Annoying children are unfortunately overly prevalent in literature and media. It’s not that writers deliberately create these characters to be annoying, but they end up that way when they aren’t given the same amount of backstory and personality as the adults in the story. Child characters deserve to have just as much care and development as any other character, and if you don’t give that to them, then they will feel less authentic. And when your characters are bad, your entire story suffers.
Alternatively, children in stories can come across as unrealistically mature for their age. Writers often use the excuses “he had to grow up fast” or “she’s gifted” to justify their young characters acting like adults, but realistically, that wouldn’t happen. Unless there’s magic involved somehow (even that’s a cheap excuse), your child characters should act like, well, children.
Although it can be frustrating to try to get right, you can learn how to create complex young characters with enough research and practice. You just need to have the patience to understand a different mindset.
Children are Individuals
This should be obvious, but children are unique individuals with different passions, goals, and personalities. Despite this, writers often pick one of a few worn-in personality tropes to assign to their child character, then simply call it a day. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but that’s just not going to cut it. If you want your young characters to feel like real people, you’ll need to put more work in than that.
When designing a child character, you should go through the same process that you would for any other kind of character. You need to give them quirks, flaws, motivations, and backstory just like anyone else. That doesn’t mean that they should already know exactly what they want to be, but they need to show some level of personality. With that being said, motivations and desires are often much more short-lived for children. For example, they could be wholly obsessed with getting to play with a certain toy, or getting to explore a cool and fun new place. To a child, those desires could be a very big deal.
Obviously, a particularly young child might not have a lot of backstory just yet, but you should have a pretty clear understanding of how they were raised, and any particularly notable events that happened earlier in their life. Did they have any health problems? Did they develop any irrational fears of their closet, or under their bed? Were they raised by their parents, or someone else? Having even a basic understanding of their past can give you more inspiration for developing their character. A child who was neglected might be more trusting of strangers or clingier to those that pay attention to them, while a child who was spoiled might act more entitled and bratty.
Unless the plot revolves around these children, chances are they aren’t going to be one of your main characters. If you want some tips for adding supplementary characters into your story, check out my post “How to Write Minor Characters.”
How Children Learn
Children learn how to behave as a result of what they are exposed to. They learn how to act based on how the people around them act, and they learn to speak by repeating the words they hear other people saying. Children are like little sponges that absorb whatever information they come across, so you can assume a lot about a child based on who their role models are. The people that are around often, or that your child character looks up to, are going to have a much stronger influence on them than anything else.
In addition to witnessing things in their environment, children often learn by experimenting themselves. They learn what is right and wrong by doing something and observing others for their reactions. They learn that making a mess is bad because it upsets other people, while gently petting the family cat makes other people happy. Children are born with natural instincts that allow them to interpret expressions and emotions, which helps them to make sense of the world from an early age. However, they are just as likely to learn from making a mistake when no one else is around to give them positive or negative signals.
No two children learn exactly the same way, or with the same amount of family involvement or structure. Try to consider how a child would develop differently if they learned the same life lesson, such as “don’t touch the hot tea kettle,” but in different ways. One child learns because they are scolded, but the other child touches the kettle and learns by experiencing the heat for themself. How would those two situations influence those children in different ways? How could their overall approach to learning (and their parents’ approach to teaching) shape them as they grow up?
Writing Toddler Characters (1-4)
This is a particularly difficult age group for people to write about, and toddlers in stories often resemble more of an object than a person. Writers tend to shy away from giving toddlers any real personality, out of fear of conveying them unrealistically. This strategy, however, only produces boring children that end up being more like plot devices than actual characters. To be able to portray these characters accurately, you need to understand how people think, speak, and behave at this age.
How Toddlers Think
Toddlers are just beginning their experiences in the crazy, overwhelming world we live in. There’s so much to see and do that toddlers experience something new every single day. Imagine the wonder, confusion, and fear that could evoke—I would need a nap every few hours too if I had to face the unknown like that.
