Friday, May 18, 2012

How Old Is Your Hero?

If you've read much about writing easy readers -- or any kids' books, for that matter -- you've probably been told to use a young hero. For example, in her book You Can Write Children's Books, Tracey Dils lists some common traits of easy readers, chapter books, and middle grade novels. One of those traits is:
They have single characters as their heroes and are told through this character's viewpoint. Usually, this character is a kid who is dealing with a typical kid situation -- often a similar situation to one that the reader might be dealing with. (p32)
And up to a point this makes sense. When you tell a story, you need to match the age of your hero to the story situation. To put it in a slightly different light, you certainly don't want to put an adult in a playpen. No child wants to read that. (Well, maybe the ones who were imprisoned in a playpen for extorting cookies from Mom...)

But you're seriously limiting yourself if you only write "child situations." Even those writers who recommend focusing on child heroes often say the hero should be 2 to 4 years older than your target reader. The reason older heroes appeal to them is simple. Whether we want to admit it or not, whether we like it or not, children are anxious to grow up.

Watch children at play. When they create imaginary worlds, do they people them with young children? Of course not! They pretend to be adults. They explore alien galaxies and go on safari to hunt wild animals. I clearly remember a rainy day when I was young. My parents moved the car off our carport so my cousins and I could play spy. We put on raincoats and held secret rendezvous on the basement steps.

And yet it's clear that not all adult stories appeal to kids. What makes the difference?

Spaceman Spiff crashingOn one hand, the situation has to be both simple enough for a child to grasp easily and yet active enough to keep a child interested  There's a reason why Calvin (from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip) chose to fight bug-eyed aliens from Zartron-9 rather than exploring the ecological effects of mineral fungus on the same planet.

But I think it ultimately comes down to the story's hero. No matter what the hero's age or situation, there has to be something about him or her to which a child can easily relate. In Calvin's case, I suspect a small guy like him feels that he's constantly fighting against stronger creatures -- and not all of them friendly. The hero of his daydreams, Spaceman Spiff, frequently comes out on top against impossible odds. And let's face it, Spiff is cool.

Those are the things I look for in a hero for one of my stories:
  • Faces the same type of problem as my readers. As with Spiff, just because they don't live their daily lives in a galaxy far, far away doesn't mean they don't face the same kind of problems. There's more than one way to face overwhelming odds. And just because it's not overwhelming to an adult doesn't mean it's not overwhelming to a child. There's often a way to "childsize" an adult problem so the child can relate to the adult who plays the hero.
  • Can find a way to come out on top. Most writing instructors will stress that the character should solve the problem themselves, not be rescued by someone else. That's true... but let's not forget that, whatever else happens, the hero needs to solve the problem. The hero has to win. Period.
  • Is appealing to the reader. No boring heroes, folks. Kids should want to be the heroes in our books. Make that hero someone cool!
There's nothing wrong with having child heroes in your books. I just don't think you should limit yourself that way. An adult hero might be just what that young reader needs.

There are a million budding Spaceman Spiffs out there. Don't be afraid to write for them.

The image came from this page at ComicVine.

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