|The Great Character Tutorial: Act Your Age
Author: CalliScribbles PM
Ever struggled writing a mature, adult character? Ever found yourself unable to remember how you thought and felt at fifteen? Are you plagued by child geniuses that sound as if they'd been fed dictionaries in jars as infants, or by inconsistent characterization at any age? Step right up, and I'll teach you all that experience and psychology has taught me! No diapers are necessary.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Humor - Words: 4,666 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 4 - Published: 08-06-12 - id: 3048292
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This tutorial was brought on by too many authors (doesn't matter who) who might have a decent grip on the physical and motor skills of the children that they write, but haven't the first clue as to how kids think, either because they don't know any children, can't remember their own childhood, or aren't any good at paying attention to children. (Or maybe a combination of all three.)
It also contains a lot of child psychology, child geniuses, art trivia, chess, examples from well known books which would find suing me futile, as I am a college student and flat broke, proven facts about the capabilities of a person as they develop through several different ages, unsolicited advice, and a peppering of opinions.
Age of Main Characters:
The age-old advice of "write what you know" often comes to mind here. I've seen a lot of authors attempt to write characters who are significantly too old for the author's own experience as well as extremely young compared to the author. I've also seen authors pushing middle age with pretty-near perfect ideas of how children see the world, and young authors write exceptionally about age. But it takes a basic understanding of the fact that the way we see the world changes as we age. For a five-year old, (and their parents) a boring, hour-long car ride stretches out into eternity, with "are we there yet?" echoing every five minutes and everyone needing to pee the minute the rest-stop can be seen in the rear view mirror. A teenager or young adult, however, might not think that much of driving an hour to see their friend, at least until their parents ask them to cough up the gas money.
Knowing your character's age is the first step. You need to get reference somehow, such as by talking to people: reading's also good. If you're a teenage girl writing from the perspective of a twenty-year-old guy, go and pick up a book written by an author who is a guy, and at least twenty. Chances are, if you read a few of those, you'll be able to pick up on what the primary concerns of a young man might be, how they think of the world, and what things are important to them and why.
Knowing how your character has changed over time is the second step. Before your story started, your main character was born. (Unless the story opens with their birth, but you usually skip enough time between birth and coming of age that the scene with the prophetic midwife and the slimy, bawling little wrinkly red raisin doesn't count as character development. All newborns look alike unless they somehow belong to you, whether as a cousin or your own offspring.) After your character was born, they grew through infancy, toddlerhood, and their childhood years, probably changing their mind several times along the way and always learning new things. If you're writing a children's book, you might actually start the story proper, and the heavy-duty character development, before they hit puberty. Either way, you've got to establish that the girl with three rings in her eyebrow in your homeroom and the boy who won the debate medal didn't just pop out of midair when the author needed them, even if they're one scene characters and they kind of did just that.
There is, however, a fairly easy way of splitting up all these changes in your character's psyche and showing that they develop or have developed as a person, never mind if they're five or fifty. Showing them gain perspective and maturity is one of the easiest and most effective way of creating a character who is multi-dimensional.
Types of Maturity:
People's brains are amazing things. They're pretty much soft and moldable like play dough for the first five or so years of a child's life: it's only until they start in on the early twenties that the rapid cell growth and connections up there starts to slow down. However, reacting to situations in ways that society sees as reasonable has less to do with the age where your brain starts to slow, (though that slowing of brain growth is often cited as a reason for the drinking age in the United States being twenty one, true or not,) and emotional maturity is also a different thing.
There are three types of maturity that we need to worry about here, and they're all psychological.
The first, Intellectual Maturity, is essentially a set of stages where the developing brain codifies new information and reaches an understanding of complex situations. The first stages are linked in part with age, and as intellectual maturity develops, children learn to tackle even more difficult problems. As they head towards puberty, children learn to solve complex math problems, infer specific meanings from thousands to millions of words in their first language, play games with an increasing amount and complexity of rules (compare tag to football, for example, or hide and seek to chess,) and wrap their head around ideas that can't be made concrete, such as the distance around the earth, the speed of light, or the size of an atom.
