Writing Kids: Try NOT Making Them Into Horrific Hellspawn

mei totoro

I’m continually flabbergasted by the way writers portray children, particularly on TV and in movies, particularly if they are teenagers, particularly particularly if they are teenage girls. It’s like these people have no idea what it was like to be a tinier, dumber version of themselves and so just opt for “most annoying creature I can devise” as a strategy for writing young people.

Teenagers are usually mean, vindictive, bitchy and loathsome. They seem to ignore people who clearly know what they’re talking about purely on the virtue of being a teenager. Look, I know we all go through a phase in which we think we know What’s Best and that are parents are Total Squares. But holy crap, you guys, I don’t remember just screaming at my parents for no reason, day in and day out.

What’s more, that doesn’t make for compelling characters. Yes, kids might be mouthy, entitled and spoiled, but this isn’t characterization, it’s surface-level glossing. A great example is Kevin McCallister of Home Alone. That kid is a total jerkface at the opening of the movie — he deserves everything he gets. It takes the trials of the film and his feather-heavy torturing of two completely inept burglars for him to change as a character.

Lots of kids never get to go through this change in a script or book. They remain irritating plot devices if they serve any sort of purpose beyond being a loud piece of background for a scene. That sucks, writers. Do better.

If you want a crash course in doing better, might I suggest My Neighbor Totoro, because damn.

The movie has a few cultural items that might set it apart from your standard modern Western story, what with being Japanese, set in the 1950s, and including no TV or other distractions with which the kids are compelled. Beyond that, though, it’s a story that captures what it’s like to be young. The kids are happy. They explore their world. They interact with adults in a manner that isn’t reduced to “Why won’t you take me to the mall/buy me this thing/pay attention to me!” They’re interesting characters with more than one characteristic available to them, despite the fact that they are not yet fully formed adult humans.

The kids in Totoro have drives. They’re eager to explore the world around them. They have relationships. They are still people. That’s an easy fact to forget when it comes to writing kids, maybe because when you’re an adult, kids seem so different and being a kid feels so different from your current experience. It’s hard to remember what being young was like; it’s harder still to accurately portray that when projecting it onto someone else. But it’s still doable.

It all comes down to writing good characters, and if you throw in a weak character, people know it. If you throw in a weak child character, not only do people know it, but generally, it’s irritating, because the default mode for kids tends to be “totally irritating, spoiled brat.” And there’s just something about that that’s not compelling to read or watch. That’s not to say that such characters should be off the table entirely, but a one-note character is hard to excuse, especially if they’re actively annoying.

I remember what it was like to be a kid, and I don’t relate to little demon-spawn numbskulls. If you feel compelled to write a kid and you don’t remember what being one was like, try talking to one. Or watch Totoro, as I did twice this weekend. It’s very well worth it in any case.

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Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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