Updated: Sep 29
I've been thinking a lot about kids recently. I've noticed that some authors write all child characters the same way, so anyone under eighteen in those stories sounds like either an uncannily wise adult or a lisping toddler. But if there's one thing I've learned from being the oldest child (and, on my mom's side, the oldest grandchild) in a big family, it's that kids change a lot as they grow.
Tween characters (roughly ages nine through twelve) are popular protagonists in books for middle-grade readers, but they can turn up in any kind of fiction. However, tweens can be especially challenging to write because they're no longer young children but aren't quite teenagers. Sometimes writing a tween feels almost as awkward as being one!
Luckily for all of us 😉, I survived a roller coaster of a year teaching sixth-grade history. And it taught me a few things that can help us write better tween characters:
Tweens' social reactions are often a mix of appropriate and not-so-appropriate responses because they're still learning social cues. For example, I tripped at the back of my classroom one day, prompting yelps of "Are you okay, Miss Bellows?" from some students as they turned around to see what all the commotion was. But later that day, this happened in fellow teacher Ms. "H's" classroom:
Kids: "Miss Bellows fell last period!"
Ms. "H": "Is she okay?"
Kids: "Oh, gosh! Ms. 'H,' we didn't even ask. We were laughing. Is that bad?"
Ms. "H": "Yes, it's bad!
[I hadn't actually fallen, so Ms. "H" and I had a good laugh when she told me about this.]
For a tween, just about any set of physical characteristics can be possible. I had some tiny students who might not have even been four feet tall, while the tallest kids were my height or more. At least one boy was already starting to get facial hair.
When tweens speak their minds, it can be an interesting mix of childish, childlike, and self-aware comments. For example, here's some of my students' commentary on the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast:
"Don't worry, his ponytail gets better."
"We're the most terrible audience. We're just laughing at everything."
"He should be in a Pantene commercial with his long flowing hair."
(tongue in cheek) "I got bored during this part because there's no violence."
"His hand is, like, the size of eighteen cupcakes."
Some clumsy moments are inevitable because tweens are growing so fast. During our pre-winter-break party, we ended up with at least one broken mug and a broken snow globe (both by accident).
Tweens always look for loopholes and exceptions, even unlikely ones. This applies both to classroom rules ("No more flippable water bottles in class? But what about the little ones that come in Lunchables?") and to historical situations ("You couldn't marry someone outside your social class in ancient times? But what if the pharaoh fell in love with a slave?").
Obsessions among tweens—like dabbing, bottle flipping, or using certain slang terms—last intensely for what seems like forever but really is only a few weeks or months.
Tweens love completing special assignments or jobs in the classroom (writing on the board, passing out papers, etc.).
Peer approval is super important to tweens. They want others to like them and definitely don't want to look bad in front of their friends. Some kids develop their first crushes at this age.
Girl drama. For days. Who likes whom, spreading rumors, cliques, etc. Despite the name, sometimes boys engage in this behavior, too.
According to John Bytheway, "Teenagers think about three to four seconds in advance sometimes," and I'd argue it's the same for tweens. Impulse control is definitely not one of their strengths.
Despite all the craziness, tweens can have tender hearts. While I was still on the ground after suffering my Lisfranc injury, one of my sweetest boys said in a scared little voice, "Don't cry, Miss Bellows. Please don't cry." Another boy came up and gave me a hug. And once I got back into the building, at least ten kids (including some who often caused trouble in class) must have asked me what had happened and whether I was okay.
In short, tweens are both fascinating and frustrating. As immature as they act sometimes, they're also growing by leaps and bounds physically, mentally, and emotionally as they start their transformation into the men and women they'll one day be. It's a complicated stage of life, and it deserves to be portrayed as accurately as we can write it.
If you'd like to bounce some ideas about your tween characters off of me, click here to arrange a time for me to become your trampoline. 😁
(Thanks to IIONA VIRGIN for sharing their work on Unsplash.)