Friday, November 5, 2010

Creating Believable Motivation for Middle Grade Characters

Motivation. If you don’t have it, you’re not getting anything done. And if your character doesn’t have it, your story isn’t going anywhere. One of the difficulties I have in writing middle grade fiction is in getting the right motivation for my characters.

A character’s motivation has to be believable. For middle grade, that means you need to know what 9- to 12-year-olds want or what’s important to them. There are lots of writing books that give you advice on how to do that. But I think you also need to know two more things:

1) what middle graders think they can do

2) what they are able to do

These often don’t match up, which is a good thing, because it can create conflict in your story. But if either of them is too unrealistic, you run the risk of setting up a situation that won’t be believable for your readers.

I’ve noticed that sometimes middle graders seem to have a kind of naïve confidence, where they are sure something will be a piece of cake and then find out it’s not. Like when they’ve seen an adult do something lots of times, then try it themselves, and realize it’s a lot harder than they thought. Do they give up? Or do they try harder? There’s some motivation and conflict.

On the other hand, sometimes adults or older siblings underestimate what kids can do. For example, my 11-year-old shows much more initiative and independence when her older sister isn’t around. To a point. There are things she wouldn’t be able to do and knows it. But there are other things she’ll try because she thinks she can. There’s a lot of “trying it out to see what happens” with middle graders.

As an adult writing for children, it’s hard to shut out the perspective of "knowing myself" that comes from having so many more life experiences. But I think it’s important to try. To get the motivation right, I’m going to delve into the minds of my characters and work on what they think they are able to do, then show whether they can as the story develops.

-- Andrea


  1. Andrea, this reminds of Bart Simpson thinking he can read lips because "I just assumed I could." So many things look easy until you try them. It's fun to have middle grade characters be surprised by their failure to open a combination locker for the first time, or sink a basketball, or convincingly fake an injury. I wish this constant feeling of "duh, I'm an idiot!" wasn't so pervasive in middle school, but I'm afraid it is for a lot of kids.

  2. Great post, and so very true. Thanks!


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