Storytelling

Depicting Child Characters

Lewis Carroll wrote about a child protagonist, but used an authoritative omniscient voice.

Portraying child characters can be one of the biggest challenges of storytelling. Even though many of us are around children regularly, kids vary so much by age, development rate, and individual experience that it can be easy to pigeonhole them or simply get them wrong.

To help you get started with your child characters, I’ll give you some info and guidelines on kids from one to eleven years. Older than that, and they’re more like teens than children.* I’ll also focus on child characters intended for adult audiences. Unlike kids, adults don’t want to see children in wish-fulfillment roles; they want to see kids that feel realistic.

Unfortunately, creating child characters that feel realistic to every adult is probably impossible. People are very opinionated about what children are like, and their ideas aren’t always accurate. For instance, take a look at one of the Jimmy Kimmel Halloween prank videos. In these, parents tell their children they ate all of the Halloween candy and videotape the responses. Here’s some of the lines that young children have said to their parents.

  • “Are you kidding me?”
  • “It’s alright. I just want you to feel happy.”
  • “Yeah, bullshit.”
  • “If I don’t find my candy, you’ll be in big trouble young lady.”
  • “Go get a job.”
  • “When it’s the next Halloween, we can share my candy.” (Said with a condescending tone)

If a writer wrote these lines in a book and attributed them to characters the same age as the real kids, doubtless many adult readers would find it unbelievable. A visual medium might do better with skilled child actors or great illustration, but that can be difficult. Do your research, but if you get some complaints, don’t sweat it. Those complaints might have more to do with your audience’s conception of children than the real thing.

General Characteristics of Children

I probably don’t need to tell you that children are individuals. A child may be obedient or rebellious, a neat freak or a slob, even-tempered or hot-headed. But while you should err on the side of giving your child character a unique personality, it’s still helpful to keep common themes in mind.

Children Have Instincts

While children lack knowledge in many areas, they are still born with instincts. Those instincts include interpreting the body language and facial expressions of other people and emotional responses to simple stimuli. Even very young children understand the emotions others are feeling, and they are capable of giving support and comfort.

Children may not understand existential horror, but they won’t stand around in a daze while adults scream and run in terror. Children are easily frightened by loud noises or threatening figures. When scared, younger children will actively seek out the protection of their parents.

What Kids Know Depends on Their Environment

Kids aren’t stupid, but they lack knowledge to an extreme that’s hard for adults to imagine. Can you remember not knowing how to operate a microwave or pay for something at a store? The amount of knowledge that humans need to acquire just for day to day tasks is incredible, but children learn fast. That means they’ll know a lot about what they’re exposed to and little about what they aren’t. A six-year-old kid who goes fishing regularly could understand a lot about fishing but still not know what a board game is.

This also applies to language use. Saying that kids know only simple words is a gross oversimplification. Kids know the words, phrases, and idioms their parents or other caretakers commonly use. When parents use a lot of advanced terms, so will their children. If parents swear, kids will swear.

As a note of caution, some skills still take a lifetime of practice to master. Literacy is one of them; using computers is another. Contrary to popular belief, kids aren’t technology wizards who can outsmart their parents with a laptop. It takes until college age to reach an adult level of mastery online.

Children Are Excitable

Children are often described as impulsive, but that isn’t always true. Children might exhibit all sorts of disciplined behaviors if that’s what their parents have taught them. You haven’t seen restraint until you’ve watched a two-year-old child gently pet a stuffed dinosaur at a gift shop, respectfully resisting the temptation to grab the store’s merchandise. But the world has so much novelty, it’s easy for them to get carried away. That goes double when they’re together; children often imitate those around them, and their excitement is infectious.

Something as simple as a chain lying on the floor could become an exciting new toy. And something as simple as having to take a nap, especially when there are new and exciting things around, could bring forth a tantrum. While children have stronger emotional responses than adults, they still have reasons for those emotions. The Halloween prank I mention earlier made most kids very upset, but it wasn’t just because their candy was gone; it was also because they felt they had worked hard to earn it. When you don’t have a job, an evening of asking for candy feels like a big deal.