Toddlers have a particular way of interpreting their surroundings that is based purely on objective, observable truth. They will believe that something exists because they can see, feel, or hear it. They believe that something behaves a certain way because they have witnessed its behavior. A dog is soft because they can touch it and feel its soft fur.
Along that line, toddlers do not yet understand that other people have thoughts and feelings too, so they often approach interactions with a relatively self-centered perspective. As they grow, they will begin to understand empathy, but until then, they will believe that the world revolves around them.
How Toddlers Speak
Writing dialogue for toddlers is the part where most writers fumble. A reader doesn’t need to know the inner workings of your child character’s thoughts, but the moment that kid opens their mouth, they had better have some convincing dialogue.
There is a common misconception that toddlers will use only simple words and phrases to communicate. That’s a pretty narrow perspective, and it only works if you assume that all children are little clones that are all raised in the same, perfect environment. In reality, children will repeat the words that they hear other people using. If they go to a public preschool, then they might develop a pretty standard vocabulary of simple words. But if their parents curse, then the child is likely to curse as well.
With that said, that doesn’t mean that the child will always pronounce more complicated words correctly, and they might not use the right words in the proper contexts. Children also often have favorite words that use as frequently as possible in conversation. That could be a fun thing to experiment with in your story, but don’t change up the spelling of words to emphasize their mispronunciation. That can quickly get out of hand, and can be either confusing or frustrating for your readers.
Young children are also likely to ask many questions. As they learn how to speak, it is not uncommon for children to constantly spout the word “why?” When in doubt, have a child ask questions to illuminate the way they are thinking about the world, and you could reveal a lot about their personality. For example, a child that is constantly asking questions about how the world works, such as “how do birds fly?” or “why is the sky blue?” could be perceived as more precocious. However, a child that asks questions like “do bugs have families?” or “are dragons real?” reveals a more creative mindset.
How Toddlers Behave
For the first few years of a child’s life, they lack the context to understand exactly what behavior is appropriate in different situations. To get around this, young children often imitate the behavior of those around them. If they aren’t familiar with a particular situation, place, or person, they often look to trusted adults to try to figure out how they should behave. If their mother, for example, seems relaxed and happy, the child is more likely to approach a situation with curiosity and glee. If their mother is tense or angry, the child is likely to get scared and behave defensively.
When there is no one to imitate, children rely on their natural instincts to navigate unfamiliar situations. A child will instinctively avoid another person that looks frightening, angry, or unfamiliar. One of the ways a child makes these determinations is by association. If a stranger has the same skin color, hair color, and stature as one of their parents, then they will be more likely to assume they are trustworthy. Likewise, if a location or event reminds them of an unpleasant experience, then they will assume that it will also be unpleasant. If you aren’t sure how to make your child character react to something, try to find connections to things they have already experienced, and what that experience was like for them.
In familiar settings, toddlers will remember how they behaved previously, and behave as a result of the consequences they experienced. If they got in trouble for pushing another child down, they probably wouldn’t try something like that again—at least if an adult is nearby. Remember that a child’s behavior is all about making connections to things and learning about the consequences of their actions.
Writing Child Characters (5-8)
Once a child outgrows the toddler phase, they will start displaying more critical thought and preferences. They might have a favorite show, a favorite genre of music, and a favorite pastime, and all of those reveals a little bit more about the person they are shaping up to be. They are really starting to get the hang of being alive, so you can experiment more with how they interact with people and engage with their surroundings.
How Children Think
At this age, children have learned enough about the world to where they can start making their own judgments. They can tell now when a person is acting suspiciously, or when an animal poses a threat to their safety. They can form their own opinions, and they can approach new situations with more confidence.
However, children at this age are still impressionable. Although they exhibit more free thought and preference, they still tend to trust in the beliefs that their parents or peers instill in them. If their classmates insist it is cool to curse or act tough, then that belief will probably stick with them. Alternatively, if they have been raised in a certain religion, they likely won’t question it. After all, why would their parents lie to them?
At this age, children still often have trouble separating reality from superstition. They might believe in mythical figures like Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny, and they might be afraid of monsters under their bed. It is not unlikely for a child to have an imaginary friend, too.
