What makes for a compelling Middle Grade hero? What characteristics do Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, Percy Jackson, Lyra Belacqua and Bilbo Baggins have in common?
I recently attended a Writers & Artists workshop at Bloomsbury, which focused on how to write for children and young adults. One of the workshop topics—‘How to create great Middle Grade characters‘—sparked an excellent brainstorming session, so I thought I’d share what we came up with.
The interesting thing is that, although the workshop focused specifically on MG and YA stories, it is easy to apply these helpful hints to other, older books too.
What exactly is Middle Grade?
For those of you who don’t know, Middle Grade books are usually aimed at an 8-12 year-old audience. They tend to hover around the 50-60,000-word mark but can go up to 75,000 words or so. This larger word count is usually reserved for fantasy books because of world-building.
Why is the length of Middle Grade novels important?
Word count for Middle Grade novels is important because it impacts on the structure and pace of the story itself. Books for children must be punchy and grab the reader—this is not the format for swathes of Purple Prose or excessive descriptions of doors (I’m looking at you, Tolkien). I will talk more on structure and pace in another blog post because, although they’re important, they’re not as important as your main character.
10 Traits of a Compelling Middle Grade Hero
During the workshop, we (writers, both aspiring and already published) discussed which traits could be found in a popular or effective Middle Grade protagonist. Even though we all had different styles, influences and stories to tell, we all agreed on the following 10 traits.
1 – Integrity
The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.
Sounds boring, right? It doesn’t have to be. Having integrity doesn’t mean that your protagonist / hero needs to be perfect. They can lie (Lyra Belacqua, His Dark Materials), they can cheat, they can steal (Artemis Fowl, The Artemis Fowl series)… but they MUST have a moral line that they absolutely will not cross, no matter what.
Essentially, you can choose which morals your protagonist adheres to, as long as they stick to their moral code throughout your book. They can be tempted to betray their values (e.g. Luke from My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons) but when push comes to shove, they must not give in.
There is only one real exception to the relative freedom of morality in Middle Grade characters, but it’s an important one. Under no circumstance should your Middle Grade character ever kill anyone. This rule closely relates to ‘How dark is ‘too dark’ for Middle Grade’, which is a topic I will be writing on later.
2 – Courage
The ability to do something that frightens you
As the late, great Mufasa once said, “Being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble.”
That is true of your MG hero too. Your character can be as timid as a mouse but when it really matters, they must overcome their fears and be brave. This could be as simple as finally standing up to a bully, or leading a revolution against a tyrant king… even though what they really want to do is hide under their bed until it all goes away.
Perhaps your character has a debilitating phobia of spiders and they need to rescue someone from a giant web. Maybe they’re afraid of heights but need to climb to the top of a ladder to retrieve something precious. Whatever scares your MG Hero, make sure they have the strength to overcome it. They don’t have to be foolhardy–they just need the ability to stand up for what they believe in.
(Of course you might want a foolhardy MG Hero. That’s fine too. Just make sure that you don’t confuse the two character traits!)
3 – Dilemma
A situation where a difficult choice has to be made
Every hero, in every book, experiences a dilemma. They can all be different, but they must happen.
A dilemma can feature at the beginning of your book–where your hero has to choose between known safety and untold dangers–or it can come later in your book, when they have to choose between ‘doing what’s good’ and ‘doing what’s good for them’.
A dilemma is your introduction to conflict; what gets your story started and what keeps it moving.
Lyra Belacqua’s first dilemma, for example, is deciding what to do about the conversation she overhears when she’s sneaking about. If she tells someone, she’ll get in trouble for being where she shouldn’t have been; if she doesn’t tell someone, someone might die (or at least become seriously ill). Her second dilemma occurs when her friend Roger disappears and she has to choose what path she takes next. She experiences more dilemmas throughout The Dark Materials trilogy and it is how she handles these choices that makes us want to keep reading.
