On Parenting your Characters: How Authors Treat Characters Like Toddlers

738051_attitude_1Have you ever thought about how characters are like toddlers? Or how, in order to be successful, an author has to treat characters, to some degree, like great parents treat their kids?

Seriously. Great parenting can be a model for great authoring. This post is all about why that is, and how to get the most from your characters.


Have you ever lived in a household during, or heard horror stories about, the adjustment period a toddler goes through when a sibling arrives? Why is this?

Simple: toddlers enjoy, and are used to being, the center of attention for vast periods of time. When baby brother or sister comes, that changes all at once, and a toddler is hurt, confused, and angered by the new addition’s impact on his or her life.

No matter how much you try to prepare a toddler for what a new baby in the house will mean, they’re too young to grasp that. They can’t yet comprehend that the world at large is larger than their world.

In their world, they’re kings. Their worlds revolve around themselves: their needs, their fears, their desires.


Stephen King talks a lot in “On Writing” about how every character considers himself the main character.

No matter what world you’re writing about or what story you’re telling, the fact is, each of your characters will consider himself, to some extent, the major player. The most interesting and most important aspect of things.

Each character judges the story to be about him, no matter who your protagonist is. In that sense, who your protagonist is is irrelevant.


Sometimes, you want to make a character behave the way you want him to. And that’s tricky, because you can’t force a character to do something against his or her will–anymore than you can make your two-year-old sit quietly during meals or fall asleep instead of screaming at the top of his lungs at nap time.

What you can do is make a few concessions, employ some give and take, and come to some kind of consensus with your character.

When you’re dealing, then, with an unruly and unwieldy character, consider handling the situation how you would handle a toddler by doing the following:

  • Time out. If a character being true to himself is ruining a scene for you, take him out of it. This can be the perfect solution: make him be somewhere, concerned with other things.
  • Force a change of scene. All parents learn quickly which situations tire out, overstimulate, and otherwise strain their children. When a character is messing up a scene, maybe you can change the “background” in some way to accommodate him and make him calm down. Place him in a more comfortable situation, one less likely to instigate trouble from his corner.
  • Distract the character. Give the troublesome character something else to focus on. Could placing the scene elsewhere in your novel (i.e., at a different moment in the development of the overall plot) help? Could creating, advancing, or mentioning a subplot that involves the character in question make a difference?
  • Bring that child back to the hospital and get a new one. Okay, okay, so that’s not exactly a legitimate fix for the terrible twos. It is for your characters, though. Change gender. Change occupation. Change ethnicity or culture. Give the character a kid, or otherwise change his life situation in a way that might shape his outlook on life to be a little more in line with what you need it to be.

Have you ever seen the movie “Alex and Emma?” Alex is an author. One particular character in the novel he’s drafting goes from being Swedish to being all kinds of ethnicities before Alex realizes she needs to be American instead of a comic relief stock character, so that his protagonist might fall in love with her and he can introduce a love triangle.

Have you ever been at odds with a character? What do you think of that kind of a situation, and how would you, or did you, consider addressing it?

If you liked this post, you might enjoy the other posts in the category “On Character Development.”

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35 responses to “On Parenting your Characters: How Authors Treat Characters Like Toddlers

  1. Great post! I never thought of characters that way but looking back I think I’ve been parenting more than I thought. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Reblogged this on Plotting Bunnies and commented:
    Interesting perspective on raising your characters and how to take better care of them/keep them in line. Wish I could bring a few of my characters back to the hospital and get a new one!

  3. LOL. I love this post. I have a character in my novels who tries to take over scenes that he’s in. I usually feed him, and that distracts him long enough to get the other things I need to do done. And I’ve promised him his own story eventually. Bribery works too!

  4. This post is hilarious, buy it’s also very useful! Characters can be so ornery sometimes, but it’s also awesome how if you give them a little free rein they lead you to all sorts of unexpected, great places. I’m going to use your advice next time they have a tantrum!

    • YEA!!! Love what you say about letting the characters guide you, though, when you give them free rein. That’s so true. It’s pretty much my writing philosophy, in fact! ๐Ÿ™‚ Sometimes though, you do have to step in as some kind of a disciplinarian.

  5. Great advice, thanks for sharing!

  6. I love it when my characters show their developing personalities by going off at a tangent and doing something random. Much more so than when my children do. Unfortunately I tend to let my characters and my kids get away with far too much! (Loved Rinelle’s comment btw!)

  7. Interesting article. I’ll have to try some of your suggestions if my characters ever refuse to do what I want ๐Ÿ˜‰ Maybe it just means their personalities aren’t sufficiently well-developed, but I’ve never had a character take over a scene or argue with me over how a scene should play out. I know they’re not real – they don’t have minds of their own.

    • that’s true ๐Ÿ™‚ I always try to think of my characters as real people, though, and let them guide the story and do their own thing. That’s how I get the most readable and realistic results.

  8. Hi Victoria, Thanks for the article! I’ve noticed how much my characters take on a life of their own and do things that really surprise me. I will take your suggestions into consideration as some of them tend to get out of hand.

    Btw, I noticed you’re a fellow Nanoer! Awesome!!


  9. Love this! Maybe my parenting skills can come into play… let’s hope I don’t send my characters to therapy as well! I’m going to try this out with a particularly irritating character. I like the recycling characters idea too! if you’re naughty I’ll replace you, but I may find a place for you… as the victim of a tiger attack! Sweet!

  10. Love this! I can put my parenting skills to work! Let’s hope I don’t have to send my characters to therapy as well. I’m going to try this out on a particular character that’s being irritating and rigid of late. I also love the idea of recycling. If you keep being naughty I’ll kick you, but I may find a new place for you… as the victim of a tiger attack! Sweet!

  11. I think realizing that every character considers themselves the main character is a great way to avoid a canon Mary Sue or a clichรฉ character. I also like your list of four ways to deal with your characters. The last one gave me a good laugh.

  12. Very true and very honest. You know your characters are well developed when they argue with you at 2am about what you’ve written in the script for them.

  13. Pingback: Writers: Have Your Characters Ever Fought Over The Protagonist Role? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  14. Pingback: http://crimsonleague.com/2013/06/23/on-parenting-your-characters-how-authors-treat-characters-like-toddlers/ | galimatias2

  15. Pingback: Creative Writing Reflection: How to Describe the Author-Character Relationship? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  16. Ha, love it! A serious issue writers must deal with, but you’ve presented in a wonderful way which made me laugh out loud ๐Ÿ™‚

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