Monday, November 10, 2014

5 Tips for Writing Middle-Grade Characters

At the LUW conference in September, I attended a class called "Writing Middle-Grade Characters." Now, I don't write middle grade (MG). I don't even particularly like to read middle grade, with a few notable exceptions. But, I'm still working on my Dragon Magic series (won't be out until next year) and I have one character that is of middle grade age. His name is Rolly.

In my writer's group, he was one of the favorites. And for good reason: he's really fun and his story is adventurous. But for me, he's also the most intimidating to write because I don't generally write MG. I don't know how. And I struggle to make him sound like a kid that is smart, but not pretentious. 

Even though even this story is for adults, I thought if I learned how to write MG and incorporated that into Rolly's POV, it would make my character feel more like a real kid. So, a lesson in writing MG was in order. Here are some tips I picked up:

5 Elements that kids (as readers) crave in their books:

1) Humor - This lessons tension and creates a bond between the child and the story. Can come in the form of:

  • malapropisms (i.e. misusing words)
  • non sequiturs (i.e. illogical conclusions)
  • things that are out of place
  • Rule of 3 works well (i.e. underwear, socks, and a penguin)
  • words with K or G sound (this is a research/psychology thing; really not gonna try and explain it)
  • things that are taboo
  • use humor in description and how characters see themselves
  • do NOT use sarcasm; children of this age don't usually get sarcasm, especially in writing
2) Being Scared -- Use:
  • creepy setting
  • cliffhangers
  • suspense
  • running from a foe
  • make reader worry about what might happen
  • STAY AWAY from gore for this age group
3) Mystery -- How to Create it:
  • build curiosity (i.e. Is this a friend or foe?)
  • hint at things (i.e. monster, treasure, etc.)
  • if there's a threat to the MC's happiness = stronger mystery
  • solve the mystery after not too long; MG = short attention span
  • make sure and leave breadcrumbs along the way
  • DO NOT use confusion
  • the POV character CANNOT know secrets; they have to be the one finding them out
4) Action/Adventure
  • unlike films, books must use thoughts and emotions for actions scenes; these must be applicable to the MG age group
  • have clever dilemmas/creative situations
  • show character being clever
  • make reader care about characters
  • don't go too long without action; can be small action, but get your characters moving
  • try to do description before action scene, rather than during
5) Sense of Wonder
  • Fantasy/speculative fiction naturally induces this
  • science experiments
  • setting
  • characters
  • animals
  • look at everyday stuff differently
  • with every bit of wonder, there needs to be a bit of familiar ground
  • characters should fail spectacularly, but not stupidly, or you lose the respect of your reader
  • make conflict personal to the characters (i.e. parents as zombies, things kids would care about)
  • characters must always have a chance of winning
More Random MG Tips:
  • Sacrifice everything for clarity; these readers are young. YOU. MUST. BE. CLEAR!
  • Do your dialogue attributions ASAP. Again, children will be confused more easily than adults. Do the attribution before the dialogue, rather than at the end, if at all possible.
  • In late, out early. Keep your scenes short.
  • Awesome names are a huge plus! 
Basically all of these things can be applied to any genre and age group, but they're especially important in MG, where things need to be clear to the point of obviousness and simple to the point of being trite. Of course, when done well, MG is neither obvious nor trite. It's magical and fabulous!

So, hopefully these tips are helpful to you. Even if you don't write MG, if like me you have a young character, incorporating these tips into your writing of them (especially if it's their POV) will help them feel more authentic. Give it a shot. I know I'm going to.

So, any MG writing tips I missed? Which ones stand out to you?


  1. Those would've been great tips for me before I wrote a middle-age character. Somehow I managed though.
    And remember - kids have a ton of energy, so keep them moving.

    1. I guess that should be middle-grade, not middle age!

    2. Glad you managed. I'm just so intimidated by it. And yeah, definitely keep them moving. :D Thanks Alex!

  2. Great list of MG tips! All spot on. I've thought about writing an MG… we'll see…

    1. Thanks Morgan! You totally should! It's always good to broaden your writing horizons! :D