Friday, January 12, 2018

Writing Homeschooled Characters: 10 Things You're Doing Wrong (And How to Fix Them)

Glasses. Awkward (or non-existent) social skills. Hand-me-down clothes. No TV (unless its to watch educational documentaries...only the PG ones, of course). Weird, gangly creatures who are best friends with their siblings and never go past their own front yard.

What does paint a picture of?

Homeschoolers, you may say.

Buzzzzz. Wrong! Try again.

I've read book after book featuring so-called homeschoolers. They almost all get the character type horribly incorrect. Let's talk about how to fix this, shall we? Here are 10 things you're doing wrong when writing homeschool characters, along with ways to correct the problem. As a homeschool graduate, I'm quite excited to have the chance to hash this out once and for all.
Writing Homeschooled Characters: 10 Things You're Doing Wrong (And How to Fix Them)
Note: This post is dealing with modern homeschoolers....Not "I'm writing historical fiction set in the 1800s and my characters for some reason can't go to a public school" type homeschoolers. Sorry. If you're looking for help in that area, I recommend reading Little House on the Prairie or Little Women or the like.

1. They're incredibly socially awkward. They don't know how to talk to other human beings because, of course, they spend all of their time at home. Right? Wrong. Allow me to let you in on a little secret: Some homeschoolers are awkward. Some aren't. Just like public schoolers. I've known a lot of outgoing, completely functioning homeschoolers. Weird, I know. Please keep this in mind when crafting your homeschooled character. He/she can be awkward, but that isn't the default setting, so feel free to get creative.

2. All homeschool parents were teachers/professors at some point. You know the plot. The intellectual former professor who is now homeschooling their child to be the next Albert Einstein. While there are some kids who are homeschooled by parents with teaching credentials, not all are. It varies from family to family. Some parents have college degrees, some don't. Some families have a sole teacher, some families split teaching subjects between parents or grandparents or aunt or uncles. This gives you a lot of room for some interesting family dynamics. Use it.

3. Homeschool familes come in two sizes: Mini or Super-Sized. AKA: one child or, you know, Duggar-sized. Nope. Your homeschooled character can have as many or as few siblings as you want them to have. There's no set number.

4. They have no friends. Because how are they supposed to meet anybody if they're inside all the time? So they must be super lonely and deprived, right? *sigh* Are you still thinking that way? Okay. I'm so done with you right now.
Seriously. Stop talking. You lower the IQ of the entire street. Homeschoolers do have friend outside of their family. Really. I promise. And yes, they even have friends outside of the homeschool community. Speaking of which:

5. They don't have a homeschool community. It's just your homeschool character and that's it. They're not plugged into any co-op or group of fellow homeschoolers. While this may happen (perhaps as a result of living in a small town where homeschooling is uncommon), it is fairly rare. Homeschoolers often have fellow homeschool families that they hang out with. Or do homework with. Or take online or college classes with. Homeschoolers aren't loners (see point 1 and 4).

6. You're missing extracurricular activities. You know that those aren't just for public schoolers, right? Homeschoolers do them, too. They can be anything: Martial arts, robotics, surfing, woodworking, underwater bilingual basketweaving. Whatever. You decide. The point is: Homeschoolers do participate in extracurriculars. That's one of the ways they accumulate friends (see point 5).

7. They're not nerdy enough. Now, no, I don't mean the socially awkward nerdy (though they can be). Or even the pop quiz I-know-everything nerdy (though they can be). See, homeschoolers are a bit like Liam Neeson. We have a very specific set of skills. We get interested in very specific things and then set out to learn everything about that one thing. LOTR. Physics. Architectural design. Cooking. Computers. Sewing. Logic. 17th Century Icelandic Fiction. Batman. You name it, it's been obsessively studied by some homeschooler somewhere. Because of flexible schedules, homeschoolers have the capability to do deep dives into a subject (or multiple subjects, as is often the case) that other people may not be able to do. The level of knowledge can be quirky, useful, weird, funny, "normal," etc. Now that you know this, go forth and create a fun, nerdy character.

8. They live like pioneers. Or stereotypical Amish people. You know: Jean skirts, no TV, raising chickens, baking their own bread. Ummmm. No? Homeschoolers wear ankle-length jean skirts plus head coverings, don't use electricity at all, raise their own chickens and their own goats for milk, and are gluten-free, so they don't bake bread.

Kidding. Do some homeschoolers do some of these things? Yeah, sure (though they'd be in the minority). Do all? No. So stop writing your characters like that. Seriously. Stop. I'm begging you.

9. You're missing the nuances of the community. And thus nobody is buying that your character is homeschooled...or that you know anything about homeschoolers. So go talk to one. Or pull a few tips from below here: Homeschoolers often like Princess Bride. And Veggie Tales. And LOTR. And these guys:
Siblings are often great friends, but also argue a lot. Grades are pretty much non-existent: A homeschooler can be in 6th grade math, 8th grade science, and 7th grade English all in the same year. Siblings often study the same subjects together, even if they are different ages. Healthy eating is very common (think chia seeds and free range, cage free vegetables). They don't watch a lot of modern TV. Homeschoolers are often very self-disciplined. Sometimes they do school over summer (either because they want to or because they didn't quiiiiiite finish that one boring textbook). They often (but not always) graduate early or go to college while in high school (or both). There are days when some parents count going to the Zoo as science...or shopping as economics. They almost always call adults Mr. or Mrs. [insert last name here]. There's always at least one relative or friend who doesn't approve of homeschooling and yes, it's uncomfortable. Typically, homeschoolers love learning. And those are just a few of the nuances. Not all of them apply all the time, though. Which is important to remember, especially because you're probably making this mistake:

10. You're writing them as homeschoolers, not humans. A fatal flaw with any type of character development. You have to develop your characters as people first, then you can apply whatever lens you want: teenager, Islamic, nurse, Native American, lawyer, college student. In this case: homeschooler. Remember: Personality first. Then homeschooler.

