Ask children’s and YA writers about problems in their work and you’ll get a variety of responses:
“The adults keep taking my story over.”
“I don’t want my characters to suffer.”
“I have problems creating enough tension in my plot.”
“I don’t want to write edgy stories, even though that’s what sells.”
If you have one or more of these problems, then I’m issuing you a challenge: Stop parenting your characters. There are a lot of ways that writers parent their characters, but no matter how you do it the end result is the same—a story that just doesn’t work and ultimately won’t sell.
Fortunately, it’s a habit you can break.
LOSE THE PARENTS TO ADVANCE THE PLOT.
The No. 1 parenting problem that characters face is adults, usually parents, who stop the fun and solve all of the problems instead of letting the characters get into trouble and then get back out again. The solution is obvious: Get mom and dad out of the way.
“I recall my horror, when first starting out, to hear Betsy Byars recommend killing off my characters’ parents,” author and writing coach Esther Hershenhorn says. “But she was right. A young character acting, moving forward on his plotline, against all odds, is what ultimately empowers the character and thus the reader.” From The Boxcar Children to Harry Potter, there is a long tradition of killing off mom and dad to get the story underway. Even Hershenhorn opted for this solution: “I have indeed orphaned a few characters, namely Pippin Biddle and his sisters in my picture book Fancy That.”
If burying mom and dad doesn’t work for your story, there are other ways to get them out of the way.
Adults, both real and imagined, are wonderfully self-absorbed and don’t always notice what is going on under their own noses. “In my novel Grace Happens, I kept the parents out of the main character’s way by making the mother so self-involved in her career as a movie star that she left her daughter’s care to a nanny and a tutor who do their jobs and are caring, but not overly so,” YA and children’s author Jan Czech says.
So you can keep mom and dad busy with what often keeps real parents busy: work. “In my book The Lucky Star, set during the Great Depression, I sent dad off to a work camp with the Civilian Conservation Corps, and mom found part-time work,” author Judy Young says. “This left the main character, Ruth, alone to figure out how to help her younger sister learn to read when their school shut down.”
But you don’t have to leave them alone; you can also put someone permissive in charge. “For my YA mystery Suspect, I sent the father off to a weeklong conference,” Kristin Wolden Nitz says. “Other adults surrounded my main character, but they were inclined to give her more autonomy.”
Can’t work a parent’s full-time job into the story? “In Rules, the character’s mother was an accountant, so Cynthia Lord set the story during tax season,” Hershenhorn says. Seasonal jobs, job-related travel or a handy high-pressure deadline can all work to keep pesky adults out of the main story line.
Worried such solutions won’t be believable? “So many kids understand what it feels like to fly beneath the radar in a hectic household,” YA novelist Sydney Salter says. It may not be the norm, but it happens in most families at one time or another.
USE ADULT CHARACTERS AS OBSTACLES.
If you simply cannot get the parents out of your story, then make good use of them. “I think children solve their own problems no matter what the adults around them are doing,” YA author A.S. King says. “For example, take an overprotective parent who is trying to solve every problem a kid has. Underneath it all, the child is actually dealing with the problem of having an overprotective parent, whether by acting out or retracting into a shell where they have some level of control over their life.”
To Salter, adults can be a great device to mix up the lives of young characters. “I do sometimes have older characters give misguided advice to younger characters,” she says. “That way rather than solving problems, the adults complicate them. Polly’s grandmother in Swoon at Your Own Risk is an advice columnist, but she isn’t helping Polly solve her boy problems at all—she’s only making things worse!”
King also uses adult characters to create and exacerbate problems. “For the most part, adults are a very real and very constant obstacle to my characters. I don’t keep them out of the way at all. During teen years, it’s often adults—teachers, parents, coaches—who cause problems. Why get rid of them when they are an authentic and usable resource?”
If this is a technique you plan to use, be warned: There is a balancing act between making your adults part of the problem and inhumanly dense. “They may not know how to help, or they may be misguided, but most of the time, adults are simply trying to do the best they can at parenting, teaching, coaching, etc.,” Salter says. “Maybe it’s not good enough, but have sympathy for your adult characters, even if your younger characters don’t. In other words, give each of your characters a mixture of many good and bad traits. That’s what makes them human.” Even if your adult characters are werewolves or zombies, they need to be believable and somewhat sympathetic.
LET YOUR PROTAGONIST SOLVE PROBLEMS.
