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Ray
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I had a story a little while ago where one of the main characters was five, and one comment that's stuck with me was that he sounded too mature when he spoke with a grownup. After a lot of deliberation, I decided to let the kid talk the way he always had, first, because none of the other readers had a problem with it. The second reason, I felt that to dumb down the way he talked would have wrecked his character entirely, and the dialogue would have become trite and boring.

Besides, when I look at published literature with children from that age group, I find that it's their maturity that makes the stories great. Some examples off the top of my head are Ender's Game, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Shining. In all these cases, the children speak clearly and hold their own in discussions with adults, and yet the reader never forgets that they're still about five- to seven-years-old.

I think that this is because children's age is more recognized in their thoughts, the way they view the world, and how they control their emotions. This is often said in clear and expressive ways in the narrative. In Shining, the only people Danny talks to are adults, and if he hadn't talked up to a level with the grownups, I believe the pace would have slowed considerably and been a dull read. The same with Calvin. Now, since it is a comic strip, the visuals often let the reader never forget that Calvin is six, but if you examine the dialogue, he has a tendency to use high-falutin words that you wouldn't expect someone his age to even know. But it still works, because Calvin has been established as a bratty and pleasure-seeking youth, and in the other example, Danny's age is shown by how attached and dependent he is on his parents.

IMO, to dumb down the dialogue to be more childish seems fake and irritate the reader.

Now, in all these examples, you can't please everyone. Ender's Game has some critics who think the kids are too smart for their age, and Bill Watterson mentioned how some of his readers get confused with Calvin having a large vocabulary. But for myself, these stories are great, and part of the charm is how mature the children are.

What are your thoughts on this?


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Spaceman
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I tend to view Calvin and Hobbes more as what Calvin thinks, translated by the cartoonist into adult-speak.

[This message has been edited by Spaceman (edited March 13, 2006).]


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hoptoad
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Depends on POV.
I agree with spaceman.
What can you get away with? The bloke who draws Calvin & Hobbs knows his characters and his readership.

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thayerds
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To be honest, after raising three kids and befriending many many more, it is actually a question of muscle coordination. Children develop eyesight and hearing and cognitive ability long before they develope the ability to physically (with their mouths that is) communicate. In other words they learn their native toungue before they can make their toungue express it. Some five year olds can, if adults by example teach them, speak like harvard graduates. Other kids in the same family at the same age may sound like little Shirley Temple. With kids its always a crap shoot. I never thought Ender sounded too old, but then wasn't he a genius? I don't know anything about Calvin and Hobs, sorry. I would not be put off by a five year old saying big hard words. I would have a problem if the ideas expressed by a five year old were too mature. True Love for another, a complete understanding of the world's current human condition, or a craving for the taste of caviar, would be beyond the grasp of a normal five year old; if not 70% of the adults I've met.
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Christine
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You're never going to get everyone to agree that the five-year-old you have depicted in your work sounds/thinks/acts like a five-year old/ Why? No two five-year-olds sound/think/act alike!

For my part, I will accept an exceptional five-year-old who speaks a little more like an adult, but do watch out for certain key things. Young children do not understand shades of gray (they're good guys or bad guys) and they haved a far less developed vocabulary. Think about every word you put in their dialogue.

It might help if you find some kids to watch. I just did some baby-sitting and I could believe how different the two five-year-old girls I watched were. One was quite verbal but otherwise far les intelligent -- unable to read, recognize most of the letters of the alphabet, or play on her own. The other could speak but not so that I could understand. I had to ask her five times to repeat what she said. But she could read some, play on her own, and draw discernable pictures.


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Elan
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Children come into the world with fully formed personalities and a sense of intellectual "self." As has been observed, their motor skills, including the ability to speak and form words, keeps them from communicating in a way adults understand. Children can be taught sign language from the time they are born. I recall reading about a child who, at age 9 months, knew the signs for about 90 words... long before that child was able to speak. I have a friend who is an expert in early childhood cognitive thinking. Through conscious effort and training, her four-year-old granddaughter's vocabulary is extraordinary. Yet, the girl still ACTS like a four-year old. She runs (literally) in circles, she pouts when its time for bed, she cries when she is frustrated, she flops around dramatically when she's trying to get attention.

The thing that makes a child that age precocious is not just the command of the vocabulary, but the conclusions the child comes to. For instance, I have a dog, Merlin, with three legs because he was once mauled by other dogs and the injured leg had to be amputated. I had a little boy visiting at my house, and he observed the dog only had three legs. He was told Merlin "lost one of his legs." That news startled him, and he grabbed onto his leg. His conclusion was: "Uh oh. I'm always losing my shoes; I didn't know I could lose a leg, too!"

You have to be cautious if you are using a young child as a MC. If the child comes to adult conclusions based on a broader world view, THEN it begins to ring false. At age five, a child is still reveling in the magic of nature and the exploration of the world.

[This message has been edited by Elan (edited March 14, 2006).]


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Survivor
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I'll second the point of it not being an issue of vocabulary. I have a X year oldish neice, and she has a fairly adult level vocabulary. The thing that really stands out is that she never gets the point of jokes, ever. It stands out because she insists on laughing uproariously anytime an adult so much as chuckles. She's so determined to make us all accept that she understands why we're laughing because she knows that we know she doesn't.

