Often when there are children in a cast of characters, especially in sitcoms or certain types of movies, audiences groan because they tend to be immensely annoying. They are a very special type of uncanny valley in the way they are written to talk and react. Usually, we get one (or all) of the following selection:
a. The Kid Kid: The kid whose character is just that- being The Child of the team, situation, or plot. They are only written doing whatever the writer believes are childish things which often can be annoyingly mismatched with the child's depicted age. They have no other personality and often are used as Plot Devices (posing problems or getting abducted/ being the mcguffin).
b. The Savvy Kid: The kid whose character is just “smart alec”. They are written with hilariously clever quips and comebacks to whatever the adults tell them. They are an uncannily skilled foil for them and meet them on the same level, which the adults accept. They tend to have no personality beyond that. They are often annoying because their dialogue is nothing you would hear a kid say (even a precocious kid) so they look like they are kids possessed by an adult ghost. They are also clearly not in any relationship with their environment except “funny/witty contrarian”. It grows old fast.
c. The Nerdy Kid: The kid whose character is just “the knowitall”. They are written as walking encyclopedias (they will often wear glasses and/or sweaters and knitted vests like they are perpetually stuck in the 50s). They are basically Google, and correct everyone whenever a mistake is made in various trivia, math, or other factual information. It doesn't matter that they are quite young usually, they have knowledge that needs twice their years to accrue, as if they were born with it. Their personality revolves around that, so tend to come across as snotty and obnoxious.
d. The Sly Kid: This kid was born a con artist or a mobster. They are written as grifters extraordinaire, able to trick adults into doing pretty much everything. In extreme cases, they even have their own network of criminals and run scams or ‘businesses’ with full adults under their command, without any issues arising from that. They are able to con anyone out of their money or trick them into situations. They are always ahead of the game, with experience that again, belongs to someone who has had a lot more turns around the sun.
There are two problems with all of these options (except the obvious one-trick-pony character design when it comes to their personality): the writers forget they are children, and they also don't write children's dialogue.
There is a very distinct qualitative difference between the way an adult speaks and interacts with the world and the way a child does it. Even if a child is thrust into adult situations (like kids in war), their age will greatly affect the way they talk and react. Children in war though is a very unique type of situation, so for this article I want to focus on the average modern era western-country child.
The principles of writing children stem largely from what constitutes a child:
1. Someone who is learning about the world around them, accumulating experiences like a sponge
2. Someone who is inexperienced and seeks to emulate the behaviors of others with more experience
3. Someone with a limited capacity to make evaluations, estimations, judgment calls, and attributions due to their being in the first stages of human development, physically, emotionally, and cognitively.
Take the example in the image: The sentence “I only surround myself with people I find intellectually stimulating” is not one children the age of the girl would easily utter. It is very complex syntactically, for one thing. It also has advanced vocabulary and concepts, including one's approach to interpersonal relationships.
Could a girl her age express the content of that sentence? Absolutely. But she would be more likely to say it thus: “I only make friends with smart people.” Depending on her upbringing and/or if she's angry, should could follow that up with “…and you're dumb.” Or if she was talking up a friend, she could follow it up with “so that's why I talk to you. You're smart.”
Could a child say that sentence (if it wasn't in the script)? Yes. But it would likely mean they are parroting some adult's words, trying to imitate them. Such a sentence should stand out in the rest of their usual style of talking, and strike the audience as an alien addition to their repertoire. Bonus points if the audience can peg whose words the kid is trying to parrot.
Children also have developing yet distinct personalities, which is something I often see screenwriters forget. And they may be trying their hardest to be independent, parroting and mimicking words and behaviors, but they are objectively not independent. They are kids. They may deny it, but they need adults to mentor them. A kid without at least one will have a high level of anxiety at least, and might act out in a cry for help.
Even street savvy kids who were forced to ‘grow up early’ are still children. They can be taken in by an adult, and they can certainly be manipulated by one and be unable to see what to an adult is obvious. Can they have a jaded side to them that comes of the experience of living in the streets? Absolutely. But they are still kids.
Teens are a different cup of tea, but anyone below the age of 12 falls easily within the framework I just described. And that's okay! Nuance and a huge range of different character designs are possible. If you write a child as a child, especially in their dialogue, then they may still be occasionally annoying, but it will be for the right reasons.
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The Problem With Kid DialogueTantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Dec. 4, 2021
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PaulEberhardt at 6:05AM, Dec. 7, 2021
You can get too close, though. Some authors listen very carefully to kids or teenagers talking, and as long as they don't elevate them to first-person narrators that's awesome. If they do, however, the result can quickly become annoying, too. It just reads too realistically like the prattle some not too bright student would produce. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is one example for a novel spoiled by a job done too well. Ishiguro - as he said in an interview - modelled his narrators' speech patterns on that of his teenage daughter; and I have to say that he did a flawless job, even down to characteristic mannerisms like semi-randomly switching between different episodes almost in mid-sentence. It is telling that it got not just on my own but especially on my students' nerves very quickly. They recognised their own stylistic blunders in there, only with better spelling - and being 16 years old, they said so, too.
PaulEberhardt at 5:29AM, Dec. 7, 2021
Many writers even don't get it right when they have children themselves and try to write dialogue for "normal" children (mistake number one being that there is no such thing, as if they didn't know better). But, seriously, creating convincing child characters is really, really hard, not least because children can do so much and so little at the same time in a hard-to-predict way - the general tendencies of their behaviour are fully predictable, but the details are anything but. They're hard to draw, too.
bravo1102 at 10:45AM, Dec. 5, 2021
Go back to the Art Linkletter show (later revived by Bill Cosby) Kids say the Darndest Things. There are books and videos with quotes and it's a great primer for how children react to things as kids as opposed to little adults.
usedbooks at 9:22PM, Dec. 4, 2021
Makes me think of the Jurassic Park kids. "I'm a hacker." Lol. The '90s.
marcorossi at 5:01AM, Dec. 4, 2021
I think part of the problem is that writers often use kids as "the voice of innocence" to contrast it with bad adult behaviour, so that they are not really kids but more proxies for the author's opinion.