How Children Speak
At this stage, children have learned the basic mechanics of speech, and communicate in complete sentences. They will also often crack jokes, ask questions, and tell stories. However, topics that are more conceptual or theoretical will still go over their heads, and it is important to remember that there will still be words and phrases that they do not understand. Additionally, children do not generally speak in overly complex sentences.
Children at this age will begin vocalizing more of their opinions, and they might try to challenge their parents’ suggestions and rules. If their parents ask them to do something, they are more likely to argue or negotiate, rather than throwing a tantrum—but of course, they likely haven’t completely outgrown this reaction yet. Children can still throw tantrums, but your characters may come across as too immature if that happens too often at this age.
Children can often be funnier or wittier than adults, and they might know newer slang. They could use terms from a television show or video game, and they might repeat idioms and figures of speech without actually understanding what they mean. You can tell a lot about a child’s personality based on what they say, so craft their dialogue carefully.
How Children Behave
This age is a particularly difficult one to convey, since there are many ways that children are still similar, and many ways they deviate from each other. Children develop at different rates, so one child might have learned incredible patience and restraint at this age, while other children may throw tantrums and fight. In some ways, it gives you the freedom to really craft them into little individuals. In other ways, however, it can feel like too much freedom to mess up.
Children really start to come out of their shells around this age. They will have favorite subjects in school, hobbies, and they might even start displaying real skills in sports or music. They will start to find new ways to spend their free time, like reading, climbing trees, playing video games, or socializing, and those activities will influence the ways they continue to learn. Just try to remember that they are still young, and they have a lot they still need to learn about the world.
Writing Preteen Characters (9-12)
This is often a difficult time in people’s lives. Middle School is tough, and it can pose many complex challenges to people who are still figuring themselves out. It is an awkward transition, where they are not quite teenagers, but they feel too old to be considered children. They are expected to find things they are good at and figure out what they want to do with their lives, and some preteens let that pressure bring them down. When so much of their identity is based around what they almost are, that can lead many kids to either resent or eagerly await what the future has in store for them.
How Preteens Think
There are a few things that define the mind of a preteen child. For one thing, many children that are approaching their teen years strive to distance themselves from their younger peers. They aren’t like them, they’re older. This can lead them to act overly confident (“I can do that!”) and independent (“I don’t need your help, mom!”). They may try to engage in more adult activities in order to convince those around them that they are more mature. However, if they get hurt or scared, they will probably still seek comfort from a trusted adult.
The middle school years are also a notoriously hormonal time, and that is likely going to result in stronger emotional reactions to situations. Minor problems would get blown way out of proportion, and everything is going to seem like a bigger deal than it is. This is further exacerbated by the fact that adults “just don’t get it.”
It is not uncommon for children around this age to start having angry outbursts. For more information, check out my article “Writing a Character with Anger Issues.”
However, at this point, your character really would be beginning to mature. They would have a much more confident stance on a variety of topics, and they begin to formulate beliefs that contradict what their parents taught them. By this time, they would have the ability to think for themself and determine what is right and wrong on their own—and those determinations could end up being completely perpendicular to their parents’ beliefs.
How Preteens Speak
Dialogue for preteens is going to start resembling the way adults speak since they will have a much stronger grasp of language and conversation. However, although they understand the conventions of language, they aren’t going to walk around speaking like little scholars. More than likely, they will try to communicate the same way as their peers, and what they determine to be cool. That could mean constantly spewing inside jokes, online references, or profanity, but most preteens have the sense to speak in different ways depending on their company.
It’s also pretty common for preteens to have obsessions with something, such as a specific television show, aesthetic, game, or sport, and they are likely to gush about it often. These obsessions are often short-lived, but they can occupy a large space in your character’s mind, so they would naturally want to talk about what is important to them at any given moment.
How Preteens Behave
Around this age, children are going to begin to think romantically. They might develop crushes on their classmates, and they can become rather absorbed in the business of dating. They could also become interested in experimenting with their sexuality, something that can all too often result in familial disapproval. However, that is a necessary—though often difficult—part of learning about themself.
