So much of childhood isn’t what most of us would consider child-appropriate. A child’s world can be, often is, as dark as an adult’s—or darker. Here are five ways to put breathing children into fiction meant for grown-ups.
1. Remember that every child is his or her own person.
“My dad can eat six pizzas!”
“Yeah, but my dad is stronger than Superman.”
Like any character, any child is shaped by his or her experience, whether it’s peace and shelter, horrific violence, or anything and everything in between. Make them people first, and little people after.
2. Think back to your own childhood.
“You’re ruining my life!”
Do you remember that thing you wanted for Christmas so badly? That one thing that would’ve made your life absolutely complete and you’d never ask for anything ever again? Yeah?
You didn’t get it, did you? How intense, how gripping, was that disappointment? The world was ending! Capture that when you write children.
Or maybe you did get it! You lucky cuss. How excited were you? Oh my goodness the world was wonderful! Capture that emotion.
Children feel so deeply and broadly. There’s no end to the well. For the most part, they’re just learning about emotion, their own emotions. Try to bring that to the page.
3. Talk to some kids.
“Mommy, I doed it!”
“Yes, you did.”
If you’re a parent, you already know this. And if you aren’t, and you’re lucky enough to have kids in your life, have the best conversations you can with them. I’m not advocating asking them questions like “What if you were sold into slavery?” What I mean is, you’ve got to enter into the conversation with the interest of listening, really listening, to them. Hear the different ways they speak and the ways they’re learning language. Hear what they talk about. I promise, they are interesting. You haven’t really lived until you’ve discussed robots with an eight-year-old.
4. Give them grown-up problems.
“I’ll get us some food.”
This is actually true of kids’ fiction too. Let them deal with things out of their depth—as you would any other character. Challenge them as people. Thank goodness, they aren’t real, though it ought to feel as if they are.
5. Give them justice.
“The Queen had saved the little Prince. And they loved each other, whatever came after.”
This is truer of some kinds of fiction than it is of others, I suppose, truer of some works than others. But give them as much as you can, for your own peace of mind and your readers’. Poetic justice is always appropriate when writing about children, or so I believe. The world is screwed up and real kids deal with terrible situations every day, often with no recourse, no punishment for the wrongdoers, nothing.
It would be better if no child had to go through anything like what real (and fictional) children go through. At least in fiction you can give every little one a chance.