Secrets of Great Characters

By Laura Backes, Children's Book Insider

I was volunteering at recess at my son's elementary school last week, when a trio of third grade girls walked by. I've known them all since kindergarten, and I made a comment to one of them along the lines of, "I like your shoes." She smirked at me, grabbed her friends' hands, and skipped away. Something about her expression launched me back to junior high. I saw Lori Boatman, who thought she was so much better than the rest of us, whispering about me behind her hand on the school bus. I had to remind myself that this third grader was not Lori, that I was in fact bigger than her and could probably beat her at hopscotch if given the chance.

What a difference a year makes. In second grade Matthew's classmates welcomed me with hugs, now they politely tolerate my presence. The boys seem to want me to join their games more than the girls, which I found surprising until I remembered being a third grade girl myself and escaping to that magic world inhabited only by a few close friends every chance I got. In kindergarten, all the kids were basically the same unmolded, cute little blobs of personality. Sure, some were more outgoing than others, some more sensitive, but everyone played together as long as no one hogged all the Legos or kicked sand in someone else's eyes. In first grade kids started to band together by interests, but it was easy to bounce from group to group. Second grade brought sharper divisions, especially among the girls. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I would have never believed that cliques could form so young. But the kids still operated as units, predictable in their activities (the Tag ! kids, the Jump Rope girls, the Basketball boys, the Hide and Seek gang). Then something magical happened in the summer between second grade and third. Suddenly, these kids have distinct, interesting, individual personalities.

If you want to write convincing characters, I think it's essential that you observe children of different ages close up. Make that children who aren't your own; kids you can look at objectively. See how they interact, how they treat each other, how they treat the adults in their lives. Grown-ups have different purposes to kids at various ages, and the adult characters in your books should fill their appropriate roles. Each year of growth brings dramatic changes, and the division between boys and girls in social situations gets wider by the month. As a writer, you can't simply increase the age of your characters by a year without reflecting numerous transformations that year brings.

Two years ago, I hired a 13-year-old boy to help me with some house painting. He was a hard worker, friendly and outgoing, and we chatted nonstop about everything from politics to music to snowboarding. He thanked me for the work and called often over the next few weeks to see if I had more jobs. Last fall, when he was 14, I hired him to rake my leaves. He showed up with a headphones glued to his ears, went directly to the backyard and raked in silence. His packed schedule meant it took him four visits to finish a job that should have lasted a day. To his credit, he felt bad that it took him so long and returned some of the money I paid him. I haven't heard from him since.

If I were writing a book, at 13 that boy would have been a character in a middle grade novel, still connected to the familiar world of family and adults, eager to please. At 14, he would have been a young adult protagonist, identifying more with his peers than the grown-ups in his life, expanding his universe, developing priorities all his own. He's still a good kid, just much more complicated.

Younger grades are complicated too. I volunteer once a week at the media center at my son's school. It's an excellent way to see what kids are reading at different ages. This year I work when the fifth graders come in. The popular genres are fantasy (Harry Potter is passé, at least until the next book comes out, but Brian Jacques' Redwall series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy fly off the shelves) and classic adventure (Gary Paulsen for boys, Jean Craighead George for girls). And of course, everyone's reading the Lemony Snicket books. But I'm surprised how many fifth graders still like to check out picture books along with their novels. I guess there's something comforting and familiar about the illustrated format and stories that always have happy endings.

Third grade, I've decided, is the bridge between "little kid" and "big kid." My son Matthew still believes in magic-- Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the power to don a different persona just by putting on a costume--but he now knows there's no such thing as monsters and that bad dreams aren't real. He loves bands like Motorhead, The Clash and The Ramones, but often sleeps with a teddy bear. He's picky about what he wears, is meticulous about his hair, but falls over laughing at underwear jokes. He still wants me to walk him to his classroom each morning, just as long as I don't kiss him good-bye. It's those subtle degrees of complication that authors need to get right for their characters to feel authentic. Don't rely solely on memories of your own childhood.

Chances are you remember situations that made you feel either very good or very bad, but not much in between. We only notice the seemingly insignificant details that give depth to characters when we're paying close attention. So find a way to spend time with kids, keep your eyes open, and take notes.
About the Author: Laura Backes is the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers. For more information about writing children's books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children's Book Insider's home on the web at

Copyright 2005, Children's Book Insider, LLC.
Reprinted with permission.