I want you to take part in a little exercise with me, it’s not very long, just take thirty seconds and write down the most famous characters you can think of from Middle Grade and YA Fiction.
Don’t scroll down to see where I’m going with this – just do it.
Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, Agatha &Sophie, Katniss Everdeen, Lyra Belacqua, Violet & Klaus & Sunny, Peter & Lucy &Edmund & Susan, Sara Crewe, Alanna of Trebond, Ellie Ellard…
I think you can see what this is about given the title of this blog post. This list wouldn’t look all that different if I said ‘make a list of characters with difficult home lives’. It’s very popular, characters who have overcome serious difficulties at home, and yet only two, maybe three, of the books listed above are specifically about those problems. People love to have hard done by characters, but get very reluctant when it comes to actually writing a narrative about those problems. So I guess that would be point number one.
1 – Meet the Problem Head On;Think About Everything.
Now I know Harry Potter is not even a little bit about the real problems of being an orphan, his parent’s deaths are part of a bigger story and a plot device. But I’m going to use an example anyway because it’s such a well-known work and what happens here happens all the time, even in realistic fiction books.
Do you remember Christmas in the first book when Harry gets Christmas presents, and he’s really surprised because he’s never had Christmas before? The length of that sentence there is literally the extent of narrative on that painful experience.
Yes, I know, the little white boy didn’t get presents. Boo-Hoo. But think about it for more than a second, years of having that day that is so advertised and so special for everyone else, being a day where you get to sit in a dark space under the stairs listening to other people having fun and enjoying each other’s company. Knowing that no one wants to spend time with you, that you are going to spend the next few weeks hearing about all the things that other people have done for each other and that you are completely alone and in the dark and that you are going to stay that way day after day after day.
It’s very easy to write a sentence lamenting something, it’s often much more difficult to think about the implications of what you’re saying, and where realistic fiction in concerned that’s what makes a fantastic writer, thinking about every little thing, tackling every idea of the problem as the mountain it actually is. The thoughts above aren’t even skimming the surface of the day in day out hopelessness of the situation, which leads nicely into point two.
2- Abuse is Boring; It Happens Every Day
It is, any kind of abuse is boring. Whether it’s someone’s boss harassing them, a kid bullying another, a spouse hitting their partner or a parent standing over their own child making them feel like crap. It’s always the same story, abuse is continuous – routine. It’s what’s scariest about it, take that away and you have a horrible incident, but for someone who is experiencing regular abuse they come to accept it, ‘that’s life’ after all.
Now this next bit is particularly key when the character being abused is young: you have to remember what it’s like being a kid, very few have a sphere of perspective outside of their own, you don’t know what’s normal and what isn’t. If you’re writing about abuse at home most kids don’t understand it’s weird until incredibly late in life, sometimes until they’re in their teens. That’s not even an over exaggeration.
So if that’s what you’re planning to write you’re going to have to skew your perspective.
I’m going to use ‘Iris’, my most recent release, as an example here. For her, stuff most children take as red is a rare treat; “Mum forgot to pick me up from school again, no big deal, I don’t have a bus fare so I’ll walk home, half an hour over busy roads with my pre-school brother. There’s no food in the fridge, oh well, Mum say’s I’m too fat anyway, maybe no food is a good thing. Mum grabbed me by the wrist so hard it came out in a bruise, maybe I should be less difficult next time.”
Whose to tell Iris what’s happening is really weird? Kid’s are filled with emotions about things, and they will feel scared and angry, but for them that might be how they just feel all the time, they might identify emotions in the way most people would never expect. Always keep in mind the seeming endlessness of everything and how conditioning can change people.
3 – Inside Your Head Makes It
Now that I’ve just said abuse is boring, who would want to read about it? For me, the thing that makes Realistic Fiction so special is the protagonist. No genre facilitates reflection and emotional reactions better, basically, it’s the best genre to really explore character and personality.