Because they feel that small things are important and they lack a frame of reference, kids often label new things they encounter as weird. If their home environment is a duplex, they’ll assume that’s normal and that their friend’s apartment is deviant.

Children Can Be Frustrated by Their Lack of Ability

Being a kid is a long journey toward overcoming limitations. Some of these limitations are built in, like a lack of muscle control and coordination. Younger kids can’t perform basic hygiene by themselves mostly because it requires better control of their body. Other limitations are created by an environment designed for an adult of average size and strength. That’s why kids have trouble reaching high places, opening containers, and carrying many household items.

While kids know they’ll get better over time, these limitations can still be frustrating. A kid might compensate by turning down things they need help with in favor of tasks they can do themselves. Other kids might lean on assistance, whether it’s parental help or tools that make things easier for them. Kids love things that are shrunk down to their size because it enables them to do many of the same things adults do.

Age Groups of Children

One of the first steps to depicting a child character is identifying the age group you want to depict. Adults tend to lump kids together, but kids are very sensitive to age differences. Give a seven-year-old a toy for a five-year-old, and you’ve just insulted that kid. Unfortunately, even choosing a precise age can be difficult because children mature at different rates. Until the age of nine, kids cannot be given IQ tests with any accuracy, because rate of development is a large variable that influences the results. However, we can look at the average development at different ages to narrow it down.

1-2 Years Old

Children learn to walk and talk starting around one year of age. At two they are usually running around, taking stairs slowly, and speaking in phrases, though they may have to be prodded to use their words. As they get better at running around, they may rush into things that are exciting but unsafe. They’re still developing emotional regulation, so they’re likely to have meltdowns. They may learn to use utensils but will have trouble doing so neatly. If given a crayon or marker they will scribble. They usually require a strict daily routine.

3-4 Years Old

Children this age are often jumping and doing cartwheels. They will dress themselves and go to the bathroom with assistance from their parents. Instead of merely scribbling, they will draw simple shapes. They understand what rules are and can follow directions (though they might choose not to). Children this age generally speak in full sentences but pronounce some words incorrectly. They use their language skills to ask a lot of questions. In preparation for school, they learn about numbers and the alphabet. Their play is very imaginative, and they are likely to imitate the words and mannerisms of adults and older siblings.

5-6 Years Old

Kids at this age have proportions that are near adult, and they start losing their baby teeth. They can jump rope, swim, learn to play musical instruments, and handle utensils like a peeler or scissors. They dress and go to the bathroom independently. Their fine motor control is good enough to pour from cartons, make themselves cereal, tie their own shoelaces, and start writing letters. During this age, they will learn to read and start doing basic addition and subtraction. They speak in complex sentences but may still mispronounce words that are long and tricky, like “spaghetti.” They will leave behind the strict routines and rituals of their toddler years.

7-8 Years Old

Kids this age learn to multiply and become more adept at reading. Because they are better at distinguishing fantasy from reality, they are less likely to complain about monsters under their bed. They have more complex social relationships, making them better at team work but also more likely to get in fights with peers. They are independent enough to attend sleepovers at a friend’s house. Kids this age will pack their own lunch, use the toaster and other simple kitchen appliances, and bathe or shower on their own. They often express their own moral compass rather than just following rules.

9-11 Years Old

Kids this age will start to show signs of adolescence. They’ll read children’s novels and do long division in school. They have mastered logical deduction and extrapolation; they can take abstract lessons from one situation and apply it to others. They can cook and have a growing sense of independence and responsibility. Peer groups and group identity are important to them; they are likely to experience peer pressure. Some girls’ periods start as early as this stage.

While it’s good to choose a target age and study it, avoid revealing that age to your audience if you can help it. Instead, it can be better to narrate the character authentically and let your audience decide how old they are. If you do need to specify an age, it’s more respectful to kids to err on the side of creating a younger, more mature kid.

