Your Handy Guide to Creating Middle Grade Fiction Characters
If you’re writing a middle grade novel, you get to enjoy the adventure of telling a story through young eyes.
If it’s been a few minutes since you peered through such youthful peepers, I’ve got good news for you. You can still dip into that long-lost perspective. And this time, you can pick up and set down the experience of adolescent anxiety anytime you wish. (Huge relief.)
So how do you do it? How do you write fictional middle graders that real-life kids will relate to?
You’re about to learn. We’ll cover:
- How to get into the mind of your readers
- Why creating characters for a middle grade novel is slightly different than in other genres
- How to craft a protagonist kids will root for
- Mastering dialogue and voice
- Avoiding common pitfalls
So don’t worry about a thing. You’re about to be well-equipped to write a memorable middle grade story.
Understanding the Middle Grade Audience
Your greatest challenge when writing middle grade fiction is connecting with the mindset of your young readers. The way your audience sees the world should influence everything in your story, from conflicts and themes to voice and characters.
That’s no small task, especially not if it’s been a few minutes since you were a kid yourself. Even if your memories of your own middle grade days are still fresh in your mind, you’ll likely find that today’s kids don’t experience the world exactly the same way you did.
So how do you make sure you and your readers are on the same page? So glad you asked.
Getting Inside the Mind of a Middle Grade Reader
First, let’s make sure we’re all clear on the numbers.
The average middle grade reader is 8-12 years old. Because kids tend to prefer reading about older kids, a typical middle grade protagonist is 10-13 years old. If you haven’t already, decide exactly what age your protagonist will be.
Then start with what you know. What do you remember about being that age? What did you love, fear, despise, and hope for? What were your relationships like? For a whole list of questions to help you reflect on your middle grade days, check out this article.
If you know any children around that age, pay closer attention to the way they communicate, what they care about, and how they relate to others. If you’re chummy with them, go ahead and ask them (non-invasive) questions about their lives.
What is Going on in the Lives of Middle Grade Readers?
The middle grade years are a time of shifting perspectives and increasing self-awareness. These youngsters aren’t ruminating on relationships, justice, and identity as much as they will when they become young adult readers, but they’re starting to:
- Become aware of social structures at school
- See themselves as contributors at home, at school, and within friendships
- Interact with technology (though the extent of this depends on their age and house rules)
- Define what it means to belong
- Think about who they are and how others see them
- Become aware of heavier topics such as illness, death, divorce, and prejudice
In other words, their world is small but expanding. They don’t pay much attention to what’s going on outside their home, school, and neighborhood. But they are beginning to see that those mini-universes are more complex than they’d realized.
Researching the Minds and Experiences of Middle Grade Readers
As you likely guessed, reminiscing about your own childhood and interviewing your favorite niece aren’t quite enough to make you an expert on the modern kid’s perspective. So how can you learn more?
First, read a lot of middle grade fiction, preferably current bestsellers. This will give you insight into the themes, conflicts, and perspectives that resonate with your readers.
You can also turn to experts like child psychologists, teachers, and parents. Read books on adolescent psychology and behavior. You might even consider volunteering for an organization that works with kids as an opportunity to hear how they think and talk while also contributing something to the community.
Key Elements of Middle Grade Character Development
If you’ve written in any other genre, you’re probably familiar with the many considerations that go into creating fictional people. If you’re completely new to this whole character development thing, you can find oodles of articles on the subject here.
When it comes to writing a middle grade novel, the approach is basically the same. Your fictional kids should have clear personalities, perspectives, goals, motivations, and flaws.
The one difference is that you don’t have to go quite as deep when you’re writing for a young audience. You still want to write realistic, three-dimensional characters, but you also want to avoid boring middle grade readers with an overly complex inner life.
Let me explain what I mean by looking at these key elements.
Personality is important in any genre, but it’s huge in middle grade novels. While you might be able to engage an adult reader with the complicated contradictions of your protagonist’s inner life, a kid needs something more tangible.
How does your protagonist talk? What funny quirks do they have? What do they love to do? Does anything drive them bananas? How do they dress? How do their friends and family describe them?
