Monday, February 8, 2010

Children: Little Darlings or Difficult Characters?

Here I am into Day Six of being den mother to my grandsons, ages eight and almost six ... and anyone with young children or grandchildren will start nodding at this point, and are probably poised to send a comment of sympathy or at least an expression of understanding. It is an experience beyond compare. I raised three sons, although quite a few years have passed since then, and I do get glimmers of memory of those days slipping through from time to time. Then I will think, "Yes, I've been here before!" I have even been Grandma-in-Charge in this household before, but not for several years, and these boys have changed a lot in the intervening years.

It takes me a few days to pick up on the current rhythms of a child's life. Of course, the basic needs don't change much, so the old habits of supervising eating, getting ready for school, brushing teeth before bedtime, etc. soon fall into place. But the environment and the culture in which they are growing up is different in so many ways from when I was a young mother. The electronic world they live in is one example -- they nonchalantly whiz through electronic games, spending hours on end. This can be baffling to a grandmother, even one who texts and blogs! They come to my aid when I hit the wrong button on the TV remote, and helping them with their hockey equipments is an eye-opener for this former hockey mom.

For a writer, associating for even a brief time with a couple of children, sharing their thoughts and activities, and what's more important, being responsible for their well-being during that time ... well, the story ideas can start to simmer. Now before I am accused, I will assure you that I am not using my current situation as a laboratory where I observe my grandsons in order to write believable child characters. Furthermore, because I have always suspected it would be hard to capture the essence of a child in a story, I would be reluctant to attempt it.

However, I admit that I began to think this week about what would be involved. When I read stories where a child is an important character, I often wonder how the author is able to portray that child with so much authenticity. Some romance lines deal with family life with one or more children playing key roles in the stories. I have read stories where children have been given well-rounded and unique personalities. In others, the author has simply used children as devices within the plot to bring the hero and heroine together, where in so doing the children must deal with a difficult or traumatic situation such as grief, separation anxiety, or illness. Often we do not feel a satisfactory connection with the child as an individual. I enjoy the stories where child characters are created with such sensitivity and charm that they may upstage the adults in the story, much as child actors often do in the movies.

Of course, some novels are written completely in the child's point of view, such as the 14 year-old girl in The Lovely Bones by Alice Seebold, who takes the reader through the events following her murder as the first person narrator of the story. Another fascinating novel for its portrayal of a young girl, whose misunderstanding of events she witnesses leads to a terrible conclusion, is Atonement by Ian MacEwan.

Whether a child plays a major or minor role in the story, or the story is told from the child's perspective, how does the writer bring that character to life in a credible fashion? I brought the December 2009 issue of The Writer along with me (I hadn't had time to read it yet), and how serendipitous that I had just begun to think about child characters when I noticed that it contains a brief article, "Through a Child's Eyes," by Betty Wilson Beamguard.

Beamguard discloses seven tips for writers to consider when attempting to write from a child's viewpoint:

Use your own memories of childhood or spend time with children. This is a basic research requirement. Know how children of the age of your character speak and act. Recall the fears, joys, and longings of your childhood.

Children usually notice simple things. An event doesn't have to be earth-shattering to impress, delight, or frighten a child. Adults tend to forget that children respond to basic human emotions of kindness and love more quickly than their older counterparts.

Children are vulnerable to misunderstanding situations they do not understand. Issues of trust are huge with children who have not been treated justly, yet they expect to be able to trust an older person. They also have a capacity to imagine consequences that would not occur to an adult. Sometimes this is a protective mechanism , not easily detected.

Don't be afraid to use the language of childhood. Dialogue must be authentic, and must reflect opinions that could be held by a child of the age of your character. Spend time with children to hear their unique voices and modes of expression.

Fears, obsessions, and worries prey on children. The monster under the bed or in the closet is very real to a child, as are fears of the dark, of heights, of being deserted, and so on. These can result in behaviours that lead children into desperate situations.

Children can be unbelievably tolerant and forgiving. Amongst themselves, children can resolve differences more quickly than adults, and show incredible resilience. Observe children playing a game that they have made up themselves. The rules are usually fair, and transgressions forgiven with a minimum of negotiation.

Children are not perfect. Very seldom in real life do we find a child who is "a little darling" through and through. Nor are they totally brats. However, they sometimes lash out when they have been treated poorly. They must be portrayed realistically to be believable.

These are the observations of one person, to which I have tried to add some of my own thoughts. It only scratches the surface of what should be considered when developing child characters for your stories. What do you think are the most important things to keep in mind when writing the child's point of view, or giving a child a role in your story? Do you avoid writing stories with child characters? What are some of your favourite child characters?


Obe said...

Great post. Perhaps we should look at our manuscripts through the eyes of a child and discover all the wonderment one more time. Thank you for this post. I've been hiding from my work in progress. I guess this means I need to get back to it.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Morning, Helena. And what's so wrong with this: I will assure you that I am not using my current situation as a laboratory where I observe my grandsons in order to write believable child characters.?

As long as you're giving the kids your due care, attention and loving, I don't see a problem. It reminds me of my youngest who's been going into the loft with the square bales for the past 2 yrs to observe the barn cats in action ever since he read Erin Hunter's books about cat society interaction.