Developing Your Child Character

Creating child characters is a lot like developing your other characters. Just like for adults, you’ll want to think through their unique emotional temperament and the things they are passionate about. While you’re at it, you’ll want to consider a few things that are especially important for children.

Their Age

You can start with the age summaries in this post. Look up some videos or spend time with kids of the age that interests you. Then consider what their age means for their capabilities and their influence on your story.

Their Parents or Caretakers

Knowing the child’s role models will help you pin down what the child does or doesn’t know.

For example:

  • The child’s father is a prudent worry-wart. As instructed, my child character will always bring a phone with them and tell an adult where they are going.
  • The child’s mother cares about etiquette. She taught my character to make their bed in the morning and to take off their shoes when entering someone’s home.
  • Both the child’s parents are EMTs. My child character will guess when someone’s in serious medical trouble and proactively summon an ambulance.

How They Approach Being a Kid

Being a child is a special situation that different kids handle in different ways. Do they unthinkingly follow commands from adults, or do they subvert rules whenever they can? Are they looking forward to growing older, or are they dreading their conversion to boring responsibility? They might bristle when adults talk down to them or feel nervous about doing things that adults usually do for them. Or maybe they’re very easy-going, taking everything in stride.

Stereotypes to Avoid

Our stories are full of child characters that aren’t depicted very well. Here are some of the tropes you should avoid in your work.

The Gimmicky Kid

Many child characters are one-dimensional, only showing one mannerism throughout the story. That could be:

  • Sweetness and innocence
  • Complaining and temper tantrums
  • Complete seriousness
  • Playful giggling

Giving a child character one act, no matter how endearing you think it is, puts them on the fast track to becoming annoying. Kids are complex and unique individuals, just like adults. Show your audience the different sides of their personality.

The Paperweight Kid

Writers often treat children more like objects than people; they stand around waiting for an adult to give them orders or carry them away from harm. Real children have a will of their own. They’ll make choices based on their own goals and then act on those choices, just like your adult characters.

Even if your child character exists to be a damsel, think through what actions they could take to advance their interests. Maybe they leave clues to help the police find them and their kidnapper. Maybe they pick up the phone and call an emergency number their parents taught them.

The Over-Competent Kid

Children aren’t dumb paperweights, but that doesn’t mean they can outwit or outperform adults. If the adult characters are stumped by a problem, then the kids won’t be able to solve it unless they have some kind of assistance the adults don’t have. Kids do not have much life experience, and they are not good at dispensing folksy wisdom. Among adult audiences, a kid that shows up the grown-ups will become irritating fast.

That doesn’t mean kids can’t make a difference. Sometimes what adults need is support or encouragement, and kids can provide that. A kid can also overhear an important conversation and repeat it to an adult or notice something their parents didn’t see, particularly if it’s low to the ground.

Using a Child Narrator

First, keep in mind that just because your central character is a child doesn’t mean that you have to write from their perspective. In many cases, using omniscient perspective or narration from an adult looking back will not only be easier for you but also allow you to communicate ideas that your central character doesn’t understand. There are generally two reasons to use a child’s perspective: either you want the incomplete or unreliable information that comes from having a child narrator, or else you have multiple third-person narrators, and one of them happens to be a child. In the latter case, breaking from third-person limited could damage your story.

Creating narration from a child’s perspective is doing a magic trick. You’re not trying to create authentic child narration, just the illusion of it. You can listen to stories told by children for inspiration or use some authentic phrasing for flavor, but writing in a genuine child’s voice would quickly become unpleasant for your audience.

Instead, child narration is usually a simplified and streamlined version of adult narration. Try for short, straightforward sentences with a minimum of ornamentation. To give yourself a start in choosing which words to use, pick up some books written for a child of your character’s age and see what’s in them. Then build out from there based on the child’s interests and exposure. A child with a passion for animals might talk about obscure animals in the narration. A child who frequently watches their parents work might mention contracts or delivery dates.


