Storium Theory: Young at Heart

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on November 17th, 2016.

Today, I’d like to take us back to a discussion on writing particular character types–and this one, like my “Getting Personal” articles, is about personality…but it’s also about another trait: Age.

Specifically, the lack of it.

I’ve written a lot of child characters in my time on MUXes and on Storium, and I’ve found them very fun to play…but also very challenging. It’s a type of character I’ve been told that I write well, but it’s also one that can be tough to get right, and tough to make sure you’re working properly into a story.

I want to take a moment aside to note that this article is specifically about kid characters – as in, characters who are actually kids, as opposed to other character types like those who appear to be kids due to curses, drastic lifespan extension, robotic construction, time travel accidents, or what-have-you. Nothing wrong with those character types and I’ve written them too, but there’s some pretty major differences in writing them, obviously! The below may or may not apply to them, depending on how like a kid they are in terms of their sense of identity and personality development.

I also want to emphasize that this isn’t just about writing kids with realistic levels of ability. I’ve used this same general focus to write kids who are less capable or more capable, anything from your average school student to kid superheroes or child geniuses. This isn’t about ability – it’s about character. A character’s abilities will influence who they are, of course, and what sort of things they find important, and how they establish their identity–but the below is really the lens I use to view all of that.

So, with that established…what’s so hard about writing kids?

To put it simply…kid characters, done poorly, risk being an irritant or annoyance, or a shackle on other characters, rather than a legitimate part of the story.

Think of some films you’ve seen with kid characters in them. Just think about it. How many of them seem to exist just to be cutesy for a few moments? How many of them seem to tie down an otherwise cool character, just being there to be needy?

That’s it in a nutshell: the biggest mistake people make writing kid characters is forgetting to write a character. In those films or tv shows or anime or comic books or what-have-you that have irritating kid characters, what you’re actually seeing isn’t a character, is something someone slapped into the story as a walking personification of Cute or a chain to tie another character to the story. It isn’t a full character, with depth and goals and a full personality beyond “be bubbly and/or needy and crying.”

So, uh, don’t do that.

Kid characters can be deep. They can be interesting. They can have layers. Those layers are different than when you’re writing an adult or older teenaged character, but they should be there all the same. Above all, your character must be about more than just needs. If you write a kid who just seems to exist to walk alongside the rest of the group and need food and comfort and a hug when he starts crying, you’re not writing a character, you’re writing a little bundle of need that the other players, and readers, are simply going to resent pretty quickly.

When you’re writing a kid character, write a kid character. Think about the character just as deeply and just as fully as you would any other character you would write. Think about personality. Think about the character’s goals and motivations. What does the character want? What influences the character? What is the character aiming to become?

That last question in particular is crucial for kids.

Being a kid, in reality, is all about figuring out who you are and who you are going to be. You start out looking for role models, people who can serve as examples for you, and trying to mimic them. Most likely it’s your dad, your mom, or your older sibling. You want to do what they do. You want to be like them. Later on, though, you start to think about your own identity. You start to find interests that might differ from your role models’ interests. You start forging your identity.

Now, I don’t want to come off as thinking I’m a psychologist or anything–I’m not. This isn’t an in-depth study of real childhood mental and emotional development! It’s just important to think about when you’re writing a kid character: how do they define their identity? Are they about “being like X,” or are they about “finding out who I am personally?” Or are they somewhere in between?

That “somewhere in between” phase is really fun to write, by the way, if quite complicated! That’s the kid who has a tendency to say “Person X says…” or “My dad does it this way…” but is also starting to understand that those things don’t always apply, and is starting to question whether it’s because he’s not strong enough or because Person X / dad was wrong about something. There are some real, honest-to-goodness cool character moments you can have writing that sort of character, and moving him from dependence on someone else’s identity towards forging one of his own.

That brings me to another point: Change is a critical element of kid characters, moreso than perhaps any other character type.

When you’re young, you’re changing pretty much daily, and I don’t just mean getting taller. You’re learning new things, trying new things, figuring out new things. You’re exploring who you are and how you relate to the world. You’re struggling to find your place. You’re figuring out what you can do–where your talents lie.

A kid character, more than perhaps any other, should be deeply affected by the story that he’s in. It should start to define who he is, and who he will become.

