Writing Believable Kids

Last month, for Mother’s Day, I wrote a blog about how parents affect characters. Today, in honor of Father’s Day, my focus is from the opposite generational direction: how to create convincing fictional kids. This is a difficult thing to pull off, in my opinion, but I’m here to share some tips.

We’ve all heard kids say and do some amazing things. Sometimes it’s inadvertently hilarious. Other times, astonishingly profound. But as a mom of two young ones, I can tell you (or remind you) these sorts of exchanges are few and far between. The vast majority of kid-speak is confusing, unintelligible, and utterly mundane. And their behavior, especially in the presence of a parent, is regularly embarrassing and inappropriate.

From a writer’s point of view, truly accurate kid dialogue would be useless. But it’s dangerous to drift too far the other way, making kid characters into mini adult philosophers. Make the kids too perfect, and you risk alienating readers who are also parents. They’ll wonder if the author’s ever been around a real kid.

Authors have got to find a balance between “real” kid talk and behavior with something that will serve to move the story along. Here are some points to keep in mind when writing children.

  • Kids are incredibly impulsive. And sneaky. And stubborn. If they want something, even if it’s against the rules (especially when it’s against the rules?), they usually risk it. Then instinctively hide and/or lie about it after they’re caught. Yes, even the “good” ones do this!
  • Kids launch conversations about topics that seem to strike from out of the blue. They ramble, veering off on barely related tangents. It’s difficult to follow their train of thought, and forget about teasing any logic from their argument (or using any of your own as a counter-argument).
  • Kids frequently use the wrong words. They have a hard time explaining how they feel, what they mean. They have a limited vocabulary. An adult who’s listening needs to do a good amount of deciphering to understand.
  • Kids have a pretty self-absorbed world view. While they certainly can feel empathy and act upon it, such is not generally their first reaction. [See this “How Babies Work” article on Slate.com for more background. It’s specifically about toddlers, but the psychology and developmental information applies to older children as well.]

Need a quick tutorial/reminder on how kids think and sound? Check out any of these recent AT&T “It’s Not Complicated” ad campaign videos for some great examples. (Warning—watching too many or too often becomes super-annoying, especially to parents of young kids, who live with this 24-7.) According to the article, the kids’ dialogue is improvisational—not scripted, and I’m inclined to believe it.