4 – Relatable
Enabling a person to feel they can relate to someone or some thing
Ah, the Holy Grail of all character traits!
Making your character relatable is not exclusive to Middle Grade. It’s the most important thing to strive for when writing any character. After all, if a reader can relate to the character; if they can identify with a part of them, they tend to support the character’s mission, regardless of how fantastical it may be.
Although this is important, it’s also pretty hard to do. As a starting point, I would suggest imagining them as a real person. What would their family be like? What makes them tick? When they’re not in this current story, what do they do with their time? Treating your characters as though they were real people is a great way to build depth.
However, for a compelling Middle Grade hero, I would add this to my suggestion: look at the children around you. What makes them tick? What are their priorities in life? Children, like adults, come in all different shapes and sizes. If you are an adult writing a children’s story, the best way to make your MG character relatable is to know what children relate to.
5 – Misfit
A person who is, for some reason, set apart from others around them
There is nothing in this world that people like more than an “underdog” story: stories about people who, for one reason or another, are at a disadvantage because they are misfits; something ‘Other’.
If you look at examples of Middle Grade heroes such as Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Lyra Belacqua, Bilbo Baggins… they’re all misfits in one way or another. Harry Potter is an orphan who is despised by his Muggle guardians: he doesn’t fit in the Muggle world because he’s a wizard and he doesn’t really fit into the wizarding world either because he’s the famous Chosen One. He is a misfit.
Percy Jackson spent his life being thrown out of schools and being branded a delinquent. He also has dyslexia, which makes his life as an ‘ordinary human’ difficult. When he arrives at Camp Half-Blood, these things are explained but his life as a misfit isn’t over. Unlike his companions, he doesn’t have half-siblings to connect with; his father is one of the ‘Big Three’, so he ends up alone again.
Lyra is a youthful, adventurous liar in a place full of stuffy old men with stuffy old rules. Bilbo is a hobbit with a taste for excitement, much to the rest of the Shire’s abject horror.
Marking your character out as a misfit–however you may choose to do that–automatically places them in the ‘underdog’ category. Not only do we understand that this person is special, but their misfit nature makes them appealing to us. Who hasn’t been an underdog at some point in their life? Why wouldn’t you want to see the underdog succeed?
6 – Capable
Having the ability or fitness to achieve a specific goal; competent
This trait links heavily with character agency, which is something I’ll elaborate on in later posts. For now, it is suffice to say that your protagonist needs to be capable of meeting the plot challenge you have set for them.
A compelling Middle Grade hero is essentially a very young superhero. They’re not an ordinary child, who has to always follow the rules and is limited by their age in what they can do. They do not tend to ask adults for help. Certainly, adults do not solve their problems for them! They figure it out for themselves.
Middle Grade protagonists are extraordinary children, regardless of what world they are written in to. They can do things that children in real life cannot do.
Alex Rider is an excellent example of this. He becomes a young spy (like James Bond but nicer) and has been unwittingly prepped for many difficult tasks by his recently deceased uncle. Despite this, he is in over his head. In Alex’s shoes, most 14 year old boys would hold up their hands and say, “No, this is too much for me, I need an adult.” Alex doesn’t. Alex sorts his own problems out and he is good at doing so.
This isn’t to say that your Middle Grade character cannot accept help. They can and, generally speaking, should. They don’t need to be able to achieve everything easily, either. Harry Potter struggled with his essays; he wouldn’t have got to the Philosopher’s Stone without Hermione and Ron’s help. Lyra wouldn’t have got very far without Will’s help (and vice versa).
Note: Your Middle Grade character doesn’t have to be capable of doing everything. They should have weaknesses and limits because that makes them realistic. Just remember there is a reason they are your hero instead of another character.
7 – A sense of humour
An ability to appreciate a joke; the ability to make one
As Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon once said: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”
Now, I wouldn’t recommend making your Middle Grade novel too dark, grim and tough, but contrast is important. Humour in general is important.
