Writing for children is both a joy and a challenge. As with any work of fiction, no matter how fantastical, characters still need to be grounded in more mundane, true-to-life experiences to build a relatable connection with readers and establish emotional resonance. Kids look for themselves in the books they read; they crave characters who are struggling with similar doubts and fears, trials and triumphs.
While I find it much more exciting to write about ghosts and magic and epic adventures, I’ve realized the importance of including plenty of smaller, more personal moments that explore a character’s complexities and vulnerabilities.
Some experiences, though not necessarily unique to childhood, truly shape a child’s world. A change in family dynamics, friendships, home or school life, etc. can cause that whole world to shift, creating ripples that color every choice, every reaction. Even small events can have a powerful impact if they trigger emotions such as joy, pride, sorrow, fear, or embarrassment.
Think back to the moments from your own childhood, both good and bad, that are seared into your memory—the ones that influenced the things you love, the things you fear, the person you’ve become. Some memories are magical, others awkward or painful. Perhaps you can still feel the grass beneath your bare feet as you play hide and seek on a warm summer evening. You may still hear the sound of your parents fighting, or the buzz of the dentist’s drill as you had your first cavity filled.
As you invent experiences for your own young characters, here are a few possibilities to get you started:
- Losing a beloved toy or comfort object
- Fear of the dark
- A visit to the doctor/dentist/orthodontist
- First day of school/attending a new school
- Moving to a new town
- A best friend moving away
- Evolving friend groups
- Mean teachers—or exceptional ones
- Homework or school projects
- An embarrassing moment in front of peers
- First pet
- First crush
- Saving up money for a coveted item
- A new baby in the house
- Coping as the oldest/middle/youngest child
- Parents divorcing or remarrying
It can be easy for adults to brush off the worries of children as simple or “no big deal,” because we forget. We lose perspective. That’s why it’s critical to talk to kids, observe, read, and create connections with their reality, their problems and struggles. Kids are masters at detecting authenticity—or the lack of it. We, as writers, can’t simply fake our way through. We have to get it right.
It’s too important not to.