Young Readers & Shady Characters

by Gurpreet Sihat

Hello, my name is E.G. Moore and I write character-driven children’s fiction. A novel’s characters really move the plot forward, and my novel Moon Daughter Rising has a lot of them!

Character driven stories draw readers in better because they to relate to them. Whether it’s how they walk and talk, where they are from, or the circumstances they find themselves in, well-written characters make all the difference to a story. If a character can find themselves in a pickle and lead the way to an unexpected resolution, readers will cheer them on. Even if that character displays some behaviors children perceive as mean or wrong, if the character also shows vulnerable and kind sides of themselves, young readers will enjoy going on a journey with them.

Why young readers love shady characters

Children buzz with the truth about human nature: imperfection marks everyone. Every learning experience where a child feels like they failed or didn’t quite do something correctly, they sense a darker side of themselves. While they may learn from that, they zone in on differences in themselves and others. This may explain arguments or social issues among groups of little ones. (Lord of the Flies, hello!) Ever had your child say something like “that’s not fair”? Their awareness of right and wrong comes from learned behavior and wanting to be liked. Or maybe wanting to be in charge. My middle child says this sort of thing all the time, a bit of judicial control makes her feel like she might make everything perfect in an imperfect household of imperfect people.

What does this have to do with characters? Well, shady characters remind children that its okay to not be perfect. That their flaws or differences from those in their lives makes them interesting. That relatability turns young readers into instant cheerleaders. 

The architype known as the unwilling hero stands as the ultimate proof of this. A hero who lacks some confidence or who really doesn’t want to save the world but does it anyways will steal the hearts of 18 and under readers. The vulnerable, unsure side of that character reflects the uncertainty of childhood, the stresses of life, and gives a sense of hope. When the story turns badly for this type of characters, an author must make success happen in some form, or the hopes of their readers will be smooshed.

A great example of this is Meg Murray from “A Wrinkle in Time.” She has low self-esteem:

“‘Just be glad you’re a kitten and not a monster like me.’ She looked at herself in the wardrobe mirror and made a horrible face, baring a mouthful of teeth covered with braces. Automatically she pushed her glasses into position, ran her fingers through her mouse-brown hair, so that it stood wildly on end, and let out a sigh almost as noisy as the wind.”

And yet by the end of the novel, she makes decisions that resolve the problems plaguing her family and the universe.

Secondary characters can be shady too

One of my favourite tactics in my novels lies in indirect characters with moral ambiguity. When a support character does not-quite-right things, it makes readers perk up and notice. A perfect plot tool. Disloyalty, seeding discord, making bad choices that end up hurting others, and then turning secondary characters to a point of sacrifice or heroism can transform the feel-good of the ending. 

Not to spoil Moon Daughter Rising, but my favorite character may or may not be like this. Are they loyal? Leading the others astray? Helpful? Hiding something? Have the safety of World Above the Sky as a priority?

A classic example of a shady secondary character is Edmund in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“When Peter suddenly asked him the question he decided all at once to do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down.”

After all the betrayal and selfishness, Aslan forgave Edmund and he longed to do what was right. This saves him figurately and literally. The readers decide he’s worthy to rule alongside his siblings after all. Happy ending. Confetti. Cake.

How to create ambiguous characters

Creating gray-area characters comes down to several factors. You’ll need to be consistent with their weaknesses and attitudes, and place them in situations that magnify both their mistakes and their ability to be morally upright afterward.

Individuality is key. Both good and bad characters need to be unique and memorable. 

I asked myself questions as I wrote the many characters of Moon Daughter Rising, such as does each character have a name that stands out (and does each name start with a different letter?) Will young readers remember each one from chapter to chapter? Do they make the reader focus in on details or wonder about their actions or decisions? Have I alluded to their physical and emotional traits often enough to endear readers to my story?

Creating these questions will lead the reader to the end of your book. If the reader is unsure of where a character stands with the others or the story problem, they will perpetually root for them to eventually be good. Adults do this too. We want a story wrapped up with a big red bow. Remember not to let the reader down, or trick them with a shady character that never chooses good. (I’m looking at you, Master of Death, R.R. Martin!) Therein lies tragedy, and there’s a reason modern novels aren’t categorized as such.


Humans want every character to be righteous and good. Young readers especially long for the justification of their own shortcomings in the characters they like. If you give them a character to follow and cheer on, they’ll gladly soak up every word. 



Annalee’s dad went missing and no one is doing anything about it. 

The police say he abandoned her, but Annalee knows better.  Her aunt and uncle make her promise not to look for him, especially in the woods behind their family cabin for fear she’ll go missing, too. 

When she finds her father’s trail, she breaks a promise and tells a lie, hoping she can save him. Doing so attracts Winpa the abominable ice witch, who chases Annalee into their tribe’s spirit world.  Though she doesn’t know it yet, Annalee holds the third Wonderstone, the only possession her father left behind. The crescent-shaped talisman could give Winpa control over World Above the Sky and the ability to open the ancient ways to the Earth.

Annalee must seek help from an ancient grandmother and her spirit guides to grapple with her newfound moon magic and rescue her father and a grandfather she’s never known from their icy prison. Is she fails, World Above the Sky will fall to Winpa and the gateways will be open for evil spirits to roam Earth. But if she destroys Winpa, her father and grandfather stay locked in ice forever. Outsmarting Winpa will take, courage, honesty, and somehow mastering the power of the Moon Daughter rising within.  

A beautiful weaving of fiction, MicMac tribe legends, and some moral truths we all must face.

Author Bio:

E.G. Moore is an award-winning poet and children book author, as well as a freelance writer and editor. Her essay Wearing Teresa’s Russet Boots was featured in Hope Paige’s Anthology on loss Breaking Sad in 2017, and she had several pieces published in an anthology honoring a local historic building in 2018. When she’s not telling “Mommy Made stories” to her three children or awaiting feedback for her latest manuscript, she can be found off-roading in North Idaho, baking something scrumptious, or on a plot-and-soul refreshing outdoor hike. E.G. Moore tweets, posts on Facebook, and blogs on her website.

TpT Curriculum to accompany EG Moore’s middle grade novels

Scavenger Vocabulary Hunts: Middle schoolers find vocabulary words as they read the story, use context clues to interpret meaning, and write excerpt to confirm their understanding. (FREE by email with novel purchase receipt.)

Also available: comprehension tests, create a character creative writing, and more!

Coming soon: Essay writing guides, google classroom versions of ELA curriculum, and teacher bundles. E.G. Moore is also open to ELA curriculum suggestions or specific requests from fellow home schoolers and educators.

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