Writing for Kids: Create Believable Characters

Story characters can come to life for the child who reads about them. Remember wanting to go on escapades with Pippi Longstocking? Longing to escape down the river with Huck Finn? These characters became your friends. And you want your characters to befriend the children who read your book or story.

Potential story characters are all around you. You see them walking to school; you see them shopping in the mall; you see them biking or skating down your street. If you close your eyes, you see them in your memory—the child you once were, the friends you remember, the children you’ve raised or the children you’ve known. Believable characters are born from real people and revealed to readers through your writer’s craft.

When you do this well, your reader will identify with your main character, and she’ll feel that character’s fear and elation as she struggles to succeed in the book. As the characters in your story grow and change, the reader will share that growth. To make this magic happen, you need to believe in the characters whose story you’re writing. You need to know them intimately. And you need to show them to your reader.

Characters do things. Characters are rarely passive; they take action. An impression of this character is formed based on his actions. When one kid meets another for the first time, he pays attention to what the other kid does. If the new boy runs screaming to the teacher when he gets tripped in the schoolyard, he’s labeled a crybaby. If the new girl shows off her rows of pierced earrings, her spiked hair and her ticket stubs and backstage passes from the hottest rock star, she may be taken for a braggart, and others wonder if she’s really telling the truth. These actions reveal the personality behind them.

Determining specific actions and attitudes help you know how your character will be able to do something else in the story. And to develop your characters for the reader and to show how they grow as people in the course of your story, you need to build on the actions your characters take.

Characters think. A character may have fundamental religious or philosophical beliefs in the beginning of the story that will be challenged before the end. For example, middle-grade Jennifer, whose parents have never attended church, may believe she’s an atheist. When she makes a friend who goes to church every Sunday, attends youth group and prays in the cafeteria before lunch, Jennifer may start to wonder if there really is a God.

Your characters don’t necessarily say what they think. Jennifer’s friend may talk about her religious beliefs, but she may have private doubts she doesn’t express. All your characters’ thoughts, whether hidden or spoken, will contribute to the tension and drama of your story.

Characters feel. Thoughts are rational, but real people aren’t always rational, especially in tense situations. In addition to thinking with their heads, kids feel with their hearts—or their stomachs, or wherever you want their deepest emotions to come from. They fear, they get angry, they hate, they love and they feel overwhelming delight. Kids feel other emotions, too—they’re curious, they may feel guilty, they may be jealous of a friend or an enemy. They get embarrassed, they feel lonely. And they pass through the spectrum of these emotions every day.

While you can articulate your character’s thoughts with words, emotions are more subtle. You can evoke them in your reader by using physical sensations that he’ll recognize. But you need to find a unique, quirky way to express an emotion believably, and it should spring from the context of your character.

Characters speak. What your character does and thinks and feels reflects only part of her personality. Kids also talk, and what they say (and how they say it) reveals a lot about their character. For readers to believe in your characters, however, you must use language appropriate to that youngster’s age and circumstance. That last sentence, for example, is not something a youngster would say, and a conversation in which a child character said it wouldn’t ring true to a reader. A kid might say, “If you want kids to believe in your characters, they have to sound like real kids.” Use natural kid language.

As you develop your characters, trust them to let you know how they feel about a situation and use their dialogue, thoughts and actions to express their feelings. Believable kids act, think, feel and speak. These are pieces of the puzzle that will make up an entire character.

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