May 20 – 26: “Can you describe the challenges of inserting children into stories?”

As characters, children can provide humor, simplicity and tension to stories. This week, ITW Members Cat Connor, Michael StanleyWilliam Dietrich and Kat Martin will answer the question: “Can you describe the challenges of inserting children into stories?”


Cat Connor lives in the Wellington Region of New Zealand. Drinks too much espresso and spends her days writing thrillers (the _byte series) accompanied by her greyhound, Romeo. She loves wine, hanging out with friends, and believes music and laughter are essential. Also, Cat knows where you hid the body.

Michael Stanley is the writing team of South Africans Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Michael writes a column for The Big Thrill on mystery thrillers in South Africa.  Stanley has lectured for the MWA University and will be presenting a workshop at Craftfest. Their novels are set in Botswana and have been finalists for the Edgar and other awards, and they won a Barry for DEATH OF THE MANTIS.  DEADLY HARVEST has just been released.

William Dietrich is the New York Times bestselling author of a dozen novels, including the Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic adventures that have sold into 30 languages. He has also written several nonfiction books about his native Pacific Northwest, shared a Pulitzer as a journalist at the Seattle Times, and taught at the university level.

With more than fifteen million books in print, Kat Martin is the New York Times bestselling author of over fifty Historical and Contemporary Romantic Suspense novels.  Before she started writing in 1985, Kat was a real estate broker.  During that time she met her husband, L.J. Martin, author of thirty western, non-fiction, historical, and suspense novels.  Kat is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara.   She is published in more than twenty foreign countries.

  1. I hadn’t intended to use a child (in my case a young teenager) as a character but when the opportunity arose and the right story line emerged, I discovered it was fun having a younger cast member, more fun than I’d imagined.
    She added depth and some good twists to the plot as her personality and teenage behavior influenced the story. I enjoyed seeing how having a child changed how my main character thought and worked, how she fitted parenthood into already demanding career. The whole experience altered Ellie and the team dynamic. Carla brought out the protective instincts of Ellie’s team. What was even more fun for me were the changes in Ellie, who previously didn’t have to give much thought to anyone but herself. She couldn’t even successfully take care of her deceased husband’s cat and yet she found a way to make things work with Carla. The opportunities that presented themselves regarding subplots grew as the child became more a part of Ellie’s life. A lot of amusing mother/daughter moments provided humor and broke the tension in places, and at other times Carla added to the tension and created higher stakes.
    In fact, in soundbyte (my newest release) a sub plot centered on Carla emerged with devastating consequences and brought with it an undercurrent that won’t be fully understood until the next book.
    Children can provide an opportunity for humor and a vehicle for exploring some darker themes.
    It wasn’t terribly challenging for me, to be honest, I have a lot of kids and one of my youngest is around the same age as my young character – so that definitely made it easier. 🙂

  2. Since I don’t have children, inserting them into a book is a definite challenge. As I look back on the novels I’ve written, I see that kids show up, not as an aside, but usually as an essential part of the plot. In my newest book, AGAINST THE EDGE, the entire story revolves around the disappearance of a child. In the beginning, Ben Slocum, a former SEAL and private investigator, doesn’t even know he has a son–or that the nine-year-old has been abducted. Once he does, he is compelled to find the child. Since I write romantic suspense, he does it with the help of social worker, Claire Chastain.
    Over the years, I’ve learned to do what all writers do and use the observations of children I’ve made over the years. Another plus–my husband had four sons. He’s great for tips on how they behaved in their early years. With grandchildren around, I can watch the little things they do, try to figure out how they think.
    For me, though, I leave them out unless they are an integral part of the story. Since most readers have kids, they really seem to respond to books with children in them.

  3. Actually Michael Stanley is two people – Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. We write a series set in Botswana featuring a detective nicknamed Kubu in the Criminal Investigation Department in Gaborone. The Batswana culture is one of our “characters” so Kubu has a family life. In the third book he and his wife have a baby, and in the fourth she is a three year old.

    Obviously one has to make a child character convincing (like every other character) and that requires understanding how children think and behave. Neither of us has children, so quite a bit of research was required in terms of what kids do at different ages and so on. Fortunately we have plenty of family and friends with kids to give us lots of contradictory information!

    An issue with a series is that as time passes the kids are going to change more dramatically than the adults. We are currently deciding whether to set the fifth book this year or next, mainly to match with the ages we want for the kids.

