Writing Excuses 15.21: Writing about Children with Shannon and Dean Hale
Key Points: Writing about children can be difficult, and you may stray into caricature. How do you avoid making fun of them? First, don’t just transcribe what kids actually say. Try to give the sense of being children without hitting the reader over the head, especially in dialogue. Children focus on different things than adults. If you add grammatical issues, be sparing. Kids are sometimes overly precise, applying a rule everywhere. Why are you writing about a child, focus on the bits that enrich the story. Looking at the world as a child does can let you portray the fresh wonder of the world. The life experience, and stakes, are very different for children. When the protagonist is a child, or a teen, the stakes rise, and the tension, too. Consider kids as foreign visitors, trying to avoid faux pas. Teenagers are spies in adult country! Teens are not little adults, they are trying to figure out the transition from child to adult. Don’t minimize their feelings. To write about kids or teens, you need to respect them. Pay attention to what is important for the story, and the relationships, how other characters react to what the children say and do.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 21.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing about Children.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Shannon] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guests, Shannon and Dean Hale.
[Dean] Hi. I’m Dean.
[Shannon] And I’m Shannon.
[Brandon] Thanks, you guys, for coming on the podcast with us.
[Shannon] Yeah, it’s great.
[Dean] Thank you.
[Brandon] You’re going to tell us how to write about children.
[Shannon] Okay, let’s do it.
[Brandon] So, this has been surprisingly hard when I’ve done it. I’m never sure if I’m going too far and it’s straying into caricature. Like, I can usually tell for an adult when I’ve gone too far in a vernacular or a voice or things like this. When you’re approaching writing about children, how do you keep away from making it… It almost seems silly to me. Does that make sense? Like, I’m making fun of them rather than actually writing like them.
[Shannon] It’s actually… I’ve written… Where I’ve taken direct transcrip… Directly transcribed what my children have said, and tried to put it into a story. Our editors are always like, “That’s too extreme.”
[Dean] Nobody would be like that.
[Shannon] “No one talks like that. Come on!”
[Dean] What are these, monsters?
[Shannon] So you can’t actually… Actually, I did write what I thought was a humorous slice of life story about our four-year-old twins. The editor legitimately thought it was a horror story.
[Shannon] I was very… The notes were very confused. I was like, “Why is she saying… Why is she reacting…” Then, finally, she referred to it as a house of hell. I was like, “Oh, she thought it was a horror story. That’s just our everyday.”
[Shannon] But it is… You can’t do exactly what kids do. Just like… But it’s true with any characters. Dialogue would be really boring if we just transcribed what people actually say. So you have to get the sense that they’re a child without hitting the reader over the head. Particularly in dialogue.
[Mary Robinette] What are some of the markers in dialogue that you find for believable child language? Is it a difference in vocabulary, sentence structure, con…
[Shannon] You know… First of all, I would say children are very observant about things that adults don’t care about. So for… Just what they talk about is going to be different. That can be so much fun. What does this kid… What are they interested in, what would they notice? So there are these non sequiturs that just kind of pop up. It’s a great thing for humor. I would say also, just as with any character, if you want to have like grammatical issues for the kid, pick like one or two and stick with those. Don’t hit the reader over the head with, like, weird grammar things constantly. Just have that consistency be for that character. Just like you would for an adult character who might have a certain quirk with the way they speak. You don’t… You wouldn’t do it every single sentence because it gets to be too much.
[Mary Robinette] When I was doing the puppet theater, we were often… I mean, the protagonist was always a child. One of the things that I found was that… Also, going into schools a lot, was that kids tended to be overly precise sometimes. That they would have learned a rule and they wouldn’t actually have any nuance about how the rule was applied.
[Brandon] I’ve noticed this in my children. This is absolutely true for almost all kids I’ve met. That they… You tell them something. They want that to be the way the world works. They now understand the world. Then, when you immediately violate it, because of the wiggle room we give ourselves, they call you on it. I remember when my… He was only like three or four. We had talked about certain words that we don’t say. Then we went to a Disney movie and they said like one word that was like this. Then, later on, that kid was describing the movie to my father… His grandpa… And said, “Don’t go see that movie, grandpa. It is filthy.”
[Brandon] It’s like a Pixar movie, right? I’m like, “Oh. Okay. Yeah.”