Some people process things faster than others, but it's usually a safe bet to say that if a child is at a certain stage – for example, the stage where they have learned to seek evidence of their beliefs - they have already passed out of the previous stage. If you take an elementary school classroom and surveyed their core beliefs in the world, you're going to find a bell curve of intellectual maturity, just as you would find a bell curve for intellectual potential, or IQ. But up until about eleven or twelve, you're not going to find that there's a vast amount of difference between how individual children understand the world. Even if you are writing a "child genius" they won't have the life experience, at five or even ten, to weigh complex problems (such as, say, finances or politics) in the way that an adult would. They'll be more interested in things like beating each other at games and showing off for parents how quickly they can read books.
This tendency to make child geniuses that aren't children (or geniuses, but that's another rant for another time,) is one of my biggest pet peeves in literature. It's as if the author doesn't remember anything about the "smart kids" in their class, or as if the character is nothing but a device, even when they're the main protagonist. Alternatively, it could be because they're stretching too far and deciding that even though child geniuses exist, their character has to be smarter than all of them and they decide that the only way to do that is to have what is basically an adult's brain in a child's body.
For an example of a well done child genius, who is still recognizably a child despite her brilliance, I direct you to Roald Dahl's Matilda. Matilda's achievements are laid out in a very sensible way, starting with her vocabulary at age one, which is enormous, and learning to read at three by picking up the newspaper and sounding out words. Both are remarkable, but certainly possible for her age. (For the information of the readers: between two and five is the best age for learning to read, because of how flexible the brain is then and because of the way learning to read changes the way you process material. The more you've read before the age of six, the better you're going to be at reading and understanding what you read from then on.) Her interests at five are reading and pulling small, clever pranks on her insufferable family. I still shudder at the thought of a four year old walking ten minutes to the library by herself and using the stove to make hot cocoa, but that's more an example of parenting done wrong than characterization. The point being, Matilda is highly intelligent, but her age shows through in her speech and reasoning, because she gives very simple reasons for liking certain books (that they're exciting or mysterious,) and her reasoning behind the hilarious, but sometimes vindictive pranks that she pulls is that the people she pulls them on deserve it, usually because they've been mean to her, or, later as she makes some friends, mean to her friends. That is definitely the reasoning of a young child.
The actions that she takes are also those of a child, what with getting revenge on her parents by simple but embarrassing or inconvenient pranks such as super-gluing her father's hat to his head: her pranks are petty and vindictive, but she's five and she's been raised by petty, vindictive people. Who she happens to be a whole lot smarter than.
A great example of this done kind of wrong is Artemis Fowl. I say kind of because Eoin Colfer does at times give us a very vivid reminder of the fact that Artemis is supposedly in his preteen to early teen years, at least during the first two books, where he's twelve and thirteen, respectively. It isn't any of his exploits in particular that throws me off, (I'll grant him access to technology, textbooks and a lot of other tools because his family's filthy rich, but even the rich can't buy time,) but his living situation taken as a whole. Assuming that Butler and Juliet take care of most of the mundane chores around the house, including keeping tabs on Artemis' mother, who has suffered a mental breakdown after the supposed death of Artemis' father, and maintaining the search for the senior Fowl, Artemis still hasn't had the time in his short life to achieve all of the things that Colfer lays out for him. Among other things, he has somehow (while spending the past few years obsessively searching for his father, who he refuses to believe is dead, and uncovering a secret society of fairies, defrauding them of a substantial bit of money, reverse-engineering their technology, learning their language, and recently actually attending school on a regular basis,) "beaten European chess champion Evan Kashoggi in an on-line tournament, patented more than twenty-seven inventions, and won the architectural competition to design Dublin's new opera house."1 This is in addition to his other criminal activities, mostly white collar crimes such as embezzlement with the aid of an extremely advanced computer program he wrote himself, painting forgery (of the paintings of famous impressionists: just painting in the impressionist style is fairly difficult, but these paintings would have had to be accurate down to a single brushstroke, as art analysts can compare the style quite easily due to the way the paint is applied,) and obtaining a variety of false passports.
