Creating Believable Children
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 self-analysis.
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 young characters.
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 young.
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 reader.
Limitations as Opportunities for Growth
All of 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!"
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 www.PlotToPunctuation.com.