Saturday, March 14, 2009

Writing Children's Characters

Another in a series of lessons which I am learning by reading the mistakes of others.

Consider the following scene, which closely mirrors one in a book I am reading: The young couple remembers their first meeting. He was nine. She was seven. The sun twinkled in her eyes and the dandelion fluff floated around her. And he knew he would love her forever.

Yep. Unintentional comedy.

Think for a minute about nine-year-old boys--any nine-year-old boys you've even met, and this is really a stretch. I know it was meant to be sappy and sentimental, but I almost bust a gut laughing.

I was expecting the characters to laugh about this too. I thought he was being facetious. I was waiting for her to say, "Is that why you told all the boys in the neighborhood that I had cooties?"

Writing children is hard. I'd get extra betas to carefully read every scene involving children, to tell you whether the kids are realistic--preferable beta readers with children.

Some things to watch out for: (from my experience as a mother and a teacher)

1. Kids have short attention spans. Long conversations are a no-no. The younger they are, the shorter they stay on topic.

2. Kids have a limited vocabulary. They frequently misuse words, or do not totally understand the words you use. Sometimes when they learn a new word they will use it constantly, or repeat the same expressions over and over--usually something they overhear from others or think is funny.

3. Gender differences show up even in young children. Boys tend not to say as much, but tend to be really partial to words regarding bodily functions. Girls tend to be bossy, and often speak dramatically, over-emphasizing certain words.

4. Kids today use slang. But slang changes constantly, so writers need to be careful to use it sparingly or not at all. By the time your book is published, it might mean something different.

5. Not all kids have a speech impediment, but many do like to shorten words. 'cept, 'cause, etc.

6. Children are sometimes irrational. They do not always act like thinking people. They do things like try to fly, pick their noses in public, or plan to earn a zillion dollars with their lemonade stand.

7. Children are naturally selfish. They often need to be taught to see outside their own worlds.

We need to be careful in writing children to write children, and not just miniature adults. If you're not around children, or haven't been for a while, go sit on a park bench (or even in a McDonald's) and listen to them. Keep your distance. You don't want to be arrested.

But it is my opinion, and only my opinion, that kids who 'fall in love forever' at seven and nine need to be monitored... very closely.

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