Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. C.S. Lewis
Children aren’t stupid and they have a sometimes surprisingly clear perspective of the world. But they’re still young people. Their minds, morals, and understanding are far from fully formed. While they can keep track of complicated plots and many characters- because they live inside a fictional world more completely than many adults can- as far as morals and ethics go, it’s best to keep them uncomplicated.
Children need people to admire and look up to, in fiction as well as in real life. With real life lacking that more and more, it’s even more important to use fiction to remind us that they do exist. Put good role models in children’s fiction. Men and women who consistently choose the right path and who stand up for truth, honor, right. Characters who will become shining stars in a child’s firmament and who will inspire them to eventually stand up for what’s right and for humanity.
The tricky part is to keep the heroes from becoming godlike in their heroics. Kids are pretty quick to recognize ridiculousness in humans. There’s nothing wrong with writing mythological tales of gods and demi-gods for children but kids know that since they themselves are but mortal humans, they likely won’t be able to perform the same kinds of feats. So when writing heroes you want them to be able to aspire to imitate, keep them human. Humans make mistakes and often people suffer for those mistakes: like when someone doesn’t listen to their mentor and finds himself on hilltop fighting off half a dozen wolves. Keep the mistakes realistic though. They have to make sense within the story; not be stupid, random blunders for the sole purpose of making the character seem human. (There are humans who make random, stupid errors that make no sense but it’s statistically a small percentage. Stupid decisions that wind up being at fault is another topic.) Also, Most people don’t walk around making mistakes every single day. (Clumsiness does not count, people; that’s a personality trait.)
So keep them human, but realistic, and keep it simple and clear-cut.
Children know from a very early age that there is evil in the world and before they’re even three years old, most kids begin to understand that there are choices in life and that some are good choices and others are bad. They understand that evil exits, even though they don’t know how bad it can be.
Your heroes can’t be heroic unless there is something or someone to fight against, so give them villains; whether they be evil emperors trying to take over the world or flaming dragons terrorizing the countryside. Make them realistic threats. There is absolutely no fun in a story if it’s crystal clear from the beginning that the hero will win. The reader needs to be able to cheer on the hero and to experience the suspense of evil seemingly taking the upper hand in order to be properly invested in the story and to feel suitably thrilled at the triumph of good over evil at the end.
A word of caution about writing villains: be careful how you portray the evil. You can write the same event for a child that you would for an older person but the level of intensity you convey should be different. Some children aren’t easily scared, but as a general rule, it takes far less to frighten a child than an adult, and they’re highly sensitive to levels of intensity. You want them to be on the edge of their seat with suspense and anticipation, not refusing to finish the book because it’s too scary or being scarred for life by what they read. (Believe me, there’s plenty of time to scare them with evil later, when they’re older.)
Black/White and no Shades of Gray
When writing children’s books, it’s best to draw clear lines between black and white and keep it that way. Despite their mistakes, keep your heroes ‘white’ and the villains ‘black’, unless you are specifically telling a redemption story- in which case, keep it simple and straightforward. Kids aren’t stupid, but their minds and morals are very much in development, so they shouldn’t be spending a lot of time wrestling with morally or ethically ambiguous characters or story lines until they have the foundation to do so without becoming confused.
Give kids heroes they can really look up to and wish to emulate. Hand your heroes something to fight and make a good fight. But draw clear lines between right vs wrong, black vs white, dark vs light and save the gray areas for older readers.
Do you have questions about other aspects of writing for children? Leave me a comment or shoot me a message!
Next week we’ll take a look at some classic children’s stories and examine why they’ve stood the test of time. Until then, Merry Writing and may children love your stories!