There’s one character, even in a small part, that’s BOUND to get a script reader’s spidey-senses going and that’s the kid or teenager. Why? Because there’s waaaay too many BAD representations of young people in the spec pile!
1) Don’t make them sound too young
First up, the obvious. The typical child in a spec screenplay is nearly always wildly ‘off’ in tone, especially if they’re toddlers up to the age of approximately eight. They’ll sound very babyish, using baby-like syntax and words, almost clichéd. If you’re going to the trouble of writing a child character, the last thing you want to do is make them wooden and two-dimensional.
Whatever you do, stay AWAY from what you *think* kids say and do and actually find some real ones to learn from. Some kids ARE quite young for their years, but they won’t be as babyish as you imagine. It’s shocking how much they pick up and know already, even if you’ve never spoken to them about it.
KID TIP: Try and spend a day with some kids and make some notes while you’re with them. If you don’t have any, borrow some from friends or relatives. If you have no friends or relatives with kids, or you want to hang out with a teen and you’re a totally uncool adult, try people-watching in cafes instead. Chain cafes are particularly good to find kids with their Mums, plus teens meeting for the cheaper drinks and cakes.
2) Don’t make them sound too old
Now, the opposite to number 1 (since writers like to go from one end of the pole to the other!). Some writers want to write very bright children and teenagers – and why not, because this can create excellent opportunities for conflict in the narrative.
But all that happens is they make them MINI ADULTS — and this doesn’t work either. Even a bright child is still a child; even a know-it-all teen DOESN’T really know everything. S/he is INEXPERIENCED on general life stuff. Whatever is ‘normal’ to you, as an adult, is still new to them … they might not have even heard of it.
I just had to teach to my ten year old about Contactless payments only last week. This week, my eighteen year old son is getting to grips with a tenancy agreement for the first time for when he starts university. And it’s the same with stuff like emotions, situations, relationships and so on.
Think – NEW, NERVOUS, UNCERTAIN, etc.
KID TIP: Finding kids online – not in a creepy way – has never been easier. Twitter and Facebook are NOT COOL, so go to where they hang out instead, like YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat and check out their videos and photos to see what they talk about and what they do.
3) Make them LAYERED
There are good children and naughty children; there are great teens and vile teens. Some kids will eat their veg without a murmur; others will trash the house and paint on the walls. Some teenagers will do their homework; others will ensure you get called into the teacher’s office. Some kids will be great conversationalists; others will give you endless backchat. Some teenagers will help with their brothers and sisters; others will go AWOL and you’ll be trudging round the streets looking for them in the dark.
In real terms, most kids and teenagers are a mix of BOTH. All of the thing I listed above have applied at one time or another to JUST my son, now eighteen – and plenty more, besides! The little ones will be just as bad/good too, I’m sure.
Kids in spec screenplays and unpublished novels are frequently one thing OR the other when it relates to being virtuous or bratty. Recognise children and teenagers are layered, just like us grown ups are. We had to start somewhere!
KID TIP: Find parents you know and ask them one GOOD attribute of their child’s and one BAD attribute of their child’s. You will hear some really interesting stories. Ask IRL or online.
4) Remember there’s such a thing as KID LOGIC
So, this happened yesterday. The landline rang. We don’t answer the landline, so I ignored it (it’s always tele-marketers and anyone we actually know/like knows to ring mine or my husband’s mobiles). Sitting in the living room, I heard my five year old answer the phone in the kitchen. It went like this:
FIVE YEAR OLD: Hello? … No, I am not David … He is my Dad. No, I am a girl. No, not David. I told you, I am a girl!
(She tuts loudly and sighs theatrically)
FIVE YEAR OLD: … No, of course not. Because I am talking to you and I am a girl. Silly man you are! Goodbye! For God’s sake!
The tele-marketer in question was probably just asking to speak to my husband. I suspect the poor guy didn’t have great English, either. From an adult’s point of view, my little girl sounds very rude.
Now let’s switch the exchange from a FIVE YEAR OLD’S POV:
A guy calls and you don’t know who it is. His voice sounds strange, maybe his vowels are quite clipped. You’ve maybe not heard this accent before. How funny!
Also, Mum says you’re not to speak to strangers, so you’re feeling quite thrilled to get away with this. Whilst you wouldn’t talk to your teacher like this, you can’t see this guy and you’re at home, so you feel safe. This makes you cheeky.
But then he keeps asking the same thing. He thinks you’re a man. Weird! Then he wants to speak to Dad. But Dad is at work. Why doesn’t the caller know this? Silly!
Then, suddenly: you’re bored. You hang up.
The difference is obvious now, isn’t it? But crucially, KID LOGIC refers to all of us. Every child or teenager is in the grip of it, for some reason, at some time. this immaturity may even follow us into adult life, in some situations. I might be an educated woman, but I have a child’s understanding of driving a car, for example. I know you put a key in the ignition – and THAT’S ABOUT IT! FURREALZ!!
KID TIP: Utilising kid logic can be a fantastic tool not only in characterisation, but in driving a plot forwards – perhaps your young character, child or teenager, does *something* immature that creates further conflict. Do all you can to mine kid logic and use it to your storytelling advantage … but to do this, you need to put yourself in a kid or teenager’s shoes like I just did, above.
5) Remember the phrase, ‘out of the mouth of babes’
An old English proverb, this basically means children will sometimes say very insightful and perceptive things. This should surprise absolutely no one who’s actually had kids because as you already know, kids are like sponges: they soak up EVERYTHING, even stuff we don’t want ’em to!
In the case of teenagers, the opposite may be true. They often work hard to appear vacuous, cynical and/or caring about the world around them. Most of the time, this is a defensive tactic, especially so adults stay off their backs … If you say you have ‘no idea’, grown ups can’t argue with NOTHING (well that’s the idea, anyway). 9/10 they’re MUCH more informed than adults realise in my experience.
So in other words, never underestimate children or teenagers. Often in real terms, they’re a lot cleverer than us grown ups.
KID TIP: Read parenting blogs and/or ask parents what their kids have taught them. Here’s what mine have taught me over the last eighteen years:
– When a small child offers an insightful gem, take note. They often have a great way of cutting through the BS and getting straight to the heart of the matter.
– With teens, never ever paint them into a corner or confront them with logic, even if you’re right. It’s completely unproductive.
– Kids are grim as hell. Never, ever eat anything without checking it first, even off the cutting board. It could literally be anything. I’M SERIOUS, PEOPLE!
My new book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV & Film will be out later this year. Find out more details about it by clicking the link or on the pic, plus and make sure you add it as ‘to read’ on your Goodreads profile.