Imagine that, for twenty-four hours, you’re limited to the use of half your vocabulary, your awareness of interpersonal subtext dims, and all your skills and strengths revert back to level one. On top of that, you shrink to the height of a hobbit. Carrying out your normal routine would be frustrating, wouldn’t it? But you would still have nearly the same internal experience. Your needs and desires wouldn’t disappear, only your ability to express and achieve those goals.
I’ve basically described the life of a child. As we age, our size, aptitude, self-awareness, and knowledge increases dramatically. Yes, our dreams evolve too. But we never transform into something (or someone) completely different, not on the inside. We maintain a general continuity from childhood to adulthood.
Why then do slews of books and films contain eerily capable miniature adults who brim with purity and wisdom, handling themselves with all the poise and confidence of expert socialites? Have we forgotten what being children is like? Or maybe we prefer to resort to Pollyannic stereotypes because that silhouette is easier to trace.
Simplicity does not reflect God’s design, however. Humans are complex in every stage of development. Three brief statements demonstrate how nuanced children are and can help us avoid the common mistakes writers make when portraying them.
1. Children Are Naïve, but Not Innocent
Children typically aren’t conscious of the depravity that pollutes society and people’s motives. Thus, they don’t yet display the cynicism that marks many adults. But their optimism results from minimal exposure to evil, not guilelessness. Since children inherit a sin nature at birth, they’re as susceptible to temptation as adults, except they’ll be more direct and less sophisticated about indulging their flesh. Sometimes, because they’re oblivious to the consequences, their actions can lead to severe harm.
When anger overwhelmed me as a boy, I punched my younger brother in the stomach. Thankfully, I didn’t injure him, but when my mom explained that my spur-of-the-moment attack could have been fatal, the realization chilled me. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund doesn’t consider the effect his choices will have on others either. Hungry, lost, and slighted, he agrees to a trade with Narnia’s worst enemy: life-threatening information about his siblings in exchange for a few morsels of Turkish delight.
If you have the heart (or heartlessness) to highlight children’s fallenness in one of your stories, you’ll open up multiple opportunities to create potent scenes revealing how they learn to curb their own capacity for sin. Humans have a propensity for being self-centered, and kids need to cultivate a sense of empathy before they can stop seeing themselves as the nuclei of their relationships.
2. Children Are Usually Friendly, but Not All Are Precocious
Outspoken, undaunted children are entertaining to write and read. You can apply the “template” of an adult, scale it back a little, and have a ready-made source of comic relief. Think of the laughs (and groans) that Tom Sawyer stirs up as he charges into mischief along the Mississippi River. Or the quaint but overblown fantasies and ordeals that turn every reader into a bosom friend of Anne Shirley. The charm of these two characters is undeniable, but only a small percentage of children behave like them.
Most children struggle to process subtextual communication, which complicates their interactions with anyone who’s older than them. Sarcasm, metaphors, and even jokes that seem intuitive can be difficult for children to pick up on because they’re still building their abstract thinking engines. Meanwhile, their own attempts at humor will be random and absurd.
Because children generally aren’t treated with the respect and recognition of adults, they’re often desperately insecure, whether they admit it or not. They crave validation, but their mental and social development hampers their success at gaining it through acceptable means. Children are inventive, so they might test out a variety of methods, from throwing fits to spouting big words they can’t pronounce to imitating the characters in a movie they’ve watched. But some give up entirely and shut themselves off.
Although exceptionally gifted individuals assert themselves sooner rather than later, that isn’t the case for most children. The average child bursts with feelings and thoughts and impulses that he lacks the restraint to express and pursue in a healthy manner—if at all.
3. Children Are Immature, but That Doesn’t Mean They’re One-Dimensional
As I established earlier, children look at the world through a black-and-white lens. They still respond to external influences, however. The values of their culture, family members, and friends inform which of the two colors they decide to categorize their observations into. In Hope’s article about personality types, she defines this as “nurture,” one of the two forces that shape the human psyche. The other, “nature,” is innate and doesn’t change. Whether the traits are visible outwardly yet or not, the proclivities have always been present.
When an infant needs milk, a clean diaper, or cuddling, his primary options for summoning his mother are noise and facial expressions. As he grows, he’ll add to his communication rolodex and gain better control of his faculties. However, from the moment he left the womb kicking and screaming, he exhibited all of the same yearnings as an adult for love, food, and safety. On the inside, children are universes of wonder. On the outside, they’re clumsily navigating situations that are foreign to them.
Recognizing the dichotomy between the inner life and outer life is essential to capturing the intricacies of childhood, as Marcus Zusak did so beautifully in The Book Thief. Over the course of the story, Liesel Meminger discovers the power of reading and writing and forms multiple friendships through those pastimes. Her cognitive abilities progressively improve, allowing her to express the richness of her perceptions with greater and greater ease.
The Reward of Writing Realistic Children
Whether you’re planning to introduce an extraordinary or ordinary child, the three tips above will provide you with a baseline. Of course, every (writing) rule is meant to be broken, but you can’t effectively depart from the pattern until you first understand why it’s in place. Only then are you free to cater to your artistic or stylistic whims.
But in all your worry about being realistic, don’t forget that children are some of the most beloved characters in fiction and a joy to write. Whenever I explore the swirling potential of a child, he forces me to approach my story from a fresh, original perspective. I find that to be exponentially more valuable the further I move away from that period of my own life.
Similarly, encountering well-rounded child characters as a reader can inspire fruitful self-reflection. So don’t shy away from depicting their adventures! Children deserve the same care you invest in the rest of your characters as they travel the paths you’re carving for them.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.