Realistically, one could assume that some of this could have gone on when his parents were still in the house, as his father is also a criminal mastermind and would have positively encouraged activities such as hacking, chess and forgery, but he's still supposedly accomplished all of this by thirteen. When his parents are incapacitated, he can do what he wants, but he was eleven when his father was presumably killed by the Russian Mafia (if you haven't read the book, just don't ask,) and for the better part of that year, when he stopped attending school, his main concerns were monitoring and funding the search for his father, and searching for fairies in order to obtain said funding. This takes up most of his time that year by any standard. After that, he continues searching for his father and spends a lot of his free time reverse-engineering the secret stash of fairy technology that he's hidden somewhere in the house and his fully recovered mother doesn't know about. In addition to being enrolled full time at boarding school.
So all of those other accomplishments have to either happen in some available time I don't know about, or several of them have to happen before he reaches the age of eleven. Some of the higher math involved in programming is extraordinarily hard for the human brain to learn before the age of fourteen or fifteen, never mind eleven. Not to mention, it can take several years to learn basic coding, which is why becoming even a decent coder is normally taught in college. You can learn quicker if you study obsessively and your brain just handles the concepts well, but we've run out of time for Artemis to obsess over anything else.
In contrast, Albert Einstein spent his entire career in physics and came up with a handful of breakthroughs. That's Albert freaking Einstein, people, and it took twenty years of work and constant publications before they gave him the Nobel Prize. As far as hobbies, I'm not sure if he had any besides violin-playing. He's remarkable in only two fields.
Popping the book back open, a quick count of fields where Artemis is remarkable is at least five, with coding, art, architecture, engineering, and chess as immediate standouts. All of those require years of rigorous study even when a person is naturally talented at them.
The second type is Emotional Maturity, which is exactly what it sounds like: are a character's actions and expressions of emotion appropriate for their age? You don't expect an seven or eight year old to restrain themselves frombursting into tears in the middle of class if one of their classmates does something like tearing up their art project, though you probably expect them to refrain from punching the other kid, if only because that's against the rules.
Emotional maturity is also more correlated to age than intelligence: some children are more "mature" than others, for whatever reason. Perhaps they are the oldest and have more control because they wish to be seen as more adult and responsible, so even if they feel like crying or punching someone, they might be able to restrain themselves from indulging in behavior that they see as "babyish."
Children less emotionally mature than their peers can tend to be teased or even picked on by them, because it's comparatively easy to make them cry by calling them names. An eight or nine year old who bursts into tears at the destruction of their art project might be labeled "crybaby," but they might react very differently in a different situation, such as falling off their bike and skinning their knees, which is another situation in which a young child might be expected to cry. It depends a lot on the character of the child in question, what they value and what they're afraid of, and a lot of children's books (the Ramona books come to mind,) are focused on the progression of the main characters from emotionally immature in some way (being afraid of the dark, crying when people tease them, learning to deal with small pains like skinning their knees,) to a more mature state.
However, this applies to pre-pubescent and teenage protagonists as well. There are lots of ways in which you'd expect a teenager to react to disappointment (anger and sarcasm come to mind,) which are usually labeled by their parents as "childish." Knowing how emotionally mature your teenage character is can help you discover how they handle things like massive school projects, break ups, rumors, and peer pressure. If you don't consider it, they're bound to behave inconsistently.
For an example of highly consistent (and extremely accurate) emotional maturity, I give you the first three Harry Potter books. Characters mature emotionally throughout the series, starting with the first book, when Harry and Ron learn to get along with Hermione, who they previously hadn't liked. Eventually, they also learn not to give Draco Malfoy the reaction he wants (well, Harry does mostly, anyway: unfortunately, Draco also grows up and learns more effective ways to get his and Ron's goat,) and Harry starts to think of defeating Voldemort as something that is his responsibility. They go from having medium stakes in their adventures, should they fail (detention and the loss of house points and disapproval of their classmates, though what they're all afraid of is being expelled from Hogwarts, which is nowhere near as easy as they think,) to realizing that there are much bigger things at stake. By the end of the first book, they realize that Voldemort's return could mean the end of Hogwarts, a place that they all love and wish to protect. By the second, they've realized that people that they know, (in this case, Ginny Weasley) could die if they don't succeed. In the third, they discover that there is, in fact, a fate worse than death and rescue Sirius from it. (Incidentally, am I the only one who read book three's introduction of Dementors as a sort of metaphor for them emerging into the adult world and taking on adult fears? They're starting to learn that even established authorities, such as the wizarding government, are capable of atrocious things, and this is the first time they've ever dealt with a situation where the lines of innocence and guilt aren't clear-cut.)