[Shannon] I actually wrote a chapter book that was based on our twins, and really tried to be true to what it felt like to be that age. My… I sent it to someone who didn’t know it was about these twins. My response was that the character was unlikable and nobody would be interested in this child.
[Dean] Your children are unlikable and no one is interested in them.
[Mary Robinette] She’s also living in a hell house.
[Shannon] But it can be too much. You don’t… Like, too much reality, nobody wants. So what do… Why a child? Why are you writing about a child, first of all? What are they bringing to it? So you focus on those little quirks, those little bits that can just enrich a story.
[Dean] The best part for me about writing from… As a child, because that’s kind of where I go, is get into that headspace, is just looking at the world in a different way. It makes the story somehow more interesting. It’s like that quote from… Was it GK Chesterton? That’s about the dragon and the… I can’t remember how it goes, but the idea that…
[Shannon] That… The quote you’re talking about is GK Chesterton says that fantasy doesn’t tell you if dragons exist. Fantasy shows you that dragons can be defeated. I think you’re thinking of a different quote.
[Dean] No, I am… I’m thinking of the door one. That there’s a…
[Shannon] Oh… Yes. So… Like a kid of 10…
[Dean] Go, quote.
[Shannon] Is interested in reading a story that says, “Tommy opened the door and saw a dragon.” A kid of four is interested to read a story that says, “Tommy opened a door.”
[Dean] It’s finding…
[Shannon] Everything is still so new.
[Dean] Finding the wonder in those things that are sort of rote and old is… For… As a writer, is awesome. I mean, you can be able to kind of get that reinvigorated look at something from the other side.
[Dan] Yeah, that’s what I did with Zero G, which was the middle grade that I put out. The plot is… I always pitch it as Home Alone in Space, but really, it’s Die Hard in space with a 12-year-old. It’s Die Hard if John McClane were super interested in how fun it was to jump around in antigravity, right? Like, that’s his focus. He’s always either trying to have fun or he’s hiding from bad guys. Because those are the cool things that a kid is going to care about in that situation.
[Brandon] So, when we were talking about this ahead of time, you mentioned the stakes are really different for children in life, which really struck me. Can you expand upon that? How are stakes different for children? How does that influence writing about them?
[Shannon] Children don’t have the same… Well, life experience. But, just, they don’t have as much in their toolbox. They don’t understand how things work, they don’t have the confidence, they don’t have experience, they don’t have a credit card, you know, they don’t have… So when they’re put in a situation, it’s going to be totally different than if an adult were in it. You can get so much tension by having the protagonist be a kid. And a teen as well. Also, even if the main character isn’t a child, if you insert a child into a situation, the stakes go through the roof. Immediately. Oh, we’ve got to save these people. Yeah, let’s do that. Oh, and there’s a three-year-old about to fall off the bridge. [OOOOH!] I mean, it just…
[Dean] We did that with Squirrel Girl. Like, we were like, “We need more tension here.”
[Shannon] Let’s add a baby.
[Dean] That’s exactly what we did.
[Shannon] She’s not just saving the day, she’s saving a specific baby. Suddenly, it’s like, “Yes, we need to do this immediately.” I was… We were just watching Adventures in Babysitting last night with our kids. I was trying to explain to them, because I’m a nerdy writer mom that’s explaining story to my children in the middle of a movie…
[Dean] Mom, we’re watching.
[Shannon] I know. But, I’m like, “Do you understand why…”
[Shannon] If this was about adults, it wouldn’t matter, because…
[Dean] Can we watch it now, Mom?
[Shannon] They’ve got a credit card, they can just get a new tire. But, added to the fact that all these things are happening, is the fact that they can’t let their parents know. They can’t make the most logical easiest way… Choice to get out of this situation because they can’t let their parents know. An adult wouldn’t have that same situation. So, the stakes are higher, the tension’s higher, and then [you opt] for fun.
[Mary Robinette] Sorry, it just occurred to me… One of the things that I often say, like, when I’m talking about kids is that… What you said, that they just lack experience. But I think of them as foreign visitors. Like, when you come… When you go to a foreign country, what you want is someone to explain what the rules are so that you don’t make any social faux pas. So, like, when I go into… When we would go into schools doing school visits with the puppets, the mob mentality was the thing you kind of had to fight. Because they would… Like, if one kid did it, everyone would assume that that was the thing you should do. But it occurs to me that teenagers are actually like spies who have come into adult country and don’t want anyone to know…
[Mary Robinette] That they’re from the outside or child land. So they’re desperately trying to not get caught is still being children.
