomes more fearful of the situation after he loses his friend. Each of these novel’s child narrators both control the story and are put into situations that they do not understand, which allows the author to use the clash between the worlds of adults and kids as plot building blocks. Learn from these authors how to make adults and children different in noticeable ways, and how even a hero child narrator can be limited in their understanding.
Above all else, look toward yourself as a child. As the research for writing child characters shows, this can be a hard thing to do. It’s hard for adults to remember what it was like to be a child and why they thought the things they thought, did the things they did, and questioned the things they questioned. But look toward your own past. Were there things you wanted to know? Explore those feelings and thoughts and find a bridge for how you felt then to how you feel now. Get to that lightbulb. And most of all, have fun with it. Try some of the things you tried then and see how that works.
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