All fiction is character driven. At least fiction that sells. And all fiction that sells has a plot. May we, my friends, implant that stake in the heart of this argument once and for all? Without a character driving the story, there would be no plot.
The difference in the world of middle grade, however, is that no plot is strong enough to carry a mundane character. In the adult world, if the mystery is mysterious enough, or the romance romantic enough, a rather average protagonist might do. She must still drive the course of events, but she doesn’t need to be especially quirky.
Middle grade readers like quirky. They like funny, or disgusting, or obnoxious, or any of the other descriptive tags that you place on elementary school children. Mostly the ones you tell your kids to stay away from.
Your kids will not stay away, but that’s another problem.
For the mature among us, it may be difficult to come up with appropriate quirks for our middle grade characters. That is why I, your humble servant, am here to help. Here are a few sure-fire quirks that will make your dream child one that every young reader will love:
1. High IQ. Believe it or not, ultra-intelligent kids are quite popular (in fiction). But they can’t just get straight As in Algebra. Your high IQ protagonist should be able to do things like learn a foreign language in a week, construct difficult algorithms to help them sleep, rewire their dad’s old CB radio to receive interstellar transmissions. Pick one or pick them all. This is a smart kid your readers will adore. Give Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg a try for a taste of high IQ protagonists.
2. Over the top Outgoing. If you’ve never read Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, do yourself a favor and take a Saturday to enjoy this classic (the audio version narrated by John Ritter should get an Emmy). Stargirl is so kind and loving that she becomes the most hated girl in her school. Of course, a novel wouldn’t work otherwise. But young readers are drawn to a kind character, wanting to show that kind of compassion themselves, though it simply isn’t in the DNA of most humans. A character who simply loves everyone is one your readers will love in return.
3. Adventurer. Pippi Longstocking, Peter Pan, Tom Sawyer, Harry Potter…the list goes on. Young readers, most of whom have rarely traveled outside their home town, love a character who is daring enough to shake off the shackles of the adult world and head into the unknown. Come to think of it, don’t we all? Make your protagonist a wannabe world (or time and space) traveler by the age of ten, and you’ve got a hit.
4. The Freak. Excuse my terminology, but there is no better word for it in the middle grade world. While kids in real life often avoid a child who is physically disfigured or burdened with something that sets him apart, young readers latch onto such a fictional character and root for him from page one. While Mask was technically an adult film, a child will react much the way we did when we first saw the movie. We wanted Rocky Dennis to overcome his disfigurement and live the normal, humdrum life we all take for granted. For a middle grade version, check out Wonder by Raquel J. Palacio.
5. The Animal. No, I’m not talking about your kid’s friend who never bathes or uses a fork. I mean real animals. This is cheating a bit, because we all know that animals in stories are usually humanized. They are likely to portray one of the other qualities I’ve already listed. From a high IQ spider to an adventurous dog (that’s a long list), animals have always been a popular alternative to the standard human protagonist. But remember, they’re still protagonists with very human desires, dark moments, and goals. Don’t let the fur fool ya. Check out The One and Only Ivan by K.A. Applegate for a recent addition to the long list of animal protagonists.
Of course, if you can come up with other quirks that don’t fit the standard list, you may have a new hit. But your best bet is to choose from among the kids you already know. Take those normal tween quirks and grow them into something outlandish. Remember, kids like to see a little of themselves in a protagonist, but they also want to see the person they wish they could be.
What about you? Can you add anything to my list here? What trait did your favorite childhood character posses?
Ron Estrada writes Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction. His first middle grade book, Scorpion Sumer, is currently with his agent and seeking a publishing home. His YA series is currently available on Amazon. You can find out what he's up to by visiting RonEstradaBooks.com.