[Shannon] Yes. Oh, teens are… I love writing about teens. I think a mistake a lot of writers make is they don’t want… First of all, they don’t want to be annoying. They don’t want their character to be annoying. So they just make them into adults. They say they’re 16, but they really just behave like adults. They’re missing so much great story matter there. What matters to a teenager? What are they going through in their lives? But in addition to the science fiction adventure or whatever you’re writing, you’ve also got that element of this is a person trying to figure out… Navigate that transition from child to adult. That’s really interesting.
[Dean] I think one of the things that we do as adults, or at least that I do, is tend to believe or to minimize the feelings of the kids, or minimize the experience.
[Dean] To believe here they are going through this thing that… [Adolescence?] Oh, that’s ridiculous. How is that difficult? But if I go into writing it that way, it rings weird. But the kids are feeling with the same intensity or more than we would if we were put in… If we were plucked out of our familiar environment and put into an environment where we don’t know what the rules are.
[Mary Robinette] It’s stressful.
[Shannon] That’s a good point, that you have to absolute… When you’re writing about kids or teens, you absolutely have to respect children and teenagers. You can’t…
[Dean] It can be hard.
[Shannon] It will come off as false if you go in thinking and judging them and being like annoyed with them and wanting to just make them older. Come in respecting their point of view or it will be false.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Dean, you’re going to tell us about The Princess In Black.
[Dean] The Princess In Black is a phenomenal…
[Dean] Yes, it’s a… Let me see if I think of another word that you can say. No, it… What’s the type of book that we are calling it? It’s like transitional chapter book about a g… Princess Magnolia who is a princess and loves being a princess and walks around in pretty dresses. But when the monster alarm rings, she becomes the princess in black, and puts on a black costume and goes out and fights evil. As a superhero would. There are many books in the series, some of them…
[Shannon] There are seven so far. Yes.
[Dean] Oh, and if… Wait…
[Shannon] [Gorgeously?] illustrated by LeUyen Pham.
[Dean] How close are we to Easter? We’re past Easter. Because I was going to recommend, there’s a hungry bunny horde book if you’re celebrating Lagomorph Liberation or some other kind of…
[Shannon] [A bunny horde book] belongs in every Easter basket.
[Dean] That’s true. That’s true. So, The Princess In Black by Shannon and Dean Hale. Illustrated by…
[Shannon and Dean] LeUyen Pham.
[Brandon] We love these books in our household. My sons just went straight through the whole series eagerly, so… They’re fantastic.
[Shannon] Yay. Thank you.
[Dean] More coming.
[Dan] I purposely did not tell my children that I was hanging out with you guys today because they would have just blown a gasket. So.
[Shannon] I have to tell a quick story. One time I… My son borrowed a bunch of books from a friend. Several of them were Sanderson books. We were going out to dinner with the Sanderson’s, so I brought my son’s friend’s books with us and he signed them to this guy. When I returned them, I was like, “Hey, just FYI, I saw Brandon Sanderson, so we just had him sign your books to you.” He said, “Hold on a second.” He ran upstairs, he ran back down, with all seven Harry Potter books and said, “Would you like to borrow these?”
[Brandon] I’ll sign them.
[Shannon] That’s not going to happen. But only because… Also, talking about Princess in Black in terms of writing about children, these kinds of books… There’s lots of different ways to write about children. In some of them, we like get inside a kid’s head and show the world how they’re seeing it. In other ones, like Princess in Black, it’s purely wish fulfillment fun. There are no adults in this world. So we’re not showing children by comparison to what they’re not. We are just having kids in adventures. So the way they talk and the way they experience things is a very different style than in some of our other books.
[Brandon] I want to circle back to this what you said before about respecting children as you’re writing about them. Because I find this is a hard line to walk sometimes, because some of the things my children do, as we’ve talked about, you just can’t put on the page. Like my children, I think all children, are basically sociopaths for a large part of their…
[Narcissistic sociopaths. Yup.]