In an attempt to figure out who they are and who they want to be, it is not uncommon for children to go through relatively short phases. As silly as it might sound, children around this age frequently experiment with phases such as gothic or rebellious, and they may engage in trends like dying their hair and dressing in the latest fashions. They may also choose to stop (or start) going to church, sneak out of the house at night, or skip school.
Writing Teenage Characters (13-18)
Writers often mistakenly write teenagers like they are fully developed and experienced adults. However, like when adult actors play teenagers in a movie, this comes across as inauthentic and strange. Teenagers are intelligent and grown, but they are not yet like adults. There are many things that they still don’t fully understand, and they are not as emotionally developed as adults. They still have a lot to learn about the world.
However, teenagers are stuck in a strange position. They are quickly approaching adulthood, but they are almost always still treated like clueless children. Teenagers rarely get the respect they should, and that often plays a large part in how they view adults.
How Teenagers Think
Teenagers have a lot to deal with, and many of them still require a certain degree of emotional support—that they often don’t receive. They do not yet know how to cope with things in a healthy way, and they might make poor choices that could lead them down a bad road. Teenagers still require a lot of support and guidance from the adults in their lives, even if that is difficult for them to admit.
Teenagers face a lot of pressure. They are expected to make huge decisions about their future, and making mistakes now could determine the outcome of their life. That can be terrifying, and they might respond by buckling under the pressure or adopting a nihilistic attitude. Of course, that depends on the person; some could flourish under the pressure and find success. But the point is, no matter what your character is like, they’re likely going to be going through a lot at this age, and you shouldn’t make the mistake of taking that lightly.
How Teenagers Speak
Writing dialogue for teenagers is probably the easiest part since most of them will speak in a manner that’s almost exactly like an adult. They might occasionally say something immature or behave in a socially unacceptable manner, but for the most part, you wouldn’t have to think too hard about the way you write their speech.
Some writers lean on old tropes to emphasize the age of their character, but that’s (like) a bad idea (y’know?). For the most part, these stereotypes are old and inaccurate, and they’re only going to make you unpopular among your younger readers. Take your teenage characters seriously, and never reduce any of your characters to a predictable trope.
How Teenagers Behave
People often look back on their teenage years as when they were “young and dumb,” so don’t assume that your teenage characters should always make the best decisions. They still have a lot to learn, and many teens won’t consider all the consequences of a bad idea—like skipping class, sneaking out, or getting drunk.
With that said, teenagers are often faced with situations where they need to act more mature, such as a job interview. At the same time, they may still get in trouble with their friends and go to parties. They will often balance these two sides of their life for some time, keeping a certain amount of playfulness in the way they live day-to-day.
If you want some inspiration for giving your teenage characters some “young and dumb” flaws, take a look at my other article “How to Create Complex Flaws for Characters.”
Draw Inspiration from your Own Experiences
If you still need inspiration, try looking at your own past. You were a child once, like everyone else. Try to remember all the stupid things you did, and why you did them. Think about what you liked, and the phases you went through. Additionally, remember the children you played with, your siblings, and any other child you interacted with growing up. What were they like? What games did you play together? For the most authentic characters, don’t be afraid to base them off of children you remember growing up.
Thankfully, there are still children everywhere, so you can simply go outside if you can’t find any useful memories from your childhood. Take note of how children behave in grocery stores and parks, and don’t be afraid of sparking up a conversation with the parents. Chances are, they’ll start talking about the silly things their children do without much prompting, but you could always take an honest approach and tell them you’re working on writing a story.
If you know other people with kids, or if you have children, nieces, or nephews, simply spend more time with them and consider which aspects of their behavior you would want to incorporate into your own characters. Another option is to speak with your own parents about how you, and your siblings if you have any, behaved when you were younger. They will likely appreciate the opportunity to reminisce, and you could get some more information on stages of your life that you wouldn’t remember as well.
However you decide to gather information, you should try to learn from your surroundings, otherwise, your understanding of a child’s behavior will be purely conceptual.
Good luck with creating compelling young characters for your story!