Once again, you want to go for something tangible. Middle grade novels are not the place to explore a child’s longing for a sense of purpose—at least not directly. Give your readers a clear, concrete objective to cheer for.
Does your protagonist want to be class president? Befriend the new kid? Save the world from an evil spiderdragon? What concrete goal can you give your antagonist? How does it create a big, concrete problem for your protagonist?
For an audience of young readers, you can worry less about plunging into the depths of your protagonist’s psyche.
If their motivation springs from a backstory, that backstory will likely be something that happened a year or two before, since they haven’t had time to develop a distant past. That significant past event should also have a direct and obvious correlation to the protagonist’s current story.
For example, they remember how much their best friend’s life changed after their parents divorced last summer and now your protagonist is understandably determined to help their own feuding parents rekindle their romance.
Basically, you want to make it as easy as possible for a middle grade reader to see why your protagonist’s goal is so important to them. When it comes to their desires and fears, go for clear, concrete, and relatable.
There are two types of conflict: external and internal.
When you’re writing middle grade fiction, you want to put a lot of emphasis on the external conflict. How is your protagonist at odds with the world around them? What person or external obstacle is standing between them and their goal?
Of course, that’s not to say internal conflict doesn’t have a role to play in your middle grade novel. It absolutely does. Internal conflict is the battle your protagonist fights within themselves, and it's a great tool for helping young readers connect to your story emotionally.
Some examples of internal conflict that make sense for this age group are:
- Wanting to fit in versus wanting to stand up for what’s right
- Feeling torn between the culture at home and a different culture at school
- Desperately wanting to accomplish something big but being too afraid to try
You’ll notice that these inner battles are best explored through external conflict. That’s exactly what you want when you’re writing a middle grade novel: clear external conflict with a light touch on the internal struggle behind it.
Techniques for Developing Middle Grade Characters
Now that you’re clear on how middle grade readers think and relate to characters, how exactly do you go about creating these fictional children?
Here are a few strategies that will make the process easier.
Read a ton of middle grade fiction - You should always read a lot within your genre, anyway. Reading successful middle grade novels will help you write them better and keep you in the loop with current trends. But it’s especially important for getting to know the characters and voices that resonate with young readers.
Factor in technology - Are they allowed to use phones? Do they go online for school projects or to find information? Do they video chat with their cousins or the bestie who moved away? Technology looms large in the lives of modern kids. Be sure to factor in how current tech might influence the way your middle grade protagonist and their friends relate to the world.
Give your young characters agency - This is absolutely crucial in a middle grade novel. Kids don’t want to read about how somebody’s parents swooped in to save the day. You can use adult characters for support and guidance, but give those fictional kids the resourcefulness to solve problems for themselves.
Use writing exercises - If you get stuck, use templates or exercises to grease those creative gears. Here are some good ones:
- 20 Original Character Questions
- The Best Character Template Ever
- How to Write a Character Sketch
- Character Development Worksheet
Crafting a Memorable Middle Grade Protagonist
Now, what about your protagonist specifically? How do you make sure your story’s lead resonates with your readers?
In addition to giving them an engaging personality and interesting goal, you want to make sure they’re relatable. Even if your middle grade hero(ine) has superhuman powers and fights space pirates, find ways to help your readers see themselves in the protagonist.
To do that, you need to make this fictional kid a little vulnerable. Give them weaknesses and fears. Let them fail sometimes. Give them flaws.
You don’t have to go full-on anti-hero here. You’re writing a middle grade novel, after all—positive is better. Offer your readers plenty to admire in the protagonist while also creating room for this character to grow. You’ll use that room in this next step.
Writing a Middle Grade Character Arc
A character arc is the transformation a character goes through over the course of a story. It’s possible to write an arc where the protagonist changes for the worse, but this is middle grade fiction, so your protagonist is going to become a better person.
Of course, to become better, they have to start from less-than-better. This is where flaws and weaknesses come in.
When creating flaws for your character, consider shortcomings middle grade readers might relate to. This could be something like impulsiveness, a short temper, or dreaminess. It’s probably a good idea to stay away from flaws that feel like full-blown vices—greed, cruelty, and the like.
Also try to make your protagonist’s biggest flaw something that would make overcoming the conflict much harder.
