Creating Characters for Young Children

Writing for Children Blog | craft
December 10, 2015

By Jan Fields

Stories for very young children tend to come in two flavors: the story with
a plot and the story with a purpose. Now, a story with a plot can also have
a purpose, but if you don't have a plot, you better have a purpose. The
purpose of a very young child's story may be to introduce a concept like
counting or colors. The purpose may be to introduce the child to a moral or
character-building activity like sharing or patience. The purpose may be to
introduce the child to a potentially scary activity they will soon face like
going to the doctor or starting school. All of these purpose things can also
have a plot (and will probably sell far more easily if they do). And if the
story has a plot, it probably has a single main character.

So let's think a bit about that main character. Your character needs to be
someone the young child can (1) relate to and (2) care about. Your main
character may not be the nicest person we know. Children are actually much
more forgiving about the flaws of others than we expect. Most kids know that
they are not always so nice themselves, especially inside. However your
reader needs to relate to the character; the reader needs to find something
in the character that feels real.

The main character may have flaws and those flaws may make things difficult
as that character faces his/her story challenge. But the character should
face a problem and not be the problem. Having a main character who exists
solely so you can "fix" him/her though the story plot does not work for
young people. It feels lecture-some (at worst) and fails to connect with the
reader (at best).

Like adults, young people like main characters they can relate to and
admire. And just like adults, most young people do not consider themselves
selfish, mean spirited, or spoiled. Sure, some actually are, but they still
think of themselves in positive ways and when we do bad things, we always
feel that we had some kind of reason. It's just human nature. So if we
create main characters who are purely selfish, mean spirited or spoiled, we
create characters that the reader cannot connect with. And that makes a
story fail with the reader (even though stories like that do get published

One thing children are not very forgiving of is a shallow, or poorly thought
out character. This often happens when we look at a character only with
adult eyes. Adult eyes see a whiny child in a store and immediately judge.
Writer eyes look at the same fussing child and ponder what might be
happening that would make that child feel his behavior is a completely
reasonable reaction to the situation at hand.

Characters who vacillate between being too babyish and too adult are common
in the manuscripts of new writers. So are generic characters with no real
personality. Both happen when you casual dump in a character you created
with adult eyes. You must truly know the character in order to flesh it out
completely. Some writers know a bit about their characters.the bits they
feel they need in the scenes and hope that is enough. Unfortunately, they
often find themselves getting bogged down in the middle of the story because
an unexpected story turn forces them to face that they don't know how to
make the characters respond.

For very young children, characters are often bigger and more obvious than
in real life, but this isn't the same as being flat or cookie-cutter
characters. Often characters in stories for very young children illustrate a
single characteristic blown up to huge status. Think of it like a
caricature. In order to make an effective caricature, you have to really
study the "real" child so that when you blow up these characteristics, they
still feel right, they still fit.

Because the focus of the story is so tight, the focus on the character is
tight as well. If your character is mischievous, he is usually into a dozen
different scrapes before breakfast. If your character is timid, he is
frightened of everything he comes into contact with. If your character is
loving, he is a veritable marshmallow of cuddliness. Very young children
simply don't get subtle, so characterization at this level is bold.

When creating characters, you must remember that kids do not think like
adults, do not talk like adults and do not react like adults. Still, because
your characters are expected to do a job in your book, they must have
sufficient kid like motivation to do the things they do in the story. Your
protagonist must have a goal, and his reason for wanting that goal must be
one that kids can relate to. The goal must be one that the reader will
consider worthy. It is not a worthy goal for a small child to simply want to
make his mother miserable because he happens to be a brat. But it is a
perfectly worthy goal for the same child to be desperate to remove himself
from a situation that is painful to him, even if it's somewhere his mother
is certain they should be.

So as you take pen in hand for your next young reader story, remember to
motivate your child using writer eyes (not adult eyes) and look for ways to
make him "larger than life" so he or she will grab young readers and delight
them all the way to the end of the tale.

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