Monday, September 9, 2013

Defining Middle Grade Characters in the School Setting

Back to School, Back to School
The start of middle school is classified by many firsts. The first time having a locker, changing classes, and having multiple teachers, among other things. Plus there are so many new people. I know when I started middle school they combined four separate grade schools. I went from knowing everyone to knowing a quarter of the kids. The idea of new friends was exciting for me, but it also frazzled my nerves. It often made me clam up and get even quieter than I already was. This transition is a whole new world, with lots of new experiences. Some good and some bad.

It's these kinds of feelings that help define middle school and middle grade writing. Middle school is a time of transition and increased freedom, but not too much freedom. Kids still need a hall pass to go anywhere, and they can’t really skip class without getting caught. They are expected to be on time and do their homework. Not that middle schoolers always do that.

All that said, there are a lot of things that go into defining a middle school kid and therefore many things to consider when defining a character in this age range. Some possible questions to consider in the realm of school:

The locker

  • How clean or dirty is it? This not only shows your character’s organizational skills but it can also point to other things like how much they care about the various objects and what’s important to them. 
  • What kinds of things are stored in there? Is there food? Maybe some posters of their favorite bands or celebrities? Maybe a mirror because they care about their appearance? 
  • Is it a bottomless pit of junk they just chuck in there and forget about?
  • Is this the kind of kid who always has fifteen number two pencils sharpened to perfection with a neat and tidy folder or notebook for every class?
  • Or is this the kid that walks into class with crumpled papers sticking out of their book and can never find anything to write with?  
  • Or are they somewhere in between?
Each of these scenarios says something different about a character.

In class
  • Does the character sit in the front or the back of the class? Is it because they like to sit there or because the teacher is punishing them or is it just their assigned seat? How does the character feel about this positioning?
  • Do they have friends in class? If so this can help diffuse nerves. If they don’t know anyone, this can create tension and strife. It can also be a disappointment to have friends in class but not sit by them. Consider the alienation factor and how the character might deal with this.
  • Does the character pay attention? Are they a note taker? Does he/she quietly ignore the teacher or is he/she a troublemaker?
  • What are their favorite subjects? This can help define how this kid acts in class. They will probably act differently in classes they like vs ones they hate.

Social circle
  • Does the character have lots of friends or just one or two close ones? If they have lots are they the “queen bee” or a follower. If not are they happy they only have a few friends? Or do they secretly wish they fit in?
  • Do they dress like their friends? If so why? If not why not? Or maybe they wear a uniform?
  • Status can be a big part of middle school—what’s cool and what’s not. How the character feels about status, can alter how he/she reacts to certain situations. It can also define difficult or possibly embarrassing situations for him or her.
  • What kinds of things is the character into? Do they play sports? Video games? An instrument? Are they into movies or comics? Do they like art or photography? What is this kid passionate about?
  • Middle grade characters often spend a good chunk of their time in class and doing homework, but this can get tired and become a bit cliché if the writer isn’t careful. So think about what other things this kid does outside of school. What unique settings can you put them in?
When you think about the transitions going on during the middle grade ages, this can really help define a middle grade character. Draw out what makes them special. But also play around with what makes this character comfortable. Once you’ve found their comfort level take it away from them. Put the character in different situations and see how they react.

What questions do you like to ask when you define your middle grade characters?



great post - very helpful things to think about when writing MG characters! thanks!

Jamie Krakover said...

You're welcome! Thanks for stopping by the blog.

Stacey Trombley said...

LOVE the pictures! :)

Jamie Krakover said...

Thanks! I'm always up for a good fart joke. Oh you probably meant the back to school pic :P

Robert Polk said...

A great bunch of questions I will use to help discover my characters - Thanks Jamie.

It looks like you got away with something. Clever grin and all.

Jamie Krakover said...

Thanks. I may have to do another set for the grade school portion of MG. Although minus the changing classes and lockers a lot of that still applies ;)

And yes, it does look like I was up to something... but I have no idea as to what. Devious Middle Grader is devious!