For most kid characters, what you’re going to write during a Storium game is some variant on a coming of age story concept: a story in which the character moves from the concepts of youth to those of adulthood in some manner. Not that you’re going to take the character all the way, mind (unless your story covers a heck of a lot of years), but what I mean is that you’re going to use the story to define elements of who the character will eventually end up becoming. Your story is going to, on some level, be about figuring out who the character is…or, especially for the younger kids, who the character isn’t. For an older kid, especially a young teen, they’ll use the tale to start really defining exactly what traits are going to be part of their adult personality, outlook, and abilities. For a younger kid, they’ll still likely do some of that, but a part of their story might also focus on them figuring out which role models are good to follow and which ones don’t work. Either way, these are stories about the forging of ideals and development of understanding about the world and about one’s self. I don’t care if you’re writing an ordinary school kid or a super genius or a fated hero…you’re writing about the stage in the character’s life where they are defining who they will come to be.

You can say this for almost any character, but it’s triply important for kids: Who the character is at the start of the story should not be who the character is at the end of the story. Ever.

That’s one of the biggest problems I’ve seen with kid characters in film: Often, they lack that sense of change. At the start of the film, they’re the thing that pops on screen to say something cute or to look needy. At the end of the film, that’s still all they are.

I don’t care if you’re writing a kid character as a main character or a supporting character. They need to change. By the end of the story, a reader needs to feel that the character has learned something important about who they are or who they will be. Maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it’s a bad thing. Maybe they’ve learned to have courage in tough situations, or maybe they’ve been scarred by their experiences in some way. But they’ve changed. Some part of who they will eventually be is now set when it wasn’t before.

Obviously, main characters should highlight that change more, but seriously, even for supporting characters, do this. It’s one of the major things that turns your character from just a walking cute needy thing to an actual character. Figure out what things the story can teach them, and let them learn from it.

Kid characters should relate to the story more strongly, more deeply, than any other character type. They should learn from the story. They should learn from other characters. Every single thing that happens, every single person they meet, is something or someone they are subconsciously or consciously using to define themselves.

Now, I think we’ve established why you shouldn’t just be a ball of cuteness, bubbles, and occasional tears, right? So let’s talk about something else: Neediness.

Kids are needy. Sure. They aren’t as capable as adults yet, they haven’t figured out everything they can do, they’re often clumsy or making mistakes, and heck, sometimes they’re just too short to reach things.

But they aren’t defined by need.

They’re defined by aspiration.

And that’s how you should define them in the story. Don’t make them little bundles of needs, constantly wanting comfort or food or a drink or whine whine whine whine whine. Don’t even make them bundles of needs who are less verbal about it.

Make them bundles of aspirations.

Yes, sometimes a kid should need help, especially if you’re writing a realistic kid rather than some kind of super genius or superhero. But what should be important, what should be the focus, isn’t the need so much as what the kid learns from it. It isn’t about what he needs right now; it’s about what he’s doing to try to make sure he doesn’t need help with that in the future. A kid character doesn’t just ask his big brother for some of the berries he found while scavenging. He wants to know how to find berries himself. Later in the story, he tries it. Maybe he does well and finds some good berries. Maybe he screws up and finds similar-looking poison ones. But he starts learning. He uses his initial needs as a motivation to learn to exceed his current capabilities and move forward.

Maybe he needs protection right now, but he doesn’t want to. He wants to be strong and tough and capable of taking care of himself. So maybe he starts out cowering behind someone…but as the story goes on, he’ll figure out things he can do to protect himself. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean he learns how to fight…if you’re writing a more realistic story, that’s probably not it. But he might get pretty good at finding places to hide, or causing a distraction at the right moment, or learning how to sneak around.

The needs he has at the start of the story do not remain needs throughout the entire story. They serve to push the character forward. I’m not saying you turn the character into someone super-capable (unless that’s the theme of the story). I’m saying that you just…don’t leave him in the same place throughout the entire tale. Develop his ability and his emotional maturity in some way, so that he learns to do some things…or learns what he can’t and shouldn’t do.

That’s the heart of it, really. Kids characters don’t focus just on cuteness, or just on neediness. They focus on change. Remember that, and remember to consider your character as deeply as you would any other, and I think you’ll find you can write some very interesting characters and add to stories rather than detracting from them. Don’t think of a kid character as an easier character to write, something you can just slap together and use to be all perky and enthusiastic and adorable. That won’t give you a good result or a good character. Take your time with the character design and concept, as you would with any other. Understand what you’re getting into. Figure out what’s in the character’s head. Who does he idolize? What does he want to be? And what is he doing to become it? Answer those questions…and keep coming back to them throughout the story.

Don’t just write a kid…write an interesting kid.