Saving the Hero
This month’s issue of “The Writer Magazine” features an interview with children’s author Kathi Appelt, who also teaches writing for children. Kathi says something in the interview that captured my attention and felt worthy of repeating here. When asked what common mistakes she sees in children’s writing, her answer (paraphrased) was this:
“…Saving the hero. In real life, our job as adults is to provide assistance and counsel to children. But in fiction, young heroes (be they children or child substitutes, such as kittens, puppies and so on) must tackle the obstacles and solve the story problem on their own… We writers also have to let that main character struggle. If the obstacles to a goal aren’t large enough, then readers won’t care about the main character. What young readers want are imperfect characters who get into a fix and then have to struggle to get themselves out and succeed – or not.” (Emphasis mine.)
This is something I address in my Just Write for Kids course, and I find myself mentioning it often in my freelance editing work, but Kathi’s words convey the idea brilliantly.
When we think about the problem or conflict – or, to use Kathi’s words, obstacle or struggle – for our hero, we want to be sure that it is relevant to, and resonant for, the child reader. We want to be sure the problem is accessible to our target audience on a very practical, concrete level. In other words, the reader must identify with it.
We also want the main character to play an active role in solving his or her problem. It is always more powerful when the main character actively works to achieve his goals, rather than having some omniscient adult or other character solve his problems for him. In the words of Kathi Appelt, “Even Arthur’s mentor, Merlin, had to let the young man make his own mistakes and figure out how to pull the sword from the stone.”