Dark Omen (age 12) writes a lot, and his characters have always been very strong. Sinister overlords or heroic defenders of the galaxy. He also loves humorous characters – savvy robots or smart-mouthed subordinates that give voice to his quirky, funny side. Recently he’s started to give his characters more depth, because his plot turns require a character to be a double agent or a secret hero.
Kids start out with a less nuanced view of the world – people and characters are good or bad, black or white. Dark Omen’s turn into the land of nuance shows me he’s growing as a young man (which makes Mom proud), but also shows the evolution of a writer young-in-craft.
Kids discover much about the subtleties of human beings from the outsized characters they read in novels, the very best of whom are NOT cardboard cut-outs or stereotypes. Characters that are made more endearing or more sinister by their quirks and failings than their routine hero or villain status would normally allow.
Dolores Umbridge (in Harry Potter) is all the more creepy because she’s not an evil witch, draped in black on a broom. She likes kittens and wears pink and giggles. And tortures school children … literally. A shiver runs up my back every time I think about the brilliance of that character. In a fell stroke, J.K. Rowling has illuminated the dark underside of humanity and shown that you can’t always believe the trappings – that evil can lurk in the sunniest spaces.
Creating characters like that is not child’s play, although children immediately get what those characters are about. But making your characters have that kind of depth takes effort. Writers young-in-craft (which can be writers of any physical age), may start with stereotypical characters. And though stereotypes can serve a purpose in minor character roles, a sort of short hand for describing a fly-by scene, most secondary characters will carry the story better if they have their own depth. For my major secondary characters, I’ve taken to writing narratives in brief that tell the story from their POV, filling in background and emotion, stepping into their shoes for a while. A lot of that may not show up in the story, but it will inform their actions, dress, and speech, and how they interact with my main characters. And while my secondary characters may not be vital to the story, they are important to building a world in your child-reader’s mind. If you’re lucky (or good) they may even expand your child-reader’s understanding of how people work.
If nothing else, that is worth the extra effort to move past stereotypes in kidlit.