In Ender's Game, Card assigns quite a few subtly childish (meaning we're used to seeing them in adults too) characteristics and worldview assumptions, and then showed how his teachers had to break him of some while maintaining others. Those markers differ from child to child, but they're always there. One of my childhood assumptions was that I was the same species as people around me. Another (related) assumption was that adults were more likely to be correct by viture of experience and training. It's strange that these child-like assumptions do not seem characteristic of most human children, but every child is different.


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rjzeller
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I have a six year old who began speaking very early. By the time he was 18 months old, he had picked up on the use of contractions by adults, and started using them himself (including creating his own). My favorite was "I amn't". I thought it was remarkable that such a young child could piece together that adults were combining words like "can not" into "can't" and "did not" into "didn't", etc. He just created his own as well.

He's been using colloquializations such as "Oh! Man," and "cool" for at least three years now. Plays chess (even beats mom a few times), and loves to read. Yet he still has his share of tantrums and finicky dietary habits.

If someone is telling you that your xx year old character doesn't sound young enough, that person either hasn't had kids or hasn't been paying attention to them.

Some kids go years before they learn to speak well, others get it right away. Some kids walk at 8 months (our second child), others go well over a year (our third child). I would not find it unbelievable if a child spoke maturely. I think if you listened, you'd find that really it's more an issue of how they sound when they speak, not what they say.

In fact, I'd probably grow skeptical if a character SOUNDED five years old. I dunno...just me, perhaps...

"colloquializations"...see? Even daddy makes up words....


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rjzeller
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One other thing....

quote:
Now, in all these examples, you can't please everyone. Ender's Game has some critics who think the kids are too smart for their age, and Bill Watterson mentioned how some of his readers get confused with Calvin having a large vocabulary. But for myself, these stories are great, and part of the charm is how mature the children are.

What are your thoughts on this?

[This message has been edited by rjzeller (edited March 14, 2006).]


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Susannaj4
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Having three children of my own and having been a soccer coach to 5 year olds, some of them can only have a conversation about what's going on in their heads (I have a boo boo, I lost a tooth). But some of them have quite and extensive vocab and can carry on a conversation with you about things you never thought they would think of. It's your character. You create it. Make it think,say, do whatever is appropriate for the story.

Remember that a 5 year old speaks the way it has always been spoken to. I speak to my children like they are people, not because they are this age or that.


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krazykiter
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I should point out there's a distinct difference between a child's vocabulary/speech developments and their psychological development.

There are *general* stages of development, but such does not exclude an individual child from some sort of precocious development. Translation: If you need a five-year old that speaks like an adult, go right ahead. If there's a *large* difference in development, you'll need to have some explanation of it in your work. A highly pressured external environment, such as existed in Ender's Game, is certainly more than enough to alter typical development.

Susanna gave a great example of what Jean Piaget calls the "preoperational" stage of development (generally 2-7 years). Children can use words, but tend to converse about things relevant to themselves because they are ego-centric. Also, their logic isn't always that great.

I studied developmental psychology in college, and I've found the works of Piaget to make the most sense (my opinion, only) in terms of development. David Elkind also did some great work in the area of the psychology behind children who, for one reason or another, are pressured to develop at an accelerated pace. Recommended reading for folks wanting to create child characters.


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Survivor
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The charm of Calvin lies, not in his maturity, but in his ability to express immature and frankly childish ideas cloaked in elevated language, combined with our ability to easily recognize them as immature and childish because Calvin is the one propounding them.

The particular delight is that most people are confounded and feel helpless to reply to these same ideas when they are presented by the more usual suspects. Thus, it is a relief to be able to assign them to a childish viewpoint with whom argument is frankly unnecessary.


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wbriggs
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If you got the comment from 1 critiquer, it's likely safe to let it go. If it was many, it's worth considering.

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Ray
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I'm not worried about whether I should change my character; I already decided that I was going to leave him as he is. What interests me is what makes a child character work, and what's believable.

Now, from my personal experience with children, my two youngest sisters are four and seven, and I've substituted a Sunday School class for six- and seven-year-olds several times. The thing I've noticed is that the kids are as different as adults are. But when they talk, I always understand what they say. Children generally speak clearly, especially when it interests them. It was mentioned earlier that it's the children's psychology that sets them apart from grownups, not the words they express themselves with.

Someone mentioned the physical nature of kids when they talk, and how that's different from adults. I agree with that. I've noticed that with my sister, she tends to run out of breath quickly, lick her lips, say "um" a couple thousand times, especially when it's something she's excited about and doesn't happen often. However, although we do it on a smaller scale, adults also have these same idiosyncrasies when we talk. But when you write dialogue, no one cares to read about that little stuff, they just want to read the dialogue. We can imagine how the character is saying it when we read it. Nobody likes hearing "um" a thousand times during a public speech (something I am guilty of), so why write it into your story?

Going back to children's mentality, Christine mentioned that they tend to black-and-white thinking, which I hadn't considered but do agree with. Although, I'm thinking that childhood is where the "graying" begins. For example, mom and dad are good guys, but when the kid does something wrong, the kid's gonna get his/her butt spanked. Now, mom and dad are still good guys, but there's now a darker side connected to them, and the kid's gonna tread carefully before doing the wrong thing again.


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