Creating Adult and Child Characters for Juvenile and Adult Fiction:
by Hilary Conner
There are differing methodologies for creating child and adult characters for children’s novels and adult fiction. These methodologies are based upon the viewpoint of the targeted reading audience.
For adult fiction, the adult characters are created as complex and multifaceted individuals. Child characters, who are significant to the story’s plot, tend to exhibit characteristics in their personalities that reflect the ways in which adults relate to children. Child characters may be struggling with complex adult-like problems. Some exhibit wisdom and maturity beyond their years.
A prime example of this can be found in Iris Johansen’s Body of Lies. Forensic sculptor Eve Duncan had grown up under difficult familial circumstances. She gave birth to a daughter while in her teens, and raised Bonnie on her own while putting herself through school, only to have her daughter murdered at the age of seven. In Body of Lies, Eve is now a highly respected forensic expert. Her twelve-year-old adopted daughter, Jane MacGuire, was also a child of the streets. Jane is not your average pre-teen girl. She is quite precocious, both emotionally and intellectually. The adults in Jane’s sphere are well aware of her advanced intellectual maturity; therefore they relate to her as if she were an adult. Jane is an “old soul” who, at times, mothers her adult relatives. She is always very protective of Eve, and sometimes acts protectively towards her grandmother and Eve’s live-in boyfriend Joe Quinn, as well.
Throughout the novel, Eve, Joe and their associates face one life threatening crisis after another. Regardless of what occurs and how the adults react, Jane always remains clearheaded. When a bomb is discovered in her grandmother’s condo complex, and the building’s occupants are evacuated just in the nick of time- saving Jane and her grandmother from certain death; Jane maintains her composure, while most of the adults around her lose theirs.
While Jane MacGuire is an extreme example of a child character having adult personality traits in adult fiction, this character non-the-less represents how children who appear in adult fiction are developed.
In juvenile fiction, the child characters take center stage. They have complex personalities and are created so that the targeted reading audience will view them as realistic- people that they can understand and relate to. Adult characters usually have minor roles, and are created from the viewpoint of how children in the real world view the adults around them.
In Joyce McDonald’s Young Adult novel Shades of Simon Gray, the main characters are teenagers who are dealing with realistic adolescent problems. They worry about doing well in school and getting accepted to a good college, so they have a better shot at a successful career. Some are also dealing with difficult family issues. Simon Gray is a teenage computer genius who was recruited by a group of popular kids to “fix” the school’s computer system so they could access the files containing their teacher’s exams and answer sheets. Getting straight A’s and being accepted into prestigious colleges becomes an obsession for them, and they are willing to do almost anything to reach their goals- including cheating and breaking the law. Simon crashes his car and falls into a coma just as a problem is discovered with the school’s computer system and the police are called in to investigate. Simon’s cohorts become panic stricken that their scheme will be discovered.
While the teenage characters are complex, realistic and fully realized; the adult characters fall on the periphery. Simon’s mother had passed away the previous year, and his family is still grieving her loss. While the reader is given insight into the thoughts, feelings and reactions of Simon and his sister Courtney, their father’s thoughts and feelings over the death of his wife are not explored. The reader sees him only as his children see him- as a father who is emotionally remote and inaccessible to his family. The school faculty and police investigators are also portrayed as the typical teenager would view them- as controlling and meddlesome adults, who cannot be trusted and should be avoided at all costs.
In conclusion: A writer who is creating a child character for adult fiction should keep in mind that their target audience is composed primarily of adults, so he/she should include personality traits, dialogue and plot situations for child characters that adult readers can relate to; while at the same time never forgetting that the character is still a child, and in some ways will think and act like one. Just as the writer who is creating a juvenile novel should be mindful to create child characters that are multidimensional and realistic to young readers. Adult characters should always take the back seat within the story’s plot, never overshadow the main child characters, nor solve their problems for them. It is important that the adult characters be portrayed according to how children would view them, not how adults view them.
The author, Hilary Conner, is a freelance writer and researcher, who offers the creation of character profiles for adult and child characters as part of her research services.