Many middle grade books have a fundamental problem with their main characters. Someone who is supposed to be sixteen seems twelve– someone who seems twelve seems sixteen. The latter occurred in Brandon Mull’s The Beyonders trilogy; the former occurred in Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart and The Rithmatist. Perhaps this problem only plagues those named Brandon. It would make sense, except I encountered the same problem in my own writing.
In my scene, I had a character who was supposed to be twelve. Unfortunately, he seemed six. His brother, supposed to be sixteen, seemed twelve. Of course, my method was not ideal– since the scene was just a prologue and the rest of the story would happen five years later, I scrapped the idea altogether. If you’re writing middle grade and have this problem, don’t do what I did.
However, while I was struggling with the scene, I realized a few things. Number one, this problem can be pinpointed. Number two, it can be fixed. (Hey, that’s pretty much the way it is with all story problems.)
This problem has annoyed me in many books, long before I ever encountered it. When I did encounter it, I knew what was happening, and I was able to trace it back to dialogue. Everything the two characters said made them seem younger than they should have. They didn’t seem real.
But why was that? Dialogue is informed by the characters themselves– otherwise it wouldn’t be true to the characters. The problem showed through the dialogue, but it wasn’t the dialogue itself. The characters behind the dialogue were at fault. But those characters had worked elsewhere; the problem had come in the switch between the regular characters and the younger characters.
I’ve spoken about writing for kids before. It was a while ago and I can’t remember everything, but I spoke about writing for kids– not writing the kids themselves. Not talking down to them is important, but that doesn’t mean all child main characters should seem like adults. If a character is a kid, they should seem just as real as an adult character– not like an adult in a kid’s body. And while Brandon Mull’s specific problem (making the kids seem older than they are) arose from that phenomenon, kids seeming younger than they are is a different problem.
When people look back on something, they see the extreme more often than the actual memory. The same happens with children. When adults look back at kids, they see the youth, the irrationality, instead of the way kids actually are. When kids are very young, they are plenty irrational. They make weird arguments, come to false conclusions, and in general act feelingly instead of logically. That’s what most authors pick up on when they write kids, and unfortunately, they include too much.
But noticing that and overcompensating is just as dangerous. That creates the opposite phenomenon, as I mentioned before. A character who thinks very logically and basically acts like an adult is going to seem much older.
So what’s the crucial balance here? It’s difficult to say, because it’s going to be different for every age. I’m having trouble figuring out a universal solution myself– I don’t think there is one. It’s going to be different for every character. Sometimes they need to act irrationally, and other times they’re going to be completely clear-headed. Sometimes they’ll be logical about one thing while generalizing wildly about another. There is no single rule to follow.
I think the one thing you can do, however, is look at real children the age of your character. Look at their motives for everything they do. Many children grow more independent as they grow older, trying to pull away from their parents. Simultaneously, they defer to their parents for fundamentals, taking things for granted. The emotions of a kid are really weird when you think about them, but that’s what makes them real and interesting. It’s almost more difficult than writing an adult.
Take a look. Pinpoint the problem and ask yourself what the motivation is behind it, and how it needs to change for the better. You might not think it’s necessary. Imagine your favorite middle grade books with characters who seem five years too old, or five years too young. It won’t be the same. This problem can destroy the best of stories, but fixed it can redeem the worst. Think about it.