Middle Grade Fiction & The Changing Character

When it comes to writing for middle grade readers (ages 8-12, more or less), perhaps the tritest and truest advice is that the character has to change. Here is one rule I won’t dispute, at least not for this age level. Every successful middle grade novel has an inner narrative arc, the “real story” of the character changing in some way, usually (but not always) for the better. Sometimes the change feels tacked on, but it’s there, even in a plot-driven novel.

So here’s my newly-minted strategy, which involves Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef. Max-Neef has written about the fundamental human needs. I quote Wikipedia:

Max-Neef classifies the fundamental human needs as:

* subsistence,
* protection,
* affection,
* understanding,
* participation,
* leisure,
* creation,
* identity and
* freedom.

You can find out more here, with examples in the grid, which are very helpful but not easy to cut and paste so follow the link.

You can formulate a plot with character growth at its center simply by writing one sentence.

[Hero of story] has a loss or lack of [fundamental need] and in recovering it attains [one or more other fundamental needs].

All the better if at least one of the attained things is unplanned and unexpected. The hero wants one thing, and gets something deeper and more meaningful. If you do follow the link above, and find the grid, it might be helpful to look at the “having,” “being,” and “doing” columns. The first plot element will usually be from the “having” column, but (at least part of) what the character attains will be from the “being” or “doing” columns.

I didn’t go into any of my books thinking in such stark terms, but can still construct a sentence about each book I’ve published. Roy (in Mudville) has a lack of leisure, e.g., baseball, and in recovering it attains aspects of participation, e.g., he leads a baseball team, and learns to accept Sturgis despite his flaws. Linus (in Mamba Point) loses identity, e.g., a sense of belonging, and attains affection, e.g., a relationship with nature, and creation, e.g., artistic enterprise. Eric (in The Tanglewood Terror) feels his subsistence is threatened, e.g., his home is literally and figuratively falling apart, but he attains creation, e.g., he becomes a curious and creative problem solver.

Although they are there, I think if I had known how the character arc would develop from the early stages, I would have emphasized those character changes more, and I think they’d be better books for it. Not that I would want to club anyone over the head, and note that this isn’t really about morals or lessons, it’s just about developing a rich plot around a character growing up.

What do you think? Is this exercise helpful? Artificial? Obvious?

Postscript: In looking at this further, I realize how drawn I am to the “Creative Doing” box, with the hero learning how to invent, build, design, work, compose, interpret, etc…. something about my personality is revealed by that, I’m sure, and it applies equally well to my first career in learning technologies.

One thought on “Middle Grade Fiction & The Changing Character

  1. Excellent tip! Not at all obvious, even if we already know there has to be some kind of arc and growth there. Detail is always a good thing in my opinion. Thank you.

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