In 2013, hoards of little girls aspired to be Queen Elsa. French braids became the standard hairstyle, Halloween turned into an Arendelle-themed costume party, and “Let It Go” played in a never-ending loop until it invaded parents’ nightmares.
The Frozen craze may have thawed, but every day, new stories lay siege on children’s obsessions. At the library where I work, most young patrons wear T-shirts featuring their favorite fandoms. One little girl gave me an in-depth tutorial on how to pronounce “wingardium leviosa” using her primmest Hermione Granger voice, and a group of preteen boys sometimes stake out in the sci-fi section to discuss Sith lightsaber techniques.
Kids’ minds are like clay. Everything they see and experience leaves a mark, and for better or for worse, the impression is difficult to remove later. I don’t recall much from my childhood, except the characters who took me on grand adventures. However, a startling amount of elementary and middle-grade fiction promotes damaging ideas—you know, the whole “parents are the worst, kids are smarter than adults, rebellion is cool” schtick.
Because stories influence how children perceive the world, we should be especially careful when crafting entertainment aimed at them. But offering them appropriate examples to follow is more complicated than tossing in a few prudish characters who never speak in slang, much less swear, and constantly urge their friends not to break rules. Heroes also need to be memorable and eye-catching.
Virtue and Power Can Coexist
As a child, my taste was pretty shallow. When asked why I preferred Susan over Lucy in the Chronicles of Narnia movies, I pointed to her fabulous gowns and archery prowess. Skill or attractiveness determined who earned a place on a pedestal. I idolized Galadriel from Lord of the Rings, not because of her noble heart but because of the strength, beauty, and mystery she emanated. Characters like Frodo, though equally righteous, failed to evoke the same reaction.
Writers tend to shy away from virtuous characters, and for understandable reasons. Unabashed, suit-wearing, church-attending heroes often come across as insipid. Antiheroes seem more intriguing because they can embody a broader spectrum of worldviews and consequences without a code of ethics curbing how they pursue goals. The problem is when children’s fiction (whether intentionally or not) portrays the antagonists as more engaging than the protagonists, such as Disney’s Descendants films. If I had to choose between a bumbling hero and a villain with impeccable style and humor, my allegiance to the light side would be short-lived.
The notion that an honorable character will suck all the awesome out of a story is misguided, however. Instead, he’ll make conflicts more potent. Think of Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal as divine fire swallowed his offering, or David striding to meet an opponent entire armies couldn’t defeat. Returning to fiction, N. D. Wilson’s Ashtown Burials series focuses on a host of larger-than-life figures who fight terrifying forces of evil. Crackshot rifle-wielding biplane pilots, an Australian warrior with a shepherd’s heart, an immortal weaver who leads a legion of spiders with hymns and prayer, and many more unforgettable characters join the fray.
Don’t be afraid to write jaw-droppingly epic heroes. Righteousness is more than clean clothes and combed hair—it equips ordinary people with the courage to confront demons and slay giants.
Heroes Are Still Human
Perfect characters aren’t relatable because no one is born without flaws and a sin nature. Honest representation won’t taint children’s innocence and seduce them toward a path of wicked behavior—unless you glorify the protagonist’s mistakes. For instance, in The False Prince, Sage has a knack for deception, and throughout the trilogy, his clever lies result in success instead of his downfall, ultimately endorsing dishonesty.
Compare Sage with Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Originally a villainous firebender, Zuko spirals deeper and deeper into the effects of his own hatred. He has a messy past, but his negative actions highlight his eventual decision to renounce evil, making his struggle more meaningful.
Both of these characters mess up continually. The difference is that Sage reaps rewards, whereas Zuko heaps misery upon himself and other characters readers love. Sin is ugly, and when an author lets a character indulge in it without incurring harm, readers interpret it as acceptable.
Similarly, avoid adding problematic traits to make a character appealing. Although Zuko originally misuses his abilities, firebending itself isn’t evil, and kids can safely appreciate his power without condoning his personal choices. On the flip side, Sage’s “gift” of duplicity is inherently wrong, and showcasing it as his most interesting quirk muddies his impact.
Fiction Shapes Children’s Futures
When I was five years old, I read a series called A to Z Mysteries. One of the recurring characters was a middle-aged author of children’s fiction who lived in a refurbished castle and faked her own kidnapping for research purposes. Awestruck, I began modeling my entire life after her. Although the refurbished castle part has yet to happen, years later I’m still chasing a dream initially sparked by an eccentric character in a beloved book.
Children’s writers shouldn’t treat the burden laid on their shoulders lightly. We have an immense responsibility, but ultimately an even greater reward: just like our heroes, virtue is powerful, and if our characters have the power to instill worldviews in readers, we can tap into that to lay the bricks of a godly foundation in fledgling minds.
Sarah Baran views herself as fiercely intimidating, but anyone who’s seen her trip over her own shoelaces knows the truth. She’s a paradox disguised in human form, a purveyor of caustic wit, a reluctant people-lover, and an idealistic cynic who sees the world through cracks in her rose-colored glasses. A love for writing grabbed her in a stranglehold when she was only a child, so she decided to give storytelling a whirl. If she’d known this decision would lead to an unhealthy obsession with daggers and many sleepless nights agonizing over finding the perfect words to describe a tree, she might have opted for a safer career choice. Regardless, she’s never looked back.
When she isn’t writing, Sarah dons the role of grouchy librarian and glares at children over the rims of her glasses. You can find her having a good time at humanity’s expense on her blog, TheSarcasticElf.com.
Great article, Sarah! I’m currently in the throes- yes, the THROES- of trying to write my first novel, which is aimed at tweens and young teens, and I’ve been binge reading all the articles about crafting wholesome but un-preachy (that’s a word now) stories and characters.
I appreciate what you said about writing jaw-droppingly epic heroes. My protagonist is a bodygaurd, and a very awesome bodygaurd at that. I was afraid, for whatever irrational reason, that making an epic hero would be just… blah… kind of cheesy… but you’re article helped me remember that it was always the awesome heroes I liked when I was a young teen… in fact, I still love the Legolases, the Florid Swords, the… and I forgot the rest. (oh stupid absent INTP brain that is mine)
*gathers her thoughts, tries to arrange them*
Oh yes, great article. Thank you.
Imma go write now.
Hey Eloise! Glad you enjoyed this! I agree, epic heroes were always my favorites as well. As long as you take care to develop them realistically, with flaws and weaknesses, there’s no reason for them to be perceived as cheesy or less interesting than antiheroes. Good luck in your quest to unlock the un-preachiness of your novel!
Excellent article! I love working with the balance between epic and virtuous protagonists who are still flawed! They’re my favorite kind of protagonists.
And that point on glorifying mistakes is really important. It’s annoying when a book is said to be Christian but doesn’t have negative consequences for sinful actions. Especially rebelling against parents!
Right now I’ve got a deceptive protagonist, and I’m making sure her “little” lie comes back to bite her.
As a someone who still has young siblings, the struggle to find books with good role-models in it is real which makes me aspire to write those good role-models into my own stories.
This article just reminded me of that! Thank you!
Fantastic article!! We really REALLY need more kids books with good role models. *frown*
Ooh, I never thought about that aspect of The False Prince before!! *will have to think on this* Thanks for the article!
I missed this article originally but now I have read it, and YES. AMEN.
Oooh, this is spot on, Sarah. I feel like this is what I’ve been trying to say for a long time, but you articulated it far better than my attempts. XD