Are we good here? Yes? Okay. Now go fix your homeschooled character. You can do better. I have faith in you.

Have tips of your own to add? I'd love to hear them! Please leave a comment below.

Related articles:
Writing Teenage Characters: What You're Doing Wrong
Writing Strong Female Characters: What You're Doing Wrong
8 Problems in the Christian Fiction Genre (And How to Fix Them) 

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  1. This is great �� as a homeschooler myself, this was something I always cringed at. Thank you for clarifying this for people who don't know.

  2. As a homeschooler myself, I smiled just when I saw the title of this post. I haven't actually read anything in which homeschoolers are misrepresented, but I've heard about the misrepresentations and this post is perfect.
    I particularly like point seven. I'm currently doing a deep-dive into Tyrian purple (unfortunately I only managed to let my parents let me get a science grade for it, not a history grade, which means that the vast majority of all that cool history and etymology stuff I've learned won't count for anything. Bummer), and I know lots of random facts from the combination of being homeschooled and a writer. And just an inquisitive human, lol.
    I actually do kind of "fit the mold" when it comes to having no friends, but that's due to a combination of my hating to talk face-to-face with people I don't know, a chronically ill mom, and not being able to drive. (Soon. So very soon...) And even at that, I still have friends from choir, youth group (extracurricular activities!), and my online writing groups.

  3. Hannah, thank you for this! As a former homeschooler myself, I've always been bothered by our portrayal in the media. That goes for books, tv, movies, etc... Anyways, great post!

  4. Yes! Great post, Hannah!

    You know what I want to see more of?
    1) Homeschoolers in books (and real life) who are challenged in their belief that home school is somehow superior to public school. As a former home schooled students, that's what I thought until I went to college where I learned brilliant people can come from all different types of schools.

    2) Different learning techniques work for different people. Home schooling may work for one student and not another. For example, I finished high school at home and graduated two years early. My little sister was home schooled for a while, but it didn't work out for her, so now she's in public school. And that's okay.

  5. I love this! Finally, a post on what real homeschoolers are like! And the Liam Neeson reference...that should be used every day whenever I'm asked the question: "What it's like to be a homeschooler?" XD

  6. Yes!!! You go, girl. (Just so that everyone else knows, I was homeschooled).
    One other thing to maybe consider for a homeschooled character - we often get asked the same questions whenever we meet someone new. Some typical ones are: "What about friends?" "What about matric?" (I'm also a South African - our final grade is called matric). And on it goes... We can almost predict what questions we'll get asked when we meet someone new. (At least, I could). It seems as though people also assume we have no goals, no direction, no dreams, and ask us about our future. Go figure. And research some current homeschooled people. Like Simone Biles, the Olympic gymnast.

  7. This is awesome! I was homeschooled as well, and oh boy... *cringes* I've dealt with almost every single thing you've listed on here. I don't wear jean skirts (though we do try to eat healthy), I've been a part of several homeschool communities, my siblings were homeschooled as well, and sometimes the most random things would count towards school. (Props to my one brother who showed our Mom that playing CivilizationV counted towards history and strategy!)
    I get disappointed when homeschoolers aren't accurately portrayed, mostly because I feel like it's sending out a bad message to the people who don't know anything about homeschooling. :(

    But being homeschooled to me was one of the best things that could've happened! I got to pursue my interests, find what interested me, and actually work towards what it is I wanted to do in life, even though at first I was just having fun. :) I'm an introvert + homeschooler, so having minimal friends was rather assumed, but honestly I've lost track of the number of friends I've had, especially spanning several homeschooling communities!

    Also: LIBRARIES! :D I would spend entire afternoons there if I could.

    1. YES, my family pretty much lived at the library. It was awesome!

  8. I was homeschooled, which allowed me to escape any kind of censorship or peer pressure. It allowed me to be creative and explore what I liked without being criticized. In a lot of ways, I'm a lot more free because I wasn't put through traditional education.

    My only complaint is that everyone seems to think I must be super smart since I was homeschooled, and I'm not. ��

  9. Thanks for writing this, Hannah! The ten things you listed are spot-on! And I love how you put in the Blimey Cow picture!

  10. This is great! I've not read/seen many homeschoolers in fiction, but a lot of the time I've found myself rolling my eyes at how over-the-top the portrayals usually are. I don't know how many times my family was asked if we were properly socialized and how many friends we had or if we really learned anything. But we knew several people who were also homeschoolers and while we weren't part of a group, we had fun studying things together and obsessing over whatever our favorite subjects were at the time (#7 was definitely my family, haha!). The online homeschool community was great too—since it wasn't a popular thing in my area during my homeschool years, blogging was a fun way to meet people who were also homeschooled and had similar interests.

    Honestly, I'm really glad that it's becoming less of a stigma