Pet Peeves: Stereotyped Kid Characters

Among my many pet peeves as a reader and writer, I can’t stand it when kid characters are just cardboard cutouts, are stereotyped, or act many years younger than their supposed age.

The last of these issues irritated me most when I was a kid myself and was reading books written by adults for kids my age.  Sometimes it’s downright insulting to a kid to read the crap that an adult author thinks you would say and do – and yeah, kids mature at different rates, but I don’t know any ten-year-olds who talk, think, or behave the same way six-year-olds do, unless there’s some type of developmental problem involved.

I’ve frequently heard people try to dumb down kid characters in other writers’ manuscripts, saying, “Oh, a kid wouldn’t say that,” or, “Kids don’t think that way.”  It always annoys me, because – again – every kid is different, and some kids are sharp as tacks.  Shocking as it may be to some folks, kids are people, too.  That means they have the same range as adult characters.  Some of them are selfish, stupid, bratty, ignorant, easily bored, or immature.  Some are kind, sweet, intelligent, logical, or fascinated with learning.  They have interests ranging from torturing insects to creating fossil museums in their playhouses to learning as much as they can about the American Revolution.  You never know what will strike a kid as interesting, or at what age.  So please, don’t dumb down your kid characters because other adults tell you that kids “aren’t like that”.  I’m an aunt to four younglings, have worked as a mentor with ages from seven up to nineteen, have worked with kids at a science museum and a bookstore, and trust me, there probably is a kid out there who’s a whole lot like your character.

Equally annoying to the dumbed-down plain-vanilla cardboard-cutout kid is the saccharine sweet angel child character.  I hate those as much as I hate the super-brat with no redeeming qualities.  Like adult characters, kid characters have to have some mix of good and bad to them if you want them to be good characters.  If your kid character is just wallpaper, background for your mommy or daddy character, and you don’t have any interest in making the kid a well-rounded, three-dimensional character, then take the kid out of the book altogether.  They’ve got to be important enough to make three-dimensional if you’re going to put them in – same as any other character.

Some books that have excellent kid characters / kid thinking are:

  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – for excellence at writing from the rather disturbing point of view of a child genius facing dark times
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – for excellence at writing two three-dimensional kids who are the same age but see the world completely differently – and are best friends anyway
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – do I even need to explain why this is on the list?  READ IT, if you haven’t yet!
  • Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – burnt-out teenager with a heart of gold somewhere under the sarcasm?  Check!  A beautiful dichotomy of a character
  • Skinnybones and Almost Starring Skinnybones by Barbara Park – because, as a kid, I was crazy about these books, and the narrator cracked me up
  • The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary – another favorite series from my childhood, because Ramona was quirky and not always good, but she meant well (usually) and the other kids in the books kept things balanced out
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket – don’t let the weirdly pedantic (yet funny) narration (or the terrible Jim Carey performance in the movie) fool you, this is a great series with a trio of three-dimensional young heroes
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling – while Harry gets on my nerves from time to time, he’s undeniably well-rounded as a character – and he’s certainly no angel.  The other kids in the books are well-written, too, and as the series goes along you “watch” them grow up.  J.K. Rowling does a stellar job writing that transformation for many characters over the course of many books
  • The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan – because Percy Jackson makes me smile.  I have yet to see the movie (and the trailer worries me that it will fall far short of the books) but the books are rip-roaring awesome, and the characters are wonderful.  Percy especially.