When you’re creating for kids and assembling your characters, getting your balance right and making sure that each character fills a role that the others don’t (you do all that, right?), always consider the family dynamic. Are the characters literally a family? If not, do they slot nicely into family roles?
I began thinking of my characters as a family many, many years ago, even before I had built up practical experience in children’s content. What tipped me off to the importance of family was actually deconstructing sitcoms. A huge amount of sitcoms are family units. Even those that aren’t actually families still work as family units. They’re friends or even rivals or people who just put up with the other people but, in sitcoms, those relationships are usually much closer than in real life. In a family, many of the barriers we put up even with close friends are gone, so there’s an honesty there. You can very quickly establish the family pecking order and that helps us get into a show quicker. For example, Cheers was a dysfunctional family unit. As a result, we tend to buy into and relate to the frayed nerves that lead to so much of the comedy.
Taking this back to kids, specifically in preschool, research finds that children are often drawn in by the familiar. They are engaged by things they recognise from their own lives. More than that, it is very clear that young children place massive importance on the family unit. It is their first world, and they use that to help them understand the extended world beyond. Many children will use their own family to assign roles to fictional families. Mum and Dad are easy, of course, but in my family Daisy was Peppa Pig and Alice, being younger, was George. Children will aim to understand other families in terms of how they relate to their own.
So it’s worth looking at your own characters like a family. Given a young child may define (or fail to define) your characters by attempting to match them to their own family, how do your characters really relate to the lives of children? How can you strengthen that? How can you make your unit and roles even clearer?
The family unit you create does not have to match that of your audience exactly, nor could it. But if you think about the lives of your young audience and you make the roles clear, there is a far better chance that your audience will grasp the dynamics very quickly. And remember: like Cheers, you can build a familiar engaging family unit without your characters actually being family… but getting it right does take more work than just assigning family-based labels.
Backstory does not equal character. It can inform and shape the character but the backstory only has value if it does just that and, quite often, it doesn’t.
Characters are in the here and now. That’s what counts.
I have seen documents with pages of backstory for preschool characters who are as one-dimensional as they come. That’s just a waste of paper. What’s Dora’s backstory? What’s Peppa’s? Has any preschool child ever asked for more information?
If it helps as part of your creation process, great. Go with it. But don’t get caught up in it or convince yourself you have an interesting character because they had some childhood trauma – that’s a trap. What matters is what a character does in the present of your story. That’s character.
When making any content for young children, there are two very important things to keep in mind. Here is the first:
Preschool children are not little adults.
They are different to you. You can not apply your thought processes, your logic, your taste, your likes and dislikes and expect them to work for preschool children. Doing that will only lead to self-indulgent content that is not age-appropriate and simply not engaging for a young child.
Interestingly, preschool children have or develop early a sense of what is for kids and what is for adults and they’ll often lose interest if they think something is not made for them. That is why one of our first concerns when at design stage is: will children know this is for them? The answer has to be ‘yes’ or your content is in trouble.
So your audience is not you. It is so easy to forget and yet crucial to remember if you are aiming to be any part of making content for children – creating, writing, directing, animating, designing. But there is another part to this:
Preschool children are little people.
They are real people. They are curious, imaginative, thinking, feeling little scientists working out the world and learning at a phenomenal rate. They pick up so much of what is going on around them, long before they can effectively verbalise that they are doing this. So they are not little adults but give them credit for what they are and especially for how much they can understand and learn. They do care about quality (not always gauging the same things you are). They do care about character, about story. They have a clear sense of what interests them and what doesn’t. So the bottom line here is that you cannot just make any old rubbish and expect it to hold your audience.
They are a very discerning audience, especially in a world saturated with children’s content. Just because you can get it on to the TV (buyers are adults) or on to the App Store (those choosing featured apps are adults) does not mean it will hold your audience for any length of time.
So remember who they are not (a little you) and let’s all give kids credit for who they are: amazing little people.
From time to time, I hear writers declare their love for animation because, in animation, you can just write anything. You’re not limited by what you can shoot in physical locations so it is no more expensive to write in a trip to Jupiter than it is to write a trip to the supermarket. Budget just isn’t an issue.
This is not true.
Budget very much is an issue. Animation is time-consuming and costly and the bottom line is that you have to write something that people can actually produce. And in this case the supermarket could be more expensive than the trip to Jupiter due to having to draw all those items on the shelves and animate customers, staff and so on. More characters on screen means more expensive. New characters means new designs (often new rigs and setups) which is also more expensive. Same with new locations.
What you write has to be produceable. More often than not, it has to work within a tight budget. So unfortunately you can’t write anything and expect it to be produced. You have to keep budget in mind. This is the reality.
The trick then becomes not letting this reality cripple your writing.