[Brandon] Getting that across, getting across… Like, I love my 10-year-old. He’s awesome. But he will not accept that the world is not the way he wants it to be. If we say, “You have to do this.” He says, “No.” We say, “But if you don’t, your teacher said this.” “No, she didn’t.”
[Brandon] Right? I’m like, “No, we have a piece of paper here.” He’s like, “She didn’t say that. It doesn’t say that.” He won’t accept it, it’s right there. Like, evidence means nothing to my 10-year-old, right?
[Brandon] Because he says it’s not. So, how do you do things like this in a story about children, but also respect them and not act like they’re… There’s this fine line between talking down or treating down and also presenting how they are. That line can be really tough for me sometimes.
[Shannon] Yeah. It is a really fine line. Honestly, if we really wrote children exactly as they are in movies and books, nobody would like those characters at all.
[Dean] They just really aren’t likable.
[Shannon] But we love them in real life.
[Shannon] But you just can’t show that.
[Dean] [garbled… The paranoids aren’t there… The paranoia…]
[Shannon] It’s insane. So you have to show the bits… We’re always asking ourselves, what’s most important for this story? So, what matters about this story? Then characters in service of this story. Also, I mean, I think the… I’m sure you guys have talked about this many times. The heart, the foundation of every single story, no matter the genre, is relationships.
[Dean] Relationships. Oh, yeah.
[Shannon] Relationships between characters is all that matters, ultimately. Everything else is set dressing. So how the other characters react to the children is equally important to what the children say and do.
[Brandon] That’s a really good point, thinking about it. Like, that’s another dynamic that changes your perspective. Asking what the stakes are, asking what are the relationships, how does the child view the relationships with those around them? Which is going to be very different, but still very intense and important than the way I view the relationships.
[Dan] Well, those relationships… I love what you said about that being the most important thing. To talk about my own middle grade series again, the second one, Dragon Planet, I had this fantastic plot built, of how he was going to go out and explore this brand-new planet and there were dragons on it and all this stuff. I’m like, “This is still so boring.”
[Dan] “Why is this Dragon book so boring?” Then just added in the little character arc was that the little boy is trying to get his dad to think of him as a scientist. All of a sudden, all of the stakes were there because that relationship was in place.
[Mary Robinette] I mean, I think of examples of stories where… That do not have relationships. But all of the ones that I get really excited about, like, the ones that I read for… Certainly, I think if you have characters on the page, that if they are not having relationships, there is a problem.
[Shannon] I mean any relationship, not just romantic, but any kind of connection…
[Mary Robinette] No no.
[Shannon] Between other characters.
[Mary Robinette] I just… There’s… This is a total digression, but there’s a story that I love that has no characters on the page at all. So…
[Brandon] Once in a while.
[Mary Robinette] Once in a while. Once in a while, you can do it.
[Shannon] Any rule can be broken.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. But one of the things that I was thinking about with the honoring of the children is that… What I’ve found is that when I try to remember like specific incidents from my own childhood, rather than looking at the outside of the children… From an outside observer point of view, that it is often a lot easier for me to have them move through the world in a way that makes emotional sense.
[Mary Robinette] There was something that someone said when they were… It was at an assembly. Like an art exhibit opening, and someone had brought their infant, and the infant cried. You could hear a couple people in the audience make a dismissive sound. But the speaker said, “I am so glad that you brought your child, because we’ve all been that child. We have all cried.” It was just like, “Yes, yes. We have all cried.” It’s a good reminder that everyone can enjoy art.
[Shannon] Some of us have been the mom who desperately needs to get out of the house. But I can’t leave without the baby.
[Brandon] Didn’t you take the twins on tour with you?
[Shannon] I took my kids everywhere. Yeah. The twins, specifically, came when we shot the movie Austenland in England. So they were there for seven weeks with me.
[Brandon] On set?
[Shannon] Well, you know.
[Dean] When they let you on the set.
[Brandon] All right. We’re out of time on this episode. It’s been awesome. Shannon, you’re going to give us some homework.
[Shannon] Yes. So we talked about how the stakes change when you’ve got a young protagonist. So find a storybook or a movie that is about adults, and conceive of it as instead to be about a teenager or a child. Just write a paragraph about how that plot would change. What would… How would the heart of the story change if everything that happened in the book still happens, but it happens with and to a child?
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.