Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 21, 2014

10 Tips for Writing Children and a Descriptive List

By Sharla Rae

BabyCatInGrandpa'sHatWriting children into our stories can be both fun and dramatic, especially when using them as foils for our main characters. But if it’s been a few years since you’ve interacted with them personally, it’s easy to become out of touch with their world.

You’ll find a few references to teens in my list of descriptions at the end of this blog, but my main focus today is on younger children. I did, however, come across an excellent blog by John Green and Veronica Roth called The 8 Habits of Highly successful Young Adult Fiction Authors. They have excellent ideas for portraying teens so be sure to take a look.

10 Tips For Writing Children Characters:

The number one rule is when writing children can be said of any character: don’t fall into the caricature trap.

Children should be as interesting as the other characters in a book. After all, if they are in your novel, there’s a reason.

Don’t over due a child character’s childishness. Kids are just small human beings with immature emotions. Humor and tears should be motivated just as an adult character’s should be.

Keep the child’s dialogue age appropriate, not too mature or too childish.  Few children actually lisp and baby talk is annoying to read. It’s just as irritating if a child of 5 talks like a professor.

Children are not stupid and child characters shouldn’t be either. They are aware of their parents’ reality; they just cope with it by using a more naïve and impulsive decision-making process.

Kids move. Constantly! They are balls of electric energy that can’t help jiggling, wagging, bouncing, humming, stomping, twisting their heads and bodies etc. Even when they watch TV, they’ll pull out a doll or an action figure and act out what they are watching, sometimes to the point of forgetting to watch the actual program!

The minds of children ping on one subject after another. The logic makes perfect sense to them if not the adult. Some of this is due to a short attention span.

They can be momentarily distracted but seldom fooled. If they want or need something, they will remember and circle back too it.

For little ones, especially toddlers, security is their number one concern. Mom or Dad or another “trusted” caretaker had better be within sight or hearing or panic erupts. Most have built-in radar when it comes to strangers and danger. But when they are playing or in a secure situation, that radar may be distracted. Hence, why parents often warn them about strangers with puppies and candy.

Research children. Listen and watch. How do they really talk? What do they talk about? What makes them belly laugh? What do they worry about? What are some of their quirks?

Note: I researched, compiled, paraphrased, and added my own insights to the above list of tips using the links at the end of this blog. Be sure to click on them. There’s a wealth of information.

Is there a difference between writing a child in a historical novel verses a contemporary?

I recently asked my daughter who has three little ones what she believes is the biggest difference between kids today and kids in her grandparents’ day. Her answer was immediate. Maturity at an earlier age.

In some ways, I agree but not entirely. This subject could be argued on many levels but I’ll touch on two basic points.

1) Kids will always be kids.

I can’t help but think of Disney’s Peter Pan. In the original story, we have the lost boys of the Victorian era who lived in Never Never Land. Later in a 1991 a sequel called Hook, a mature Peter played by Robin Williams returns to the enchanted land of his childhood. We discover a new group of present-day lost boys. They dress differently, their hair is punked and their lingo is modern. But they are very much like the original inhabitants -- little boys with big imaginations enjoying little boy games.

2) I’d argue that kids in the 1800s were just as mature as their modern counterparts albeit in a different way.

Life in the past appeared simple but children weren’t sheltered from their family’s struggles and were often part of the solution. Even the smallest child had chores. He might milk a cow while his older brother pushed a plow. Hard work yes, but it wasn’t cruel. It was survival. Children understood and accepted this, demonstrating a high level of maturity in doing so. And yet, they still enjoyed their childhoods.

Few modern children are expected to do rigorous chores that mean the difference between eating or starving. [At least not in America] They do, however, cope with the ever-growing situation of the single parent home. This coping breeds a kind of maturity because, again, a child’s major concern is security.

Today, TV and computers educate children beyond their years about the harsh realities of the world, like drugs and crime. But those same tools also contribute greatly to a faster rate of academic learning and thus maturity.

That doesn’t mean kids today are smarter. They just have fancier tools and are expected to pack a lot more learning into a shorter time span.

Tykes, past and present deal with many of the same childhood issues. What’s different is that with modern technology we “hear” about these issues more, making them seem greatly pronounced.

  • Bullies
  • Divorced/missing parents/Orphaned
  • Problems with schoolwork and the need to succeed and make parent figures proud
  • Fitting in and being accepted by peers
  • Chores around the house they’d rather not do
  • Economic strife due to family situations or outside forces
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Embarrassing situations
  • Discrimination because of color or culture or religion

Just for fun, I’ve included a youtube video the The Little Rascals, a popular show during the 1930s and early 40s.  The situations are exaggerated for entertainment value and there is no way many of these shows would be politically correct in today’s society, but the children’s antics are hilarious.  They are a good example of how a child’s imagination can run amuck.  

Now compare the The Little Rascals to the Wimpy Kid in this video, Diary of A Wimpy Kid.

Here’s my list of descriptive words and phrases for children. I hope they help you with brainstorming. Enjoy.


Fun links:

Five Hints For Writing Child Characters, article by Gary William Murning
Children Are Better Seen and Heard (Take God Note) Writers Unboxed
Writing Child Characters – From The writershelpers.
Writing Realistic Children
Slang Words: What Young People Were Saying in 2013
Slang Dictionary for teens
Say What: A Glossary of Teen Slang
Kid Speak

CC-Final-Small-Sharla has published three historical romance novels: SONG OF THE WILLOW, LOVE AND FORTUNE, and SILVER CARESS. SONG OF THE WILLOW, her first solo effort, was nominated by “Romantic Times Magazine” for best first historical.

When she’s not writing and researching ways to bedevil her book characters, Sharla enjoys collecting authentically costumed dolls from all over the world, traveling (to seek more dolls!), and reading tons of books. You can find Sharla here at Writers In The Storm or on Twitter at @SharlaWrites.

28 comments on “10 Tips for Writing Children and a Descriptive List”

  1. Great post, Sharla. Another difference between children today and in the past related to parent expectations of them. Seen and not heard. Don't speak unless spoken to. Don't interrupt. Behave politely to others. In writing historical fiction, that kind of interaction would need to show through. It also depends on class. Watch Downton Abbey and notice that the children are cared for by nannies and "presented" to the parents for a few moments of interaction and then removed.

  2. Thank you Jen for getting the videos up instead of just the links. They say it takes a village to raise kids but it takes one to make a blog sing too! 🙂

  3. I have a WIP with an 18 month old and I pick my niece's brain because she has a five year old. She's more information due to things her daughter did. This toddler I am writing got her mom's friend to kiss her mom by having him kiss her bear then saying "kiss mama" . Sneaky way to force the widow out of her shell.

  4. Great post, Sharla. I think you're right that many children in the past grew up very fast also. I listen to stories about the rough Chicago neighborhood where my husband grew up, and believe me, those kids grew up fast. So much depended, as it does now, on family and the ability of the parents to love and lead. Oh, and luck probably played a roll! Thanks for this!

    1. Thanks Alina. I think as parents we often think kids today grow up fast but I've heard my parents say that they thought us kids grew up fast and now my daughter says her kids are growing up and maturing too fast. In a sense, every generation of parents and kids are the same. 🙂

  5. I love your 'list' posts, Sharla, because you give us so much more than a list - I had never thoughts about how kids in my day and kids today are different - from THEIR POV. Well done!

  6. I've just started writing children and animals, (other than horses) into my stories. Great resources. Thank God I don't have to mess with what they're going through today!

  7. Hi Sharla, another terrific word list! Shows real insight into children's behavior, and I agree children in the "Old Days" matured just as fast, if in different circumstances, as they do today.

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