Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Writing Children: The To-Do's, and Not To-Do's. :)

“I don’t want to write for adults. I want to write for readers who can perform miracles. Only children perform miracles when they read.”
—Astrid Lindgren

I do not feel equipped to speak with authority on many angles of writing--I am not a published author, I make a hash of comma usage, I tend to use unpopular POV's (such as narrative), and my plot lines are not exactly Dickensian in intricacy. However of all the criticisms I got in the critique group that I was a part of (and that shaped me immensely) there was one consistent compliment. 
Apparently, I can write children well. Nearly all the members of the group commented on how realistic the children were in their personalities, their relationships, etc. I'm not saying that to boast, only to let you know why I'm hashing this topic out. 
I suppose the thing is, I am immersed in Children-Culture. With seven younger siblings (and eight cousins across the field) I have a 15-person study-group below my nose at all times. Okay. Let's face it. In my lap at all times. It was not three days ago that my five-month old Levi punched a random series of keys while I was writing and botched up the formatting of my entire manuscript. :D (thankfully I was able to fix it)
Being that I am so constantly involved in child-culture, it's a good thing some of that has translated into my writing. I'd be worried otherwise, for isn't it a maxim of all writing that your life flavors the way you write? If it isn't, it ought to be. That being said, I thought I'd give you a few tips on how to write fully-rounded, fully-fleshed children characters:

Point One: Children are not that simple:

 “You have to write whichever book it is that wants to be written. And then, if it’s going to be too difficult for grownups, you write it for children.”
—Madeleine L’Engle
Children have far more to them than meets the eye. They are people, after all, with hopes, dreams, aspirations...and they have more soul than we often realize. My little sister Gracie sat, dejected, at our dining room table this afternoon, having discovered a chicken that had succumbed to a cruelly enforced pecking-order, and died.
"He suffered, Rachie!" she cried, and the tears welled up in her eyes. "Can we pray for him?" (In fact, on a side-note, she keeps a running list of deceased pets that she prays for routinely. :P)
You cannot write a child-character as a named clown that walks around providing comic relief with his lisp and hope to captivate your audience. Especially if you write for children. They know their own kind, and they are quick to detect flaws in your characterization of one of them. So how do you write a child? Provide plenty of soul and depth. Children have a thought-process, deep emotions, and everything that makes an adult-character tick, only it is precious and unspoilt. Watch children and see how they interact with one another. I promise, you'll learn much from them.

“Grown-up people find it difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless they have what they call proof. But children will believe almost anything, and grown-ups know this. That is why they tell you that the earth is round like an orange, when you can see perfectly well that it is flat and lumpy; and why they say that the earth goes round the sun, when you can see for yourself any day that the sun gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night like a good sun as it is, and the earth knows its place, and lies as still as a mouse. Yet I daresay you believe all that about the earth and the sun, and if so you will find it quite easy to believe that before Anthea and Cyril and the others had been a week in the country they had found a fairy.”  ~Edith Nesbit

Point Two: Get out of the cliche-box:
Not every child has a lisp. Not every child drops "r"s. Not that you can't use those characteristics, but your child must have more to him than a clumsy tongue. Children are so much fun, that it is a pity to limit them to a speech impediment. Think outside the box. Does she like to dress up? Is she flamboyant? Would she march up to a stranger and demand a kiss, or is she quiet and reserved, having to be coaxed to speak?
Perhaps the most fun is writing The Little Boy. Frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails! ;) I have a weakness for naughty little boys....Dill, Darby, Tucker...oh yes. What is it that makes them so adorable? It could be something as small as freckles, a pug-nose, dirt around his fingernails. Just watch a little boy for five minutes and you'll have a host of actions to use in describing that character of yours. :)

Point Three: Pay Attention:
The Mistress of this third point, in my humble opinion, was Edith Nesbit. Even the narration of her books reflects the elaborate, illogical, perfect charm of a child's thinking. This is a task that takes some doing, for the older we grow, the easier it is to forget how sensible a childish thought once seemed to us, and how we came across that thought in the first place. You must cast aside all adult-ish thinking when you write for children. You must approach them on their own footing, thinking how they think, dealing with crisis the way they do. Sometimes it requires a kyniption fit. Sometimes it requires a fist-fight. But bet upon it. Something unexpected and not quite well-behaved is always the right way for a child. :) After all, social-grace and politics are not a large part of the average child's diet. Scapegraces are darlings, in my opinion. :) 

Point Four: Have Fun:
This is the last, and perhaps most important point. Children are fun. They have not yet learned that life expects more of you than smiles and giggles, delicious frights, more smiles, and a little dirt thrown in. Let your pen play for awhile instead of work. You characters can, on occasion, even serve as your alter-egos. I dare you to try to forget you are nearly grown-up, or even grown-up, or even Very Ancient. Try writing in a childish way. You'll find it refreshing, unusual, and so addicting you'll want to come back for more. :) 

“It is all very wonderful and mysterious, as all life is apt to be if you go a little below the crust, and are not content just to read newspapers and go by the Tube Railway, and buy your clothes ready-made, and think nothing can be true unless it is uninteresting.” 
~Edith Nesbit


Unknown said...

WOW!! This is such a thought provoking post! I absolutely loved it. Your points are very useful and I shall use them as a reference when I create children characters (or edit the ones I've created--such as Hadasa and Dietrich). Thank you again for such wonderful advice.

Morgan said...

Great post Rachel! Very informative! I am really enjoying your posts.

The Brunette in the Kitchen said...

Great advice! I needed to know all of this for my present (and future) children characters.

Jenny Freitag said...

I'm a bit behind-hand on your posts, Rachel, I'm sorry. For some reason my Blogger Feed doesn't pick up your posts except when Saturn and Mars are aligned and Venus is in the forth house and I don't know what. So I'm a bit behind-hand.

I've never thought about writing children. I have written a few, and a very few less have made cameo appearances in scenes within my writing. But I've never consciously thought, "I am writing a child, therefore this must be different." While I know objectively that children are different (I have a niece and nephew both beneath the age of seven) I know intuitively that their minds are a little like the Narnia within the stable: everything is sharper, brighter, more important. My most prominent child-character is just as grave, just as thoughtful, just as cheerful, just as loyal as her adult companions, but because her life and mind is like a summerland the gravity is more grave, the cheer more cheerful, the thoughts more serious and the loyalty more steadfast than adult minds can be.

I think I am only reiterating what you have said. I will add that it can be rather freeing to write the child, because the colours are starker, the air cleaner, in their minds than in adult minds. There is nothing wrong with being an adult, but even Jesus said that unless you become as a little child in faith and sight and life, humility and dependence, you will never see the Kingdom of Heaven. There is something about the mind of a child that even the Lord praised as worth emulating.

Rachel Heffington said...

Very very true! :) I love thinking like a child, and there *is* something like the Narnia-stable, as you said. :)