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Writing Your Middle Grade Character (aka The Center of Her Universe)

By Eddie van W via Flickr's CC
By Eddie van W via Flickr’s CC

Please welcome Ron Estrada [1] today—Ron’s a familiar face in the Writer Unboxed community, and we’re happy to have him as a guest! Ron grew up a Navy brat, which explains his lack of a home town and why his (soon to be published) middle grade novels involve other hometown-less Navy brats. By day he is an ill-tempered engineer with a quality software company, perched high above Interstate 75 just north of Detroit. By night he chills out with a glass of Petit Sirah and his Macbook, which explains the many, many spelling errors, which his beautiful wife of 25 years corrects. On a really cool note, Ron’s recently acquired agent played defensive lineman for the University of Michigan, even though he’s from Ohio (he can no longer travel through the Buckeye State).

I fell into writing for young adults and tweens several years ago after realizing that young protagonists didn’t have to worry about things like jobs or political opinions, which made them much more interesting. Seriously, I was the average teen who thought I was the only kid who thought the way I did. I want to show young readers that they are spectacular individuals who have a lot more to offer than they could ever dream (hopefully, they will dream it by the time they finish my books).

Connect with Ron on his blog [1], on Twitter [2], and on Facebook [3].

Writing Your Middle Grade Character (aka The Center of Her Universe)

“It’s all about me!”

Got that? Okay, that’s my post.

What? You desire detail?

Fine. I’m missing a Snapchat and will probably end up an outcast and never have any friends and living in a home for losers in some remote, desolate pit…like Ohio.

Now, my friends, we’re getting somewhere.

Most of us likely began our writing careers in an adult world. Your characters were people like you. Loving, caring, willing to drop everything to rescue your best friend from yet another disastrous relationship.

Because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Make our characters likable. Give them depth. A black moment in their past that has defined them but one they must overcome in order to sacrifice themselves, blow up the Death Star, and be forever united with the cute barista at Starbucks.

That was then. Now you’re dealing with middle-graders. Be afraid. From your character’s point of view, it is truly “all about me.” Middle-grade characters range in age from 8 to 13. However, as Sophie Masson pointed out in her post [4], that’s quite a range. The thoughts and “feels” of an 8 year-old are a (small) world away from a 13 year-old’s. This is why we separate middle-grade between “lower” MG and “upper” MG.

So let’s break it down.

Creating the Lower Middle Grade Character

She is 8-10 years old and truly the center of her universe. She can be loving or spiteful, but cannot fathom that others think differently. If she likes Frozen, it is impossible to comprehend someone not liking Frozen. Her world begins in her Frozen decorated bedroom and ends at the school playground. She hears the news from time to time, but has no reaction to any disaster that doesn’t touch her life directly.

cassandrascrossing_cov_smallWhen you plot your story for the 8-10 year old protagonist, it’s important to keep in mind that she is only going to step past the point of no return if the quest promises a direct benefit to her existence. Even if it is to help a close friend, the friend’s happiness will impact your heroine’s happiness.

This is why lower MG books focus on “disasters” that adults wouldn’t even notice. Remember the classic “cheese touch” from Diary of a Wimpy Kid? To an adult, it’s ridiculous to suppose that touching a piece of old cheese would have a devastating impact on our social standing. But to a ten year-old, the ramifications are life-ending.

Creating the Upper Middle Grade Character

Much has changed in a few years for your 11-13 year old protagonist. While a “cheese touch” now seems childish, tripping and dropping his tray in the cafeteria may provoke him to request an out-of-state transfer from his father.

The disasters are not quite the same. The upper middle school disaster is more real––tripping is a real event, eternal cheese poisoning is not––and, to your character, the only event worth noting for at least several weeks. If a meteor wiped out half the population of China, your American character would still focus on his tray-dropping humiliation. Or whatever humiliation followed.

And this is key: for a middle-grader, life is about moving from one end-of-life-as-I-know-it scenario to the next. They begin with “cheese touch” type disasters in the third grade and end with blunders involving the opposite sex by the seventh.

While self-centeredness is the rule in middle grade characters, an upper MG character should begin to see the world outside her own by the story’s end. In fact, that’s the typical arc for an upper MG protagonist. Gary Schmidt’s Wednesday Wars or Thanhha Lai’s Listen, Slowly are perfect examples of characters who, in chapter one, are only concerned with their immediate needs but, by the end, begin to see through the eyes of friends, relatives, and even (gasp!) teachers.

Middle Grade Character Research (it’s right in front of you)

Listen to the children around you. Get on Instagram and Periscope and find out what is important to them. You’ll want to roll your eyes and offer your worldly advice, but don’t bother. You are the Charlie Brown adult. No one hears you. So just listen.

And then make a beautiful story that a child will listen to, built around characters just like them. Get your adult mind out of the story. Think self-centered to help your reader take that first step into the bigger world, where she will learn that she is no longer at the center, but has more to offer than she ever imagined.

What about you? What disasters do you remember from your childhood that seem ridiculous to you now? What have you heard your own kids or others say that struck you as funny, but was very serious to them? When did you first realize that there were issues greater than your own in the world?