In Tuesday night’s middle-grade novel class, after reading and discussing students’ first chapters, we moved on to discuss how to portray character in middle-grade fiction.

There are two categories of characters, flat and round, and there is a place for each of them. Not every character can be complex and nuanced. Some characters serve a simpler purpose in driving the story forward.A flat character should be simple but memorable. We don’t expect subtlety or growth from such a character. We do expect unusual or highlighted features that help us remember the character, so we aren’t scratching our heads and searching our memories when he or she makes another brief appearance.

Examples of flat characters include Mrs. Micawber or Miss Havisham in Dickens. We remember one thing about them (“I shall never leave Mr. Micawber,” or a faded wedding dress) and we don’t expect them to change. Think of characters in the Harry Potter series like Malfoy’s goons Crabbe and Goyle or the ghastly, sickly sweet Doris Umbrage. Flat characters often have memorable names that characterize them, along with odd looks and mannerisms. Flat characters can also provide comic relief.

Round characters are complex, and often they grow, change, or surprise us. Neither fully black nor white, they have shadows playing across their surfaces. Heroes have weak spots, like Dumbledore’s weakness for a Dark wizard in his youth or Sirius Black’s depression and foul temper. Even villains (or seeming villains) have redeeming features, like Draco Malfoy’s regrets at the end of the Harry Potter series (though I believe both Malfoy and Snape are failed characters, since both remained flat for far too long). Another example is Long John Silver in Treasure Island. He may be a murderous pirate, but he has a genuine soft spot for Jim Hawkins.

In my novel The Beechwood Flute (which is young adult, not middle grade), I round out as many as possible of the characters around the hero, Kiran. Their complexity lies in their stepping out of the charactersKiran grew up believing them to be. Kiran’s mother and father disappoint them, one with disloyalty, one with bitterness. The stepfather who always mocked him surprises him by placing great faith in him. His longtime rival Ryan becomes a temporary, complicated ally. The priest who taught him music shows himself to be cunning, treacherous, and ultimately pathetic. And Kiran struggles to figure out the girl Myra and the savages who enslave him.

Understanding other people’s point of view is a major task of adolescence, and reading has been shown to increase out powers of empathy. But even The Beechwood Flute makes use of characters who are simple and straightforward. These include the wise herb-woman, Nora, and Kiran’s two younger siblings. These characters are meant to be convincing and distinct, but they act and stand out clearly, without unexpected shifts and gray areas. A reader can take only so much uncertainty!

Soon I’ll add a post on ways of depicting character.




3 thoughts on “Character: Writing the Middle-Grade Novel III

  1. As a veteran of teaching the novel to high school students, I am intrigued by this all-important idea of character development. In any adult literature worth its salt, of course, character really is everything. So, I’m wondering now in what ways you, as a writer of middle grade and young adult fiction, see a difference in character development in those genres. You use Dickens’ characters to illustrate your point and–at least in today’s world–Dickens isn’t often given to middle school students. I have read several of the novels you publish and the characters are lively but definitely pared down from classic adult literature. How do you think about the differences when you are writing?


  2. I do think character development in fiction for young people is different. Young readers have less patience than adults do for long disquisitions on family or personal history, and they have less sophistication in thinking about the psychological ins and outs that torment us adults. For these reasons characters, even when they are well rounded and grow over time, are usually less complicated than in adult novels. I think main characters also have to be sympathetic, since kids read for enjoyment rather than to explore. “Pared-down” is a good way of describing them. I try to get to the heart of who the characters are and the tasks they’re facing. My sense is that characters can be rich even when they have a kind of simplicity.


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