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4 Top Lessons On Writing Children

As I mention in my book, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays, I frequently see child and teen characters in specscreenplays that ‘feel’ like ‘movie kids’ rather than rounded, three dimensional characters.

So I was delighted to read the excellent WATERBABIES by Writer/Director Andy Simpson, which doesn’t make this basic mistake! When Andy suggested writing a guest post on this subject for B2W,  I jumped at the chance … His script tips are contrasted with his directing experience, so Bang2writers get the ‘full picture’ of going BEYOND the page, too. Invaluable!! Over to you, Andy …

Teenagers at riverbank

Are there children in your script? Maybe it is a film about adults with some kids in it, maybe it has a prominent child role (The Sixth Sense), maybe it’s an ensemble (Little Miss Sunshine), maybe the child is the lead role (E.T: The Extra Terrestial) or maybe it’s a gang of kids (The Goonies, Stand By Me).

I’m soon to be shooting my latest teen drama which also features a lot of younger kids so here are a few quick thoughts I’ve had about writing roles for children and about directing them. Are you listening, class?

1) Design of other characters should be structured around your main character

What do they reveal about your main character? Writers create their characters in relation to their main character- either challenge them or revealing more about them. This should be the same with children. Don’t just have a cardboard child to show that your character is a mother- what kind of mother is she? What does it mean to her to be a mother? Is she careful and over protective? Is their relationship more friendly than motherly?

Lesson 1:

WRITE an ensemble before you can cast an ensemble – write and cast the relationships to make the children reveal who your main character really is.

2) Give them agency and intelligence

In structuring your casting of characters to reveal or challenge your main character, you must also remember that the kids must have their own goals and agency. Give them depth. Director’s can help achieve this by allowing the child actors to bring a lot of themselves to it, by working with the human they have in front of them, not aiming for an exact, abstract, impression of the character.

Lesson 2:

Kids do what they bloody well like half the time – give your child characters goals and depth, they’re not just walking sets or ciphers, and let the actor bring more of themselves into it.

3) Give characters an objective

What are they trying to achieve in the scene? This is something writers should do for all characters but is especially useful for children.

It helps a Director get a natural performance if they can give a clear objective to the child (you want an ice-cream, you want your Dad to leave the room) rather than working on how they should say individual lines. It allows them to listen and respond to the other actors and naturally heightens the emotions if they do or don’t achieve their objective, rather than just pretending to be angry. A useful directing tip is to do an improv scenario around the objectives, just as a warm-up. You’ll find they hit the emotions quicker when the camera rolls.

Should you never to work with children or animals or do children and animals make the best actors because they’re not really acting? Maybe both are true!

To me there are 3 types: Kids who aren’t really acting give good performances; then there are kids who think they can act but can’t (often hindered by over-coaching from parents and ‘project your voice’ school play-syndrome) and then there are kids who really can act, with all the nuances and depth a director wants.

The best course of action for all three types is still for the director, and writer, to know what is driving those characters in the scene (this actually goes for adults as well as kids). An objective gives them something to work, or play, towards.

Lesson 3:

Know what the character’s objective or aim is in the scene. Directors and actors may interpret this slightly differently (that’s their job) but the writer can give them strong suggestions to work with. Directors can allow actors to work towards the objective more naturally.

4) Do your research!

Whatever scenario your characters are in, make sure you have done some research on it, especially if the story calls for difficult issues such as mental health or abusive situations. Do not just guess or rely on things you have seen in other movies. Also, see if you can get to know a few kids (they can be different to when I was young). Luckily I’ve been teaching in between film work so that is several hundred different personalities I can absorb to help in my writing. Again, it will help you avoid clichés.

Lesson 4:

Get to know some real kids and write with them in mind if you’re stuck, rather than kids based on characters in other films or TV. And always do proper research on any tricky subjects you’re putting your child characters into. This works for writers and for directors. Don’t go for the obvious choice, explore the script more deeply.

Wow, thanks Andy!!!


Director photo6 Portrait WATERBABIES is an upcoming magic realist teen drama short film by award-winning Director Andy Simpson, produced by Gerry Maguire  & Casting Director DJW Talent. Make sure you check the project out, HERE.

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