No one likes a sour puss, so it’s vital that your MG hero has a sense of humour. Whether this comes out in as a wicked ‘prankster’ streak (think Matilda by Roald Dahl) or something a little more gentle, that’s your choice. It might even be that your Middle Grade hero isn’t the one making the jokes but enjoys the jokes that other people make.
Although there are exceptions to this rule, people like comedy. Children like comedy. Make sure your MG hero does too… and remember, always ‘punch up’.
8 – Can question authority
Doubting the reliability of an adult person or someone in authority
I can’t think of a single Middle Grade hero that doesn’t question authority. In fact, I can’t think of a single child that doesn’t, either.
Part of growing up is finding out where your parents / guardians / teachers end and you begin. As they get older, children discover that adults aren’t always right just because they’re adults, or that they have different opinions about important things. They may even discover the worst truth of all: that not all adults are good.
The reason I’ve described this trait as ‘questioning’ rather than a ‘distrust’ of adults is because they can be two different things. For example, whilst Harry Potter was notably unsure of Professor Snape and Dolores Umbridge, he trusted most other adults of his acquaintance: McGonagall, Lupin, Sirius and Dumbledore.
Despite this, I would not say Harry was particularly respectful of authority. He broke school rules like they were going out of style, shouted at teachers and openly defied their attempts to control him if he didn’t agree with what they were saying. This, I think, is the important difference between distrusting an adult and questioning their authority.
Protagonists in Middle Grade books are not necessarily lone wolves, or miniature adults. They are children; child-aged superheroes, sure, but still children nonetheless. Most children live by rules 80-90% of the time and only dig their heels in when it’s something they strongly disagree with.
9 – Everyday life disrupted by change
Disturbance or problems that interrupt an event, activity or process (life)
Harry Potter gets his Hogwarts letter. Bilbo Baggins finds a mark upon the door to Bag End. Lyra’s friend Roger goes missing. Percy has a memorable visit to a museum. Alex Rider’s uncle dies. Luke goes to the toilet and comes back to find out an alien has made his brother into a superhero.
Every Middle Grade book as a moment where the seemingly ordinary life of its hero is completely disrupted by change. This disruption is the start of your story; your character’s ‘Call to Action’. This can also be their first dilemma: do they answer the call and run off on a dangerous adventure, or do they have to be dragged, kicking and screaming into this brave new world?
In order to have a hero’s ‘everyday life disrupted by change’, the readers first need to know what that everyday life looks like. This doesn’t need to be a long section of the book–far from it–but it should provide an obvious contrast to whatever adventures come next.
10 – Sympathetic
Feeling, showing or expressing sympathy for others
Sympathy is a character trait found in every successful protagonist ever, not just in great Middle Grade heroes.
If you look at any film character, for example, you’ll see that the hero–no matter how gruff, no matter how grouchy–has what is called a “Save the Cat” moment.
The idea of “saving the cat” refers to a moment in the early stages of a story where your character does something nice that shows that, deep down, whatever else they may be, they are someone who the reader can support and root for.
An example of this could literally be ‘saving a cat from a tree’ (the action for which the concept was named).
Harry Potter’s first ‘Save the Cat’ moment was arguably when he spoke to the snake in the zoo. He showed sympathy for the snake being bred in captivity and having to deal with the noisy, unpleasant children tapping on the glass. Harry’s sympathy for the snake’s plight was so strong, in fact, that he instinctively used magic to help the snake escape, which is why the glass disappeared.
It doesn’t always need to be saving an animal. Perhaps a younger sister could drop her ice cream and the hero offers them theirs; maybe they see someone being bullied and stand up for the victim. Whatever it is, it is important to show that your character has sympathy for other people, and that they care about others. This tells us that the hero is someone we should care about too.
I’d love to open this up for discussion. Do you write Middle Grade books? What do you think the most important trait of a compelling Middle Grade hero is? Do you think there’s anything different about their traits compared to a YA or an adult hero?