Back in my early 20s, when I was just out of college, I had this notion that I didn’t like children, or at least wasn’t comfortable with them.
Then, one day as I was walking home from work, I realized this made no sense. No one ever says “I like adults” or “I don’t like adults.” There are adults I like, and adults I don’t like. Of course the same is true for kids, who are no more a single monolithic group than their parents. There was no reason I should like children as a nameless, faceless group. But there was every reason to expect that I would like at least some of the individual, specific kids I met. Kids are individuals, after all, and it was my own foolishness that let me–who’d only been an adult a few years myself–forget that. I’ve done my best not to forget it again.
So, when I hear someone say an individual kid–or adult–is annoying them, I have some sympathy. But when I hear someone say, “I don’t like children,” I don’t have sympathy anymore. What, all of them? Just because they’re children? As if that’s the only thing that defines each of them?
Besides, just think how we’d look at someone who decided they wanted to be “old person free” or “woman free” or “non-white free.” We know that sort of deliberate discrimination is harmful and hateful and at times illegal. Why is being “child free” considered somehow more acceptable? (And again, this isn’t an issue of not bearing children–note that I don’t have kids myself–this is an issue of trying to kick children out of the bit of our society one lives in.)
But I digress.
The point I was aiming for is that when I see children written badly in fiction, it’s often because the author seems to go for the generic: the character is A Child, rather than a specific child. When we write characters, we’re writing individuals–no matter what their age.
I remember critiquing a story once about a small child lost in a mall. The kid was somewhat generic to start, and I remember that the critique group had questions about that. How did she feel about being lost? we wanted to know. I don’t remember the specific suggestions we made, but thinking about it now I wonder: Was this kid excited or frightened at being lost? Did she go screaming for a grownup? Look for a corner she might hide in? Was she glad to be lost–tired of always having someone holding her hand–and determined to make the most of her new-found freedom? Was she frightened at first, then distracted by an ice-cream stand? Did she decide to run screeching up and down the escalator, simply because her Mom never let her do that and now she could?
Even in the smallest incident, there are a million ways a kid can react. Kids are individuals. They don’t all have the same desires, or the same fears, any more than adults do.
It also helps, when writing a kids, if you can remember being a kid–remember what it felt like, from inside. (Teen writers definitely have an advantage here!) Memories of being 5, or 10, or 15 do fade with time, which is why being around kids can be useful for those of us beyond our teens and twenties. Not so we can copy what we observe directly onto the page, but as an aid to memory–being with kids reminds one of what being a kid felt like.
Somehow, we have to get inside our characters’ heads, no matter what age they are.
And it’s all about the specific details, just like everything else in writing.