Friends, Romans, Lovers of Middle Grade! We've got something special today.
I'm extraordinarily lucky to be included in a group of MG writers all publishing this Fall and they're paying us a visit to share their thoughts on a pretty important question:
What makes a great Middle Grade character?
Let's see what they have to say!
The Last Cherry Blossom
I think that a great MG character has to have some vulnerability, but still willing to try something a tad bit outrageous to go after what they want. I think part of a MG Character is still trying to figure out where they fit in, sometimes who their friends really are. When something they fear happens, a great MG character finds an inner strength to either ask a friend to help them or to handle it on their own. I also really like to have some humor in MG characters, even when the book is about a serious subject.
Howard Walace, P.I.
I think a great middle grade character is someone who finds their truth. To me, the middle grade years are all about self-discovery. Finding your voice. Expanding your world view. Learning that adults aren’t always right and that they can make mistakes. Knocking down pedestals and building your own foundation.
There’s turmoil and excitement and the chance to stretch your boundaries. It’s a time to look inside yourself and see what makes you tick. To figure out who you are and where you fit in. It doesn’t matter if the story takes place in space or a little house in the country. If the character cracks jokes or keeps to the sidelines.
I’m happy if by the time the last page comes along, they’ve found that tiny nugget of truth inside themselves. A bit of absolute that, even when life roars by outside, holds fast and says “This is me.” That’s a great middle grade character in my book.
Poppy Mayberry, The Monday
Gosh – this is a tough one. When I hear this question, my mind immediately goes to my favorite middle grade characters – Harriet the Spy, any of the babysitter club girls, Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, Serafina (from Serafina and the Black Cloak) and so many more. As I look at my favorites, I see they have a few things in common. First, I think readers can often connect to these characters because they aren't perfect. Most middle grade readers like to have adventures, and so do those characters. That being said, for me, a good middle grade character is one that readers can relate with, one that has flaws, and one that isn’t afraid of a good adventure!
The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes
I think one thing that makes a great middle grade character is passion. Not necessarily the type that leads to kissing (move along, YA people, nothing to see here), but passion in the sense that the character is passionate about something—whether it’s proving that aliens exist, or deciding to learn one ancient language for every year old they are, or simply creating the world’s largest wad of used chewing gum. They’re intent on reaching a specific goal, and they’re not going to let anything get in their way (and they’re not going to believe any adults who tell them it’s impossible, because we all know adults are overly concerned with things like rules and safety and not blowing up the universe—they just don’t get it!). These characters have drive and a sense of purpose and believe anything can be achieved if they just keep moving forward and putting one foot in front of the other. That doesn’t mean they don’t fail. Often they do. But then they dig deep and find it within themselves the will to keeping going. That makes for a character anyone would want to read about.
The Rat Prince
Middle Grade greatness can come from any number of things!
I love characters with unusual perspectives or experiences, who are rendered with a sure sense of "voice" that makes them come alive. A couple of very different characters who became real for me in this way are Claudia from E.L. Konigsburg's classic FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKELWEILER, and Manami from Lois Sepahban's recent PAPER WISHES.
As a writer, I feel I'm doing well when my characters speak and act for themselves at a level that turns me into their recording angel, rather than their puppeteer. Great characters drive the plot and allow the story to make deep sense; it simply can't happen the other way around. If you're finding that you need to manipulate your characters in order to fit into your pre-designed narrative...time to re-think!
It's all about voice, and that comes down to being able to read a book and hear the character speak in your head. The voice needs to be distinctive, consistent, and it needs to use words appropriate for the age group. (Think of every "adult" word as a speed bump). If you know a ten to twelve-year-old who can read your book and flag words they'd never say, take advantage of it - they might end up being one of your most valuable beta readers.
I Am Drums
A great middle grade character is someone who authentically speaks like someone their age instead of like an adult posing as one. Middle grade readers are pretty blunt when they don't buy into a story, and will abruptly put down a book if it doesn't speak to them. Middle grade characters have to form a connection with the reader either by showing them an identifiable part of themselves or something that creates immediate empathy.
The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee
Oh hey, hi! It's me, your blogger!
I agree with so much that's been said here, and I'm wishing that we were all able to have this discussion in some coffee shop someplace. In my opinion, I think that one of the most important elements in a great character is authenticity. They can go to Mars, or live in Queens, or work as a blacksmith's apprentice in the year 1400 - but as long as their emotions are true, you're going to have a great character. I don't think they always need to know what they are doing, and maybe it's better if sometimes they don't. But they need to own themselves and their own feelings. I'm just the writer, I'm not the boss.
Thank you to Kathleen, Casey, Jennie, Wade, Bridget, Sarah, and Mike!
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section and join us on September 28th at 8pm for our Twitter party #BTSBookshelfTour!!
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It's always great to read what other middle grade authors have to say about their characters. Very interesting. Congrats to all on their fall books.
Great words of wisdom from some wonderful writers!
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