COMMUNITY LEARNING HUB: ONLINE MODULES

5.4.1 MURPHY’S LAW

What Can Go Wrong Must Go Wrong: 7 reasons why every children’s writer must get used to being mean

In my experience, children’s authors are some of the loveliest people you could ever hope to meet. So it can be a shock to learn that we spend our days devising ways of testing our child characters, dreaming up gruelling trials and tribulations, putting kids through hell and being mean to teens – all for the sake of story. What can go wrong, really must go wrong in order to create a satisfying narrative. As quite a conflict-averse person in real life, I had to learn the hard way (the two unpublished novels way) that there are some excellent reasons for this and now there’s nothing I enjoy more than dreaming up disasters for my poor protagonists. 

Character in Motion

As the scriptwriters know – I’m paraphrasing Aaron Sorkin here – the most basic summary of story is: a character has to want something, and then something gets in the way. To get really close to our characters, we need to see what drives them.

What do they really want?

What will they do to get it?

And how do they react when they don’t?

When you’re starting out with a new story idea, it can be worth spending some time hanging out, off the page, with your brand-new protagonist, asking them questions which might never appear in the story, but which will underpin it and help your characters live and breathe. 

Cause-and-effect, or stuff happens

When your character faces obstacles, they will be forced to react, and you can get a lovely chain of cause and effect which might take you – and your reader – to some wonderful and unexpected places. For example: 

Because he was arguing with his sister, he missed the bus, and cos of that, he had to walk, and cos of that, he saw the accident, and cos of that, the police want to speak to him, and cos of that….

The Pixar Story Spine uses this kind of cause and effect to structure the whole story, focusing on motivation and reaction. It can give the narrative a natural momentum, keeps us focused on the characters, and creates a satisfying pace. 

  • Revealing resourcefulness

How do we know what we are capable of until we are tested? When things go wrong for our child characters, it’s a great way of showing what they’re made of. Under pressure, you can reveal the true grit of your protagonist, letting them rise to all the challenges you throw at them. It can also keep your plot really child-centred. Even if you have to do some nifty plotting and invite older readers to suspend their disbelief, in children’s fiction it’s so important to have child characters driving the action. They must have agency, find their own solutions, be resourceful and make the narrative events happen. Plus, it keeps the reader engaged – who doesn’t love an underdog who keeps fighting against all the odds?

  • Making mirrors? 

Whatever difficulties we can dream up as children’s writers, you can be sure that there will be a real child out there who is living that experience. Knowing this feels like part of our responsibility. That’s not to say we can’t tackle tough stuff – we can, even when writing for middle-grade readers. Recent middle-grade fiction has covered experiences such as being a child refugee, domestic violence, bullying, depression or bereavement. But these topics have been handled sensitively, with care and compassion (I’m thinking of writers like Onjali Q Rauf, Elle McNicoll, Jasbinder Bilan, Eloise Williams and many more wonderful contemporary novelists).

For some readers, the story will act as a mirror, reflecting the child’s own tough experiences and showing them they’re not alone. For the child reader who hasn’t lived through this, the story will act as a window into other lives, giving information about an unfamiliar challenge. For both these readers, novels can offer a roadmap to a brighter future, giving new solutions, empathy and hope. 

Image credits: Marc-Olivier Jodoin [Source: Unsplash]

Excitement

If nothing goes wrong, wouldn’t that be dull? I’d’ve given up on the story by chapter 3! They say happiness writes white, so maybe peril writes in glorious technicolour, right across the spectrum, showing a glittering rainbow of possibility, to keep the reader hooked and page-turning. After all, we talk about cliff-hangers, don’t we? So if you don’t dangle your young protagonists off cliffs, literal or metaphorical, how do you keep your reader coming back for more, begging to be read just one more chapter…?

Tension!

As the story goes on, I suggest you may want more and more things to go wrong, in spite of all your character’s resourcefulness, in spite of all their courage and quick thinking. By this point, you might be very fond of your protagonist. You might want to send them home to be tucked up with a nice hot chocolate and a warm blanket. Oh no. You can’t stop now. Instead, you must steel yourself to be even meaner than ever.

There’s usually a point, just before the climax of your novel, when things look very bleak indeed. Some planning models call it ‘all is lost’ or ‘the dark night of the soul’. From this place of near-defeat and despair, your character will reach inside and find their last scrap of strength to fight back against whatever it is that threatens to overwhelm them. And they will manage it too, with your reader cheering them every step along the way. 

Happily Ever After?

In middle-grade children’s fiction, authors tend towards the happy ending, where the problems are resolved, the monster is killed, the protagonist comes out on top, their world is transformed, and there is hope ahead. However, it doesn’t have to be simple or sickly sweet. You don’t have to give your characters everything, with a cherry on top. For me, some of the most satisfying endings involve the protagonist not getting what they thought they wanted, but somehow getting what they need. Sorry if that’s given you an earworm. 

I hope you enjoy putting your fictional children into action, testing them, throwing all kinds of obstacles their way, and raising the stakes at every turn. As Mary Kole puts it: 

“Keep your main character active and always in pursuit {of their objective}. When he has an ally, take that person away. When she has a decision to make, put a ticking clock on it. When there’s an object that he absolutely requires, obliterate it. When she craves a safe place, make it inaccessible. Always think of how you can exert more pressure on the events you already have in your plot.” [Kole, Mary. Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide for Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2012. See also resources on her YouTube channel)

Happy writing and never be afraid to be (fictionally) mean. 


Liz writes for children and young adults. Her books include Eden Summer, Dragon Daughter and Rise of the Shadow Dragons. See lizflanagan.co.uk for more information or follow Liz on Twitter @lizziebooks.