    We’ve found two positive issues with introducing a child. In the book where she is a baby, she puts a lot of stress on Kubu and his wife generating tension in their otherwise pretty smooth relationship. That produced an interesting context for the novel. In the fourth book, where she is a three year old, she can introduce humor and break tension at the right point.

  4. I inserted a child into my Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic adventures when my raffish and flirtatious hero learned he was a father in “The Barbary Pirates,” the fourth book in the series. This surprise was courtesy of reunion with his consistent love in the book, the Egyptian woman Astiza who becomes his wife. The two are married at the beginning of the next novel, “The Emerald Storm.”

    The first issue was whether to give the roaming Ethan the responsibilities of a husband and father. He grows over the course of the books, so it seemed logical that he’d take this step, even though it would limit his future romantic freedom. Since many fictional characters are single, this was a major decision to make as a storyteller.

    Next was what to do with Horus, or Harry, who enters the action at age two. He could easily be shunted aside but children are great fun and tug on the reader’s emotions when they are in peril or are doing something amusing. So, labor laws be danged, I put the boy to work immediately by pairing him with his father on a voyage to Syracuse, getting him kidnapped, and necessitating his rescue.

    As Ethan has remarked in the books, he keeps losing Harry like a button and having to go retrieve him, thanks to his dubious occupation as spy and treasure hunter. I’ve found it fun to make Harry an active participant in events because I have young grandchildren and can use them as models, although my fictional lad is a bit precocious. His small size makes him useful for small spaces, and he’s stabbed a rat while negotiating the dome of a church and crept down a bishop’s chimney.

    Children can inject reality, add comic relief, and contribute to tension. The challenge is to make them real while inserting them into melodramatic situations in a thriller. I think they are useful for their natural honesty and their service as a center of gravity for a story. They bring the adult adventurers back to reality and give them a cause bigger than themselves.

  5. I’ve been interested to read the responses about featuring children as my first book centered around missing children and like Kat, I write romantic suspense, so the thriller elements have to be balanced with the love story. It wasn’t easy to write and hold that balance. I don’t have children, and I suspect that I would not have been able to write the story if I had, or not in the same way.

  6. I’m not a thriller writer, though I’m getting into ghosts in my Ryan and the Redhead sequel. But I read them constantly. I’ve recently gotten hooked on Yrsa Sigurdarddottir’s scary novels, which often involve children alive or in ghostly form.

  7. Rowena’s comment about children in ghostly form is intriguing. I’d love to explore that idea someday…. probably easier to write a ghost-child than a real child for someone like me who has never had kids. I’m on a book now that will be a ghost story that turns out not to be. I though it would be a nice switch. I’ve got a child in it, but she’s real. She doesn’t talk, though–she has emotional problems. Sneaky way out for me. kat

  8. Children who are not normal in some way seem to hold one’s attention particularly strongly. Look at the fascinating portrait of an autistic boy – the Kid – in Michael Sears’ (the other one!) debut novel Black Fridays.

  9. Kids are interesting to observe. For the writers without ones of their own, do some babysitting (relatives or friends will be eternally grateful) or volunteer in a school or coach. They’re shrewd, they’re innocent. My tendency as a thriller writer is that I know what my characters are going to do before I know completely who they are. Children can add interesting insights.

  10. I think William’s comments are dead-on. Observe as much as you can. I feel safer writing younger kids than teenagers. They seem to change with the wind. Writers with teens in their house seem to do the best job of it. I’m always amazed at young adult authors who remember their teen years so well. kat

  11. It’s one thing to remember being a kid and so forth but to write from the point of view of a teenager or child when you’re an adult, is very difficult. Hard to use a developed brain and deconstruct your own thought pattern to find the teenager inside!
    I’d much sooner write as an adult with adult characters and have the occasional child within the story – than try to turn back the clock. 🙂
    I am lucky in that we have a good range of ages within our family, I’m surrounded by kids … probably why I like writing adults! hahaha

  12. I think that’s a good point. We haven’t tried writing from the kids’ points of view. Must be pretty hard with four year-olds! But there are some very good books written from the child’s POV. The Flavia de Luce mysteries for example. (Although in many ways she behaves like an adult).

  13. I’ve read a few books that supposedly had young teen protagonists and they really weren’t, they thought and reasoned like an adult … and teenagers don’t, they can’t, their brains are not developed yet.

    As for a four year old … probably easier to get into that head than a teenagers!! 🙂
    Four year olds are fairly straight forward little critters.

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