by Jason Black
Young children are hard to represent
well on the page. Especially kids from three to about ten years
of age. Not only is it difficult to remember what it was like
to be so young, but most of us also lack training in the
particular ways in which young children differ from adults.
Little kids are not simply miniature adults. This is obvious,
and yet that is often how I see children portrayed in my
clients’ manuscripts: kids who speak and think like adults.
Unless there is a very good story-related reason why a
four-year-old should possess advanced mental faculties, that
won't be believable. Here are some of the key ways I've seen
writers torpedo the portrayal of young children in their books.
Self-awareness vs. Self-analysis
Little kids are acutely self-aware.
They know exactly what they want and how they feel pretty much
all the time. But they're horrible at self-analysis: they don't
often have the slightest idea of why they're having those
desires and feelings. But too often, I see writers giving their
kid characters adult or at least teen-aged levels of
This often manifests as kids who
exhibit far more self-discipline than is plausible. If you
understand your feelings as responses to your world, and your
desires as things you can choose to act on or not, then you can
do things like talk to your brother about why he's driving you
crazy rather than simply hitting him. Little kids can't do
that. Their brains become consumed by an inferno of emotionally
fueled impulse, and the brother gets smacked.
An understanding of how time works is
baked so deeply into our thinking and even our language that as
mature minds, it is nearly impossible for us to escape it. Yet
little kids don't have that. Below a certain age, there isn't
next year, or next week, or even five minutes from now. There
is only now. This greatly limits kids' ability to make plans.
If you can't envision the future as a set of possibilities that
the actions of the present can influence, it's really hard for a
three year-old to have thoughts like, "If I stack up this chair
and that box and one of the cushions off the couch, I can get
that toy Mom put up on that high shelf."
This illustrates another facet of
time-awareness: the ability to foresee the likely outcomes of
one's actions. This also limits kids' ability to exercise good
judgment, because they can't envision the possible future
outcomes of hare-brained schemes such as that. Yet I am
constantly faced with manuscripts with little kids who come up
with deviously clever plans which imply a very solid grasp of
the future and how to affect it.
Children begin to gain a sense of time
around age 4, and the older they get, the larger a span of past
and future they can comprehend and think about.
Theory of Mind
This is the ability to think about
someone else's thoughts, feelings, knowledge, motivations, and
beliefs as distinct from your own. As adults, we do it all the
time, almost unconsciously. Theory of mind is a complicated
subject, and underlies an astonishing amount of normal human
interactive behaviors. Wikipedia has a good
overview article on theory of mind.
Theory of mind is a huge developmental
milestone for children, typically beginning around ages 4 or 5
and developing over the
next several years. It is also common way authors mess up their
For example, if I see a five-year-old
Jane tell Sally that she's never gone down the big slide at the
playground, and Sally reacts with a surprised "Really?" we all
intuitively understand that Jane might take offense if she feels
Sally is judging her as inferior. So if Sally tries to smooth it
over with "I only tried it yesterday, myself," that indicates fairly
advanced theory of mind: the mere attempt to smooth over what she
said implies that Sally is trying to protect Jane's feelings from
what Sally imagines Jane might believe about Sally's opinion of
her. Yes, that's complicated, and that's the point. You and I
instinctively understand the thought process behind trying to
protect other people's feelings. But there are a lot of levels in
that analysis, and it's not believable for a character who's that
Sarcasm, Irony, and Metaphor
We all know kids take time to learn
proper grammatical use of their mother tongue. What's less obvious
is that the ability to recognize and use the advanced linguistic
techniques of sarcasm, irony, and metaphor takes even longer to
develop. These are all forms of non-literal thinking, and below a
certain age, kids are extremely literal thinkers.
Kids typically develop the ability to
detect sarcasm and irony around age 6, and the ability to fully
understand it (and begin to use it) around age 10. Metaphor is
harder, with 9 and 10 year olds being able to grasp metaphors that
relate to physical appearance (e.g. "Simon was a bear of a man."),
but not ones based on other attributes. Not until age 11 or 12 do
most children reliably understand metaphors. For the younger
characters in your books, here's a simple rule: keep it literal.
Speech Patterns Reveal Everything
All of the above affect how kids
talk. Dialogue is one of the primary indicators of any character's
level of mental development. On the surface, you can use grammar
and vocabulary to indicate a character's stage of mental
development. That's the easy part. The harder part is keeping the
patterns of thought consistent with what is developmentally
appropriate. If you can do that, the dialogue should follow,
because speech is the natural way thought reveals itself to the
Limitations as Opportunities for Growth
the above are limitations on what young characters can do, but they
are also opportunities for growth. Show a kid's vocabulary and
grammar changing, as an indicator that deeper thought processes are
also developing. Then use actions and dialogue to back that up.
For example, you could have a kid shopping for her brother's
birthday select a jigsaw puzzle with a train on it. That's an
action, but it is revealing: she didn't choose a puzzle with a
princess on it. Follow it up with dialogue when the present is
opened, revealing her newly acquired theory of mind skills at work:
"I picked it because you like trains!"
More Author Articles...
Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort
out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular
presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a
handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about
Jason or read his blog, visit his website at