Because we don’t have child writers with the skills of professional novelists, we may never have child characters that are fully authentic. But as adults, we can make our child characters better simply by respecting them as people.

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Comments

  1. Tyson Adams

    I think one of the main things that people get wrong about kids is that they forget the boundary pushing and tantrums. I’ve had a 6 year old give me sass with biting sarcasm. Our two year old messed around with the iPad until he was teaching us features we didn’t know it had.

    Of course, at the other end is the cliche ridden kids stories where the kids are smart and capable whilst the adults are all bumbling fools.

  2. Adam J. Thaxton

    Children swear. A lot. I don’t care if an adult thinks their kid is the picture-perfect image of sweetness and saccharine obedience, the instant their parent is out of earshot they turn into a sailor – a friendly, jovial, sweet sailor, but still a motherfucking shit-mongering goat-puking maggot-eyed sailor. It can happen around 7 or 8 but tends to start in the 9-13 corridor and doesn’t end until they’re out of high school.

    Boundary pushing: until around 17 or 18, the part of the human brain that tells you that what you’re about to do is stupid literally hasn’t grown in yet (this actually helps the growing adolescent find a place in the adult social hierarchy by testing its limits and helping define its boundaries). Tyson is correct; kids will come up with solutions you wouldn’t have given the time of day simply because they don’t know any better.

  3. Lucy

    I have a kid who is nearly four, and one of the things that most often bugs me about depictions of kids this age or younger is their ability to draw paired with their ability to speak. Surprisingly frequently, child characters around this age will struggle to string a grammatically correct sentence together (making ‘adorable’ mistakes), but will be able to draw something that is recognisable to an adult (but still ‘adorably’ bad). This is the EXACT OPPOSITE of how all the kids I know have developed.
    I can have a well-spoken conversation with my own kid and all her friends. They do mispronounce some words (as we all do sometimes when we learn a new word), and get tripped up by grammar and such, but they are at the level where this is often because they have already learnt a rule, but have not learnt when it doesn’t apply (e.g. saying ‘foots’ instead of ‘feet’).
    Meanwhile, their drawing is only bordering on comprehensible. My kid has just reached the stage where I can pick out pictures of people, but it’s an effort, and anything beyond that I usually have no idea what she’s aiming for until she explains to me (and even then, I’m often at a loss). The pre-school wall shows that her friends are all at a similar level.
    So when some two / three-year-old wanders in holding a crayon sketch to show something they were unable to describe in words, I get a pretty irritated. This drawing usually looks to me like something drawn by a five / six year old at the youngest.
    (Just found this reference for children’s drawing stages which roughly matches what I’ve seen so far … http://planningwithkids.com/2010/08/03/childrens-drawing-stages/ )

  4. Bess Marvin

    My three days a week in Child Development class with 3-5 year olds was eye-opening for me when I’d never spent time around kids before. These cuties were indeed individuals despite their similar age range.
    Logan’s first reaction to disappointment was to sulk, hide, or get angry. While Daniel was the absolute sweetest and most willing to share and compromise.
    Emma knew how to use the little classroom computer with great proficiency. When Gillian had me play kitchen or drive-through she knew the entire McDonald’s menu by heart. Becca was shy, but when her mom would come to pick her up the two would hold lengthy conversations switching between English and Spanish seamlessly. When I called a kid “honey” offhandedly, he thought I was mispronouncing his name and firmly corrected me that, “My name is Hunter!”
    When the kids would tell me a secret it would be something mundane to my teenage view but to the kids these little facts were a big deal. When they’d tell me jokes that they’d just made up or jokes that are so old by the time you’re an adult and I didn’t laugh at the punchline, the kids would get disappointed or angry that I didn’t think it was funny. I remember being a young kid and encouraging my mom to stop being sad so she smiled for me but I told her, “no, Mommy. You’re not smiling with your eyes!”
    It’s hard to remember (when you haven’t been around kids in a while) how smart they are and, like you say, able to read personal cues and situations to react accordingly. This sort of advice in the article is great guidance for writing kid characters!

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