I got a letter just last week where a kid said he felt like Roy (in Mudville) was a friend, and he wished they could hang out together. That’s one of the best compliments I can receive as an author, and I think it’s key to what makes a book work for readers. They want someone to hang out with for a while. My own favorite novels as a kid were those where I felt a connection to the main character. I didn’t want to be like them, I just wanted to hang out with them. Hence my preference for the quirky heroes of Pinkwater and Byars than the perfect-at-everything Hardy Boys. Those kids never would have hung out with me.
I’m not crazy about rules or templates when it comes to writing, but I do think there’s something key to making the hero a pal to the reader, something essential to a manuscript being successful with agents and editors and a book being a hit with kids — especially middle grade fiction, which is what I write.
There’s more to it than a list of instructions. We’re not assembling a snap-to model. But here are some suggestions, based on what I’ve learned from writing my own books.
1. I think it helps to give the kid friends in the story. I see a lot of loners in middle grade manuscripts: kids with no friends at all. Giving a kid one pal helps a lot. You can see what kind of friend your hero is, plus get some narrative energy from their banter. If the kid must be a loner at first, like Linus in Mamba Point, work in at least some nominal friends as soon as you can.
2. If it’s a first person narrative, don’t get all the humor from the kid whining. I can’t tell you how often I see it. “Oh, I suck at school! I hate math! Bullies always beat me up! Mom is always riding me!” Nobody wants to hang out with a whiner. I think it’s fine to have a few complaints or self-deprecating remarks, but have the kid communicate some positives as well. In Mudville, Roy hates his dad’s cooking, but he loves his dad for trying and that’s evident in the manuscript.
3. Make your MC different. It’s tempting to make everything universal. The MC likes video games and pizza, hates bossy older siblings and homework. The moment an MC becomes interesting (and real) is when they become different from their peers. Eric (in The Tangelwood Terror) is a pretty generic, oversized jock, but is a different person around animals and ultimately breaks with his friends over one. I think that’s when Eric stops being some lunkhead we’re stuck with and becomes a hero… and, to the reader, worthy of being a friend.
No rules or recipes, just stuff to think about.