Essentially, the emotional growth of Harry, Hermione and Ron matches up very nicely with their intellectual growth throughout the series, but it's especially obvious when they're still (relatively) young and innocent. Also, Rowling takes a character with a lot of past trauma (Harry, obviously,) and is able to portray him both as dealing with his trauma and dealing with it in a way that makes sense, given that he starts at eleven years old. It's not easy to portray a character who undergoes a lot of trauma at a relatively young age and still write them with the attitude of a child of their proper age. (There's also a lot of "plot appropriate to protagonist's age," in the Harry Potter books, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially when your readers are keeping up with the protagonists in age.)
For a much-less consistent depiction of emotional maturity, I give you the third Artemis Fowl book. Yes, Artemis matures considerably during the first three books, to the point where it seems that he's turned over a new leaf and wishes to leave his life of crime behind so that he and his father can become a family again. Colfer does a great job of portraying Artemis cast into confusion as his previously emotionally distant dad tries to reconnect with the son he hasn't seen in two years, and a great job of contrasting that with Artemis' relationship with Butler, who has been his father figure for the past two books and past two years, but who isn't Artemis' intellectual equal in the way that his father is.
Then Colfer pulls the genius card again and, when Butler gets shot, Artemis reacts in a way that better fits a professional spy than a thirteen year old hacker. I'm not even talking about stuffing Butler in the freezer and buzzing the LEP to desperately try to bargain for his life: nope. It's immediately after Butler is shot that Artemis (who has just been betrayed in a place where he felt very safe, blew up a fish restaurant, and faced with a situation that his intellect couldn't get him out of, namely being menaced with a gun, and could therefore be forgiven for, or at least expected to be, a little rattled,) gets up and grumbles about how often they're being double crossed lately.
Granted, Butler is wearing Kevlar and Artemis is fairly naive about the effects of normal assault weapons (all of the times that he's had a gun pointed at before now they've been fairy weapons. In fact, the only time he was ever in immediate danger of being shot with anything that wasn't technically a stunner was the climax of the last book, where it was all part of the plan anyway) so his first thought might not be that someone has shot his bodyguard. But he displays much greater awareness of the inherent risks of his plans in the previous book, where he witnesses debilitating injury Holly Short and Turnball Root, who are allies if not exactly friends, and where his plan to rescue his father goes fairly spectacularly awry, leading him to think for a moment that he might have accidentally killed his father while attempting to save him. He also displays, throughout the third book, a very situational relationship with his own morality (he is absolutely horrified by Holly's injury in the previous book, but doesn't flinch when the plot dictates that someone else's finger be cut off and reattatched with magic,) and doesn't appear to have internalized many of the emotional developments of the previous book.
And then Eoin Colfer had him mind wiped and regress to his pre book-one state of amorality for the fourth book, possibly because it's hard to write Artemis as anything other than an amoral, cynical little jerk once he's been established as that.
Now, it's your choice to have your character actually learn anything from their adventures, or develop emotionally, intellectually and socially. Once you hit the teenage years, not everyone will continue to progress in emotional maturity, just like in the real world where you find adults who behave as if they're still in high school by gossiping and having massive fights and storming out of the house. Backsliding people into a less mature emotional state is actually a fairly effective way to show that they really are threatened by the current plot. But if you have a good idea of your character's basic state of emotional maturity, it helps keep out of character moments to a minimum, and makes sure that any move the character makes which the audience wouldn't expect is important, instead of just breaking character for a throwaway line.
