My first job out of grad school was working with children and adolescents who were dealing with a variety of challenges. It was the best first job I could ever imagine, and I met the love of my life, a colleague, during my five years working for the agency.
So, considering my brave venture into the world of children early on – Think loud, impulsive and off their ADHD medications all day in the Arkansas summer heat – one might expect I’d be better prepared for the Sock Hop at our daughter’s elementary school last Friday. WRONG. What a nightmare! It was pandemonium, a blur of pink poodle skirts and nerve-shattering screams. All those kids hyped up on cotton candy and adrenaline?
Good grief! I could have used a gallon of chamomile tea. Okay. Forget the tea. A shot of brandy would have worked even better. I was a wreck and my husband sprawled on the chair beside me with a relaxed smile. I learned a few things from that experience. 1) My husband was right to continue his work with children. He's fantastic with kids. 2) He needs to be the one chaperoning field trips. And I'm not just buttering him up with that remark about him being fantastic in the hope he might take over chaperoning responsibilities. However, if it helps... 3) Life with children is nothing like a romance novel.
In a romance novel, the children make cameo appearances and then play quietly in a corner. In regency, they even have a nanny or governess to feed them, wipe their noses and corral the little darlings at bedtime. There’s never any child barging in when the hero and heroine are on the verge of kissing, insisting they want to be in the middle of the “sandwich”. They never interrupt the couples' witty banter with knock-knock jokes that make no sense. And, thank heavens, there’s no rap on the door when the hero and heroine share an intimate moment, unless it's my kid interrupting my reading.
Is this realistic? No way! But I don’t think any reader is going to have a problem with this complete fabrication. A little escapism protects our sanity. However, the children in stories still have to be believable in other areas, which mean the writer needs to know appropriate behaviors for the age they are writing.
Lady Whimsy’s Guide for Creating Child Characters:
1. Know your subject. If you have no children of your own, you need to spend time with children the age you are writing. You can certainly go to a public place and observe them, but just know parents might call the cops if you’re watching their child and taking notes. Ideally, you would have opportunities to interact with a child. Spend time with your nieces or nephews, or volunteer to babysit for your friends with children. Believe me, your friends will love you for it, and some day you might want the favor returned.
2. Know the basics of child development. There is a vast wealth of information via the internet. Check out the development of language, Jean Piaget (how children are able to think about their world and reason) and Erick Erickson’s life-stages. You don’t need to do in depth research, but you should know that a two-year old couldn’t carry on an adult conversation unless he or she is a child prodigy.
3. Access your resources. If you have child character doing something, ask a parent with a child that age if it is realistic. Parents love to talk about their kids. Just don’t ask the parent of an eleven year old what he or she was doing at age two. I thought I would remember forever, but I don’t. Good thing I took good notes.
4. A little bit of baby talk goes a long way. A word here or there is all right, but reading made up words throughout a scene is hard work. “Me unna toochie.” “Tisie got shak toes.” See what I mean? Translation: “I want a cookie.” “Kitty got shark toes.” Our son used to say that about the cats’ claws. Even though I find it cute, this baby language could get very annoying for a reader. Don’t give the reader any reason to set your story aside.
5. Give the child purpose. There is a reason actors say they never work with children or animals. Either can steal the scene by adding the cuteness factor. Yet, cuteness alone shouldn’t be the reason a child is included in a story. As with any character, make sure the child contributes to the romance in some way by increasing the conflict, teaching a character something about life or showing a different side to your hero or heroine.
What are your thoughts about children in romance novels? If you are a writer and have included children in a story, what purpose did they serve ?