There is one final way to keep from writing a story where mom and dad solve all the problems—make the problems something the adults are simply incapable of fixing. “In my novel The Dark Divine, my main character Grace comes from a close-knit family that is very involved in each other’s lives,” author Bree Despain says. “She has a father who is interested in helping her solve the problem she faces in the book, but even though he provides her with some of the information she needs, ultimately the problem is something that only Grace can solve. No matter how much her father wants to help her, he can’t. He has to step aside in order to let Grace figure out how to solve the problem on her own. However, I did put him on an airplane at the climax of the book just to ensure that he didn’t get in the way.”
Think you can’t use this technique in a book for even the youngest of readers? Think again. “In my picture book The Garden Angel, the main character, grieving the loss of her beloved grandfather, plants a garden—something they used to do together—all by herself and dresses the scarecrow in her grandfather’s gardening clothes,” Czech says. “She’s not aware that she is consciously working through her grief—she’s simply doing something that gives her some control of the situation.”
Carefully select the problem that your character has, so that no matter how much the adults want to help, it simply isn’t an option.
KEEP KID CHARACTERS REAL.
Another way we unintentionally parent our characters to the detriment of the story is by making them too good to be true. A bit of “bad” behavior may be necessary both to make your characters believable and to move the story forward.
“Allowing my characters to do a little bit of rebellious sneaking around helps me keep parents out of the way,” Salter says. “In My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters, Jory doesn’t tell her parents that she’s saving money for a nose job because she knows they disapprove of plastic surgery for teens. Readers relate to keeping a few secrets from parents so it makes the plot, as well as my characters, believable.”
Nitz seconds this approach. “In Saving the Griffin, my young characters kept everything secret from the parents. The mother saw signs that things were going on, but misinterpreted them completely.”
Not only is this type of behavior more realistic, it also leads to a better story. “Let your characters learn from small mistakes early in the story so that they will be able to make bigger leaps in problem solving by the end,” Salter says. “Otherwise, the resolution will appear forced or unrealistic. Characters need to show incremental changes all through the story so they have the strength to overcome the biggest conflicts by the end.” Getting mom and dad out of the way is pointless if your character isn’t willing to make the mistakes that make things happen, leading to later solutions and character growth.
GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS ROOM TO GROW.
Aside from wanting your characters to behave better than any real kid you’ve ever met, another problem comes when writers aren’t willing to make their characters suffer for the sake of a good story. If you can’t bring yourself to make your character suffer, even for the sake of crafting a top-notch story, then maybe you aren’t parenting your character, but the people buying your books. “I think if an author is overly worried about putting their character in ‘too much’ danger, then he is probably trying too hard to ‘parent’ the reader, and not just the character,” Despain says. “No reader or publisher out there is going to identify with a character who doesn’t ever make mistakes. If you want your characters to feel real, then you have to allow them to act like real people.”
King agrees. “We often hear censors lashing out at YA authors for their characters using drugs or having sex, as if all readers will run out and do the same things. Fact is, teenagers are really smart and we rarely give them credit for that.”
In addition to respecting your reader, as an author you must recognize that your readers have a different set of experiences than you do. “Children don’t have as much of a sense of mortality and don’t see as much inherent danger lurking in every shadow as adults do, so they more readily accept that the child character can survive in situations [in] which an adult would say, ‘no, you should never do that,’” Young says. “But child readers will also know when the character has reached the ‘no way’ limit, which will make the story unbelievable. A writer needs to think about whether it’s perceived danger or real danger. Is it really an impossible situation, or can your character get out of it in a reasonably believable manner?”
Handling dangerous situations in an age-appropriate way is a must. “One of my favorite books for kids is Henry’s Freedom Box,” King says. “Henry is in such danger due to the historical setting of the novel. Without going into too much detail, the author showed us that danger by putting [him] in a box and sending him north. But the author did not show the physical consequences of not putting Henry in that box, because the age group would not have been ready for the brutal realities of what happened to slaves at the time.
“That said, the book included the savage separation of Henry’s family, and the selling of people, which children of that age group can grasp and learn from. In short, I feel the truth is never dangerous, as long as it’s age-appropriate.”
Respect both your young characters and your young readers. As much as we adults want to keep our characters and our readers safe, we simply can’t if we want to create literature that is believable and exciting, enlightening and empowering.
Give your readers and your characters the chance to surprise you with what they can handle, and you might grow as a writer in the process.