Protagonist’s internal monologue needs to sparkle, and there are so many ways to do that, perhaps they’re dry and sarcastic, making jokes about upsetting situations? Perhaps they have a dual monologue, saying what they want in their head, but not daring to out loud? Maybe they’re a head in the clouds type, imagining fictional outbursts, like a dragon eating the teacher when she really gets into a homework rant? Or maybe even more abstract, perhaps they fixate on numbers, counting the words and trying to get a running total for each conversation in an attempt to distract themselves and give a conversation they don’t understand a perceived value?
There are so many ways to look at difficult situations, so many new angles, a colourful protagonist is a must.
4 – Do you have any experience that can help? If not others probably do.
Research is so important to writing a good book, but it’s not just about researching stuff it’s about researching feelings. If you’re writing about something that hasn’t happened to you then you either need to draw a parallel or go look at someone else’s experience. There is no way you can think of everything.
I didn’t need to do much research for Iris since a lot of it is autobiographical, I know what it feels like to have your teeth broken. But for my first book ‘Tick-Tock’, I was less sure. Tick-Tock’s protagonist, Vega, is black, being white enough to be camouflaged while trekking naked in the Alps, I have no idea what that’s like. So I read blogs, articles, other people’s books on racism and their experiences with it.
I’ve had people say to me ‘Oh, it’s all about empathy, just thinking about it will get you a general feeling and you can go from there’. Difficult experiences are so strange and fantastical, that I don’t think anyone has the mind to just create the feelings they stir. And even if you do, we’re talking here about writing for Middle Grade. What if you get it wrong? For example, what if a ten-year-old picks up your un-researched realistic book on bullying and your protagonist is brave throughout and witty in their responses, when all the real life kid seems to be able to do is quake and call in sick and hide at play time. How are they going to feel? I’d feel pretty terrible, like bullying doesn’t isolate someone enough, now they feel incompetent as well. Kid’s engage with books in a much more intimate way than many adults, we need to be spot on when we write for them.
5 – Don’t See Everything, Reflect and Embellish Later. It’s What Our Mind’s Actually Do
This is sort of an extended point on what I was saying earlier about considering everything, you see everything does need to be considered, but timing is something I see done strangely in a lot of realistic fiction too.
What I mean by that is everything happens quickly. If you’ve ever been hit or had your car bumped or been insulted and then hung up on, most of the time it takes us a long time to react, we don’t seem to be able to do it fast enough. A lot of work I’ve read is all very descriptive in shocking scenes, they want to set the scene, make it memorable, make people know it’s the big deal it is. I’ve seen people describe what’s happening, exact facial expressions, long speeches, what the weather was like. I’m being silly now, but my point still stands. If you want realism the reader has to be just as confused and stunned as your protagonist.
Reflection comes later, and make sure you make time for, else you’re falling into the problem I made a point of earlier about problems being brushed over. By all means revisit, flashback, but the first incident needs to come on go like me on a blind date when someone uses the phrase ‘hope to get married myself one day’.
6 – Language, Don’t Be Scared Of It
This is the big thing that makes’s so many parents start buzzing. We have to be so careful writing realistic problems because their children might be upset, God forbid they may actually have some ideas of how those outside their own household live. If you want to write good realistic fiction that actual kids will care about you need to chuck those concerns out the window.
Obviously you can’t swear, but if you need to swear to make a point then you really need to work on your range, besides kids are not stupid, they know when they’re being lied to, or pussy footed about, and they will get the feeling from your book and any lasting impact you hope to have is compromised.
Besides that, a lot of people seem to forget part of the title of the genre we write; Realistic Fiction. These are real problems that real people are going through, and to pretty them up to be more palatable for the people who have to do nothing more than read about them is nothing short of insulting to the kids who have to actually live through them.
So that’s my very edited down advice on some things to keep in mind when writing for Middle Grade. You should have seen how long the post was before I edited it. I hope I’ve been at least vaguely useful, and happy writing!
Thanks for reading! I actually wrote this blog a while ago for a host thing that never happened, but I spent a lot of time on it and I think all the points here are really worth considering so I’m posting it here anyway. Originally it was just aimed at writers of Middle Grace Fiction, but really it’s good for all age ranges – hope you found it helpful.