See, a character arc starts when your protagonist begins their pursuit of a goal. In that pursuit, they run into major challenges that force them to hone their strengths. But sometimes their flaws take over and they make mistakes. The growth comes when they own up to those mistakes and try to change. You can learn more about the structure of an arc here.
Now, many middle grade fiction writers have an instinct to teach a lesson through their story. This arc gives you an opportunity to do that without getting all preachy. Kids don’t like to be hit over the head with a moral, so let your protagonist’s growth do the work.
Developing Supporting Characters and Relationships
What about the rest of the folks who populate the world of your middle grade novel?
You’ll want to give them personalities, strengths, and flaws, too. Many of your secondary characters will also have goals and motivations. You can learn more about fleshing out supporting characters in this article.
For now, we’ll just do a quick rundown of the people you’re likely to see in middle grade novels.
Remember how we said these fictional children need agency? Friend relationships are one of the best ways to bring that out. When your protagonist consults other kids about their problems, the reader sees themselves and their peers making sense of the world. It’s empowering.
And of course, friendships can be sources of reassuring support or nail-biting conflict in any story.
As your therapist might have mentioned, family has a lifelong effect on who we are. But this goes, like, triple for kids. Parents, siblings, and other relatives continue to shape your protagonist’s sense of who they are, how they fit in, and what they should expect from the world.
How does your protagonist relate to their family as they confront difficult challenges? Is this a place to hide away, recharge, or find support? Are they ever torn between family values and their friends’ values?
Is their go-to mentor a parent? Or do they find it easier to be open with a teacher who seems to understand them?
Every story has to have an antagonist, and middle grade novels are no different. Whether it’s a bully at school or an alien cat posing as president, someone has to be standing between your hero(ine) and their goal.
One quick tip: make sure your antagonist’s goal is something other than to just be mean or ruin things for the protagonist. Why does this person choose to get in the way? What do they want? And why do they want it?
Enhancing Middle Grade Characters Through Dialogue and Voice
When you’re writing a middle grade novel, your goal is lots of action and dialogue. Kids don’t get jazzed to sit through an inner monologue. The best way to help your readers get to know your characters is to show them what these fictional children do and say.
We’ve got an entire guide on finding a character’s voice (you knew we would), but here’s the short version:
Dialogue can clue readers into what your fictional people are thinking and feeling. You can also use word choice and speech patterns to communicate personality, familiarity, tension, and more.
Just be careful about slang in middle grade fiction. It can be tempting to use slang as a way to signal to kids that you get what they’re all about. But those words could already be outdated by the time your book goes to print.
Common Pitfalls in Middle Grade Character Development
By this point, you’re practically an expert in writing for a middle grade audience. But just to make sure you’re fully equipped to start creating the cast for your middle grade novel, let’s talk about some common mistakes.
Not taking middle grade problems seriously - Writing for younger readers only works when you can see the world from their perspective. This is the oldest they’ve ever been and whatever your story’s conflict is, it’s the biggest problem your protagonist has ever encountered.
Write about those experiences with the same gravity and care you would if you were writing for adults.
Getting too complex - If you’re looking to get deeper into questions of identity, you might have more fun writing YA. In middle grade fiction, these bigger questions are only beginning to blossom.
Stereotyping - Of course, with simplicity comes the risk of stereotyping. Make sure that in making character traits obvious and accessible for young readers, you haven’t turned fictional children into painful stereotypes.
And if your protagonist comes from a background that’s very different from your own, consider working with sensitivity readers. As a middle grade author, you’re in a great position to help all readers feel truly seen in the stories you write.
Is That All?
No, that’s not all. But you’ve put in a good day’s work here, so we’ll call it good enough for now.
If you’d like to explore more aspects of character development, check out the many, many articles available for free in DabbleU. You can even find genre-specific articles to help create the fictional children of your middle grade novel, including:
Finally, I highly recommend writing your middle grade story with Dabble. In addition to being a fun and super intuitive writing tool, its features include Story Notes which you can completely customize to create character profiles your way.
Dabble is free to try for fourteen days, no credit card required. Just follow this link and start filling up your fictional middle school.
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