Thursday, November 5, 2009

Writing Realistic Children

Aaron McCarver suggested the blog topic of writing children in your fiction, so here goes. One thing I often see when an author has a child as secondary character in a book is that the child doesn’t seem very realistic for his/her stated age. Especially for writers who are moms, I’m sure it’s easy to just start writing a child character thinking, “Oh, I have kids, this will be a piece of cake.” But unless you have a child that’s the age of the one you are currently writing or you have an incredible memory, it might be harder than you think to recall exactly what your child was doing at each age. It’s already hard for me to remember what stage Jodi was in just a few months ago. And unfortunately I have not been very diligent about writing everything down. (Thankfully we have lots and lots of video!)

For example, I recently reviewed a Heartsong where a young boy was stated as almost four years old, yet most of his dialogue consisted of one-word responses or requests. To me, that action seemed way too young for an almost-four-year-old, as Jodi is just over two and rarely speaks in just single words anymore. She uses mostly sentences and comes up with new things to say all the time. Granted, all kids are different and I’m not trying to brag on Jodi, but I know that most of her friends around the age of two and three are also speaking in at least very short sentences. And I know that some almost-four-year-olds might have developmental delays, but if that’s not stated in the story then readers are going to wonder why the child is not acting normally. And by normally I just mean what the majority of kids are doing at that age.

So, if you don’t already do these things, I have a couple suggestions for research as you write child characters. First, for young children ages infant through 9, check out You can find lots of typical behavior charts like this one here and loads of other information. And even better than internet research, spend time with kids that are the age you’re writing. If you don’t have any in your family, then seek out friends from your neighborhood or church who do and offer to babysit, or simply just sit in during nursery time or a Sunday School class.

I realize my suggestions here pertain to contemporary children. Even twenty years ago, what kids were doing and learning was different largely because technology has changed so much. And a hundred years ago, there was a huge difference! So if you’re writing kids from the past, let us know what good resources you’ve found.

Oh, and I found a blog I posted awhile back (here), about how very young child characters don’t always keep developing and changing as time passes in the book. Keep that in mind as you write, too.

Aaron, let me know if this cover your topic suggestion, or if you have other suggestions, tips, or questions. Thanks!

I’ll end this with a couple recent pics of my kiddo. One of the cute kitty (sorry for the squinty eyes) she was for Halloween and one where she’s decorating her own cupcake. We’ve been having a fun Fall. We hope you have, too! :)


Pepper Basham said...

Thanks Joanne,
I use kids in almost every book I write because I work with them by day and have five of my own :-) I'm surrounded...
One thing that is helpful for me (besides using kids in my novels who are the same age as my own) is watching movies with kid characters.

Although some of the movies may have inflated kid characters, there is still a lot of developmental 'rightness' about what the kids do. Since my profession is working with kids who have both developmental delays and not, having that basic knowledge certain helps too.

For me, adding kids also gives another dimension to your main characters. How they respond to young kids, animals, and old people says a lot about them :-)

CatMom said...

Great post, JoAnne. And thanks for sharing those adorable Jodi pictures - - such a cutie!! :)
Blessings, Patti Jo

Lisa Faye Harman said...

Great reminder. I enjoy reading about children, but it does pull me out of the story when the details are wrong.
Cute pictures of Jodi!

Erica Vetsch said...

One of the things that can draw me out of a story quickly is when a young child is written too advanced for his stated age. Sometimes the vocabulary and thought processes of the character are too mature and the child is written like a very short adult. :)

Mary Connealy said...

I love using children in books. I think they just add this lovely layer of chaos. Lots of comedy to be mined from kids.

Montana Rose was my first book without kids and I was really scared of it, not sure if I could find the comedy without the kids. Now I've written several without children and feel more comfortable with it, but I do miss those sassy, scheming, brutally honest children. :)

Mary Connealy said...

And Jodi is so cute, is that a kitten costume? My granddaughter Elle was a bumble bee for Halloween. So sweet and funny.

She's still to young for candy though, we gave her an empty, disposable plastic cup for Trick or Treat. She was in heaven crinkling it and trying to drink. FYI, money spent of gifts for babies is utterly wasted. :)

Aaron McCarver said...

Thanks, JoAnne. Great info! I especially think the links will be so helpful. When I think of using children, I also think of the acting mantra, "Never work with children or animals as they will upstage you." That can be true in books to me unless the children are done realistically so they become part of the natural fabric of the story. And, Mary, how many books are you ahead to have that many without kids? Wow, I better get back to work!

Anonymous said...

I don't have children yet, and taught high school, so have to rely heavily upon my sister, who has six. The best historical resources I've found are original documents like diaries and letters, many now available on Google Books. I've also found there journals like a Psych. journal from the turn of the century with articles on child discipline (yes, the spanking or not to was an issue then, too), and teacher journals on what to teach at what age. Some fashion books have been helpful, too, mostly in the narration, talking about the Victorians dresssing their children like little adults and expecting them to act that way. I'm writing two children now, so have had to learn a thing or two. I've relied on contemporary resources for dealing with a grieving child, since I doubt the common sense aspects haven't changed in a hundred years.

Ettina said...

One suggestion for the historical element is to look for contemporary cultures that still have similar practices. For example the style of toilet training in Western culture pre-disposable diapers resembles the practices of many modern Southeast Asian parents in some ways.