I do write stories with children because for me they are a natural part of a family. I've been blessed with being able to write in a teen's POV and portrayed it accurately. (or so I've been told by those in the know) LOL And it's probably because I've been at this kid thing so long. *sigh

You've listed a wonderful list for me to tape to my desk as a reminder.

Wonderful post, Helena. Thank you.

Helena said...

Of course, I contradicted myself further along in the post when I recommended spending time with children in order to 'get them right'. There's nothing wrong with my current situation -- I could even be jotting down bits of their very colourful speech, I suppose -- but there was just a teeny feeling of not wanting to appear voyeuristic when I made that remark.

I went on a trip a year and a half ago with my sixteen-going-on-seventeen year old granddaughter and delighted in her teen slang. I did make a few notes! An example: to signify great joy and incredulity - "Shut UP" i was also impressed with her maturity, especially her street smarts, when we were in the big cities.

I may be brave and follow your example of using children in my stories, Anita. I have been hesitating for fear of not doing them justice. Believe me, this kid thing never really stops. You still have the grandchild phase to go through! Thanks for your input. I won't be so hard on myself in future.

Helena said...

Thanks for your comment, Obe! I agree that the wonderment of a child should give the jaded adult side of us pause to consider what we might be missing in the world around us.

Good luck with your wip. I'm hoping to put in some productive time today while the boys are both in school. The younger one is in kindergarten all day twice a week.

Thanks for dropping in on the prairie.

Janet said...

Great check list, Helena! I call on my years of teaching experience when I write children into my work. And I have tons of journals in my personal writing collection where I've jotted down those unusual phrases or mixed up words.

I don't envy your task of 'sitting' - that sounds like a lot of work, and tiring, too. I have enough problems with my dog! I love my role as Auntie (and now Great Auntie) - play with kids, enjoy the happy times, and return to parents when the going gets tough :)

Helena said...

You're right, Janet. One of the great things about grandparenting is that you get to give them back at the end of the day ... er, stay! The time is going quickly, and I do have their other grandmother doing the driving to and fro. So it's not entirely on my shoulders.

By the way, there is a cat and dog in the household as well!

I sometimes think teachers get a special glimpse into a child's psyche. After all, there are a lot of hours in a school year.

Thanks for your insight.

Karyn Good said...

Thanks for the great list, Helena.

At this point I do tend to shy away child characters. It's a very complicated endeavor and I think your list gives lots of great things to think about for when I'm ready to attempt it. Its one thing to think like a guy but it's another to think like a teenage boy or and even younger child and do it authentically. It takes great skill pull off and I don't think I'm there yet. I admire writers of middle grade or teen fiction who deal with its unique challenges and its sohpisicated, knowledgeable and very savy audience!

I have a teen character in my current wip but its a small manageable part. But there's going to come a time in a wip when I'm going to have to tackle a child character who plays a larger role and I'll definitely be referring back to your check list to help me set the ground work.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I hope you're enjoying doing the Grandma thing this week. Have fun with the boys.

I haven't written a whole lot of children either. One of my WIPs has 2 teenage girls in it, one with Down syndrome. I'm still trying to get a handle on them.

Sometimes I hate the way TV handles children, especially in old sitcoms. Either they are perfect, so sickeningly sweet that they throw you into a diabetic coma, or they are so mouthy and disrepectful you just can't stand the kid. In reality most kids fall somewhere in the middle, not too sweet and not too sour. When I write from a kid's POV I'll try to remember that. Thanks for the helpful list.


connie said...

Hi Helena,
Time with grandkids is fabulous.I just met my four last year. I don't know what's what these days, so I fall back on lots of love, listening, watching hockey games (after 30 years, I still don't know what the heck is going on)ice cream and craft stuff (my junk - their treasures). So far, my top terrific grandma stuff has been green stain for a fort, virginia creeper to hide same from little sister, a book on animation, also Beatrice Potter books and the day we went to Dairy Queen for supper - no healthy stuff allowed.
I don't think I could possibly write about children authentically. Our youngest is 30 and Husband and I started kindergarten in 1945 so I really haven't an idea. But I'm getting pretty good on the monkey bars and I finally have Sponge Bob Square Pants's name sorted out. I still prefer Wiley Coyote...
Your post is unique and thought provoking. Thank you.

Helena said...

You've got my feelings about attempting kid characters to a Tee, Karyn. It would be a good challenge to attempt to do it, but I'm just afraid I wouldn't be up to it.

But you know if the right story came along that required a child for good specific reasons, I bet we could both make it work!

I was happy to find this list, too.

Helena said...

I'm with you on the TV child characters, Jana. Too sweet, or too bratty. Either way, not realistic.

You've set yourself a challenge with teenagers, too. They are a special breed, and it is a moving target. Down syndrome would require quite a lot of research, too. Do you know someone who can model the characteristics? I have a friend with a daughter who is only about eight or so. She is such a friendly, sweet little girl.

Thanks for adding your comments. There's certainly a lot of scope in the world of children.

Helena said...

Yeah, Connie. It's lots of fun. It sounds like you have a bunch of fun with your gang. Good thing you are so imaginative. My creativity wears a little thin at times!

Doesn't anybody have a favourite child character from a book, or even a movie? How about the little girl in Definitely, Maybe played by Abigail Breslin?