Social Maturity is the third type of maturity (and thankfully, the end of this chapter,) and it is, essentially, the moral and social responsibility of a person. The best example I can give is that an immature person will progress through states of denying their mistakes or their connection to their mistakes, even minor ones (for example, a kindergartener telling you that they didn't break the lamp, or that the ball "just bounced into it,") then denying full responsibility or the intent to make the mistake, (the kid tells you that "we didn't mean to break your lamp, but I missed the ball and it hit the lamp,") to the stage where they admit their mistake and apologize, and after that the stage where they will either volunteer to fix it or clean it up. Like emotional maturity, people progress, but not all people progress all the way, and it is also more correlated with experience than intelligence.
Additionally, it's possible for a person or character to be very mature about one type of mistake or responsibility, but very immature about another. This is largely because the priorities of the person and the stakes involved (such as punishment or loss of respect) in admitting and mitigating the mistake.
For example, one could have a teenage character who was fairly mature about meeting expectations such as schoolwork and obeying the law, but who fails to pick their kid sister up from school because they would rather be shooting hoops with their friends and because they don't feel like its fair that they got saddled with the responsibility for her. They might (faced with a loss of respect from their parents, having their car keys taken away, or even a loss of respect from their sister,) make up excuses. The thing about social maturity is that it is, for most characters, somewhat in flux until they are well into adulthood.
There are several aspects to social maturity, including meeting reasonable standards of behavior to participate in society or some smaller group, (such as keeping the secrets of a secret society, or following the code of conduct for student athletes,) and admitting and mitigating damage when their actions harm another. Another is allowing others to admit and mitigate damage when they have made mistakes, while a third is the ability to accept each other's differences. Taking on new responsibilities is yet another piece.
After a certain age (usually somewhere in puberty) social maturity has more to do with a character's values and priorities than their age, and varies from situation to situation. There is really no way to track it by age for characters, so your best bet is to sit down, think about what your character values (which doesn't have to match up to what their society values: most commonly, the character's conflict with society comes from having different values than the rest of society,) and what their reactions might be in different situations.
For example, your character has just been granted an awesome new power, something that raises them above the abilities of an ordinary man. What do they do? Theoretically, their choice is now to either embrace that "With great power comes great responsibility," (Spiderman) or to use their power to their own ends, which will almost inevitably end badly no matter how noble their cause (such as finding a way to regenerate organs and thus cure millions of suffering patients: the villain of the most recent Spiderman movie) might have been. It seems that in superhero-making situations, anyone who doesn't immediately go out into the night and fight crime becomes a villain.
But does this mean that you have to do the same with your character? There are a lot of antiheroes and morally ambiguous characters out there. Your character might be able to use their powers for their own gain and dismiss anyone who claims that they might be wrong by saying that they "never hurt anyone" so stealing and such is all right. (Too many "sympathetic" catburglars to count.) They might only use their powers to protect a downtrodden group of people, reasoning that they need it more and others can take care of themselves (District thirteen, to some extent,) or only protect victims of a particular group or crime. (Van Helsing, the heroes of every murder investigative series ever by plot default.)
Alternatively, the world they live in is seriously screwed up. They might think it their duty to defraud the wealthy and provide for the poor (Robin Hood) hunt down those who justice cannot touch (at least one interpretation of Zorro,) or to avenge their father's murder (Inigo Montoya.)
Note that not all these characters have superpowers, but they all have elevated skills of some sort that others in their world can't hope to match. Alternatively, such a character might decide to live as normal a life as they can under the circumstances (The Incredibles, though the decision was forced on them, Helen Parr at least seems to be all right with it, if only because they can raise their children in relative peace,) or do less exciting good works with their powers. They also can choose to completely ignore the problems of others. (Jumper, though he does also rob a bank, so it's not only a case of "somebody else's problem.") But your character eventually has to either accept a responsibility for helping others, decide to use their powers for their own selfish gain, or do nothing with them.
I picked on Matilda, Artemis Fowl, and Harry Potter more because people might be familiar with them and they were on my shelf than because of my opinions on them. Now you know what lives on my bookshelf above my desk.
Also, Letters in Messian is on temporary hiatus, for those of you who didn't twig to that on your own. There are lots of reasons, but they essentially boil down to that if I continue to write Adria extensively right now, it will only be venting my own frustrations, which amuses no one.
1) Artemis Fowl:The Arctic Incident. Colfer, Eoin. pg vii. © 2002