When you were growing up, did you know a "goody two shoes"?
That was the obnoxiously sweet kid who was the teacher's pet. The one who always got perfect grades. The one you were always compared to ... Why can't you be more like them? They never act like this!
For the very youngest of readers, a character like this might work for the good guy in the story, but only if it's just about being a very good boy or girl, and not about some smart aleck kid who always sucks up to the adults and is not liked by the other children.
For older readers, the goody two shoes might actually be the bad guy in the story … the kid who tattles on everybody else, and the grownups who always believe everything they say. The other kids hate the goody two shoes as much as the adults like them. A goody two shoes can make a good bad guy. They’ll drive the other kids crazy until they finally get their comeuppance!
Then there's the opposite end of the spectrum, the class bully who beats kids up, steals lunch boxes, cheats on tests, and copies homework.
These are two extremes, of course, of the villains and heroes who are children themselves. Sometimes the villains and heroes are adults or animals or superhumans or mythical creatures. These have extremes, too … the squeaky-clean, purest of the pure, and the most evil, blackest of the black.
The characters in children’s stories – the hero, the villain and all the supporting characters – are a great teaching opportunity for authors who want to teach life lessons to children. The kids are reading the story for the entertainment, of course, and there are certainly teachable points that are made through the story itself. But readers are going to identify with one or more of those characters, so build as much believability and personality into those characters as you can and that the story and age limit permits. Stories for very young readers will naturally be very simple, but as children grow in reading ability and comprehension, characters can grow with them in complexity.
As adults, we know that the world isn’t always black and white. Sometimes the good guys can have a dark side. And often, when you look a little closer at the bad guy, it turns out that he’s more scared than scary, and there are likely very good reasons why he’s like he is.
So children who meet these characters through reading will identify with them. The class goody two shoes knows for sure, even as the adults are singing her praises, that she doesn’t get it right all the time. She’s afraid of being found out.
The class bully puts on a fierce front, but inside, he’s lonely and he doesn’t know how to make or be a friend.
Sometimes a kid can frankly just be a spoiled brat, always wanting their own way and throwing tantrums when they don’t get it. Show readers a character who acts like that and what the consequences might be!
Again, don’t tell or preach, show them through good writing how we all struggle with the bad inside, and trying to be good on the inside, and that there are ways to think and act that will get us through life successfully.
The most believable good guy is the one who keeps trying to do good, but keeps flubbing things up. That teaches us humility and to keep on trying and never give up.
The best bad guys are the ones who overcome their demons and find a better way. That teaches us that there’s hope and that we all have purpose and value.
When our readers look inside themselves, they will see both good and bad, and they’ll learn that they can make choices and decide how they want to live. These are lessons that everyone of us have to learn eventually. We’ll either learn the hard way or the easy way. So let’s begin early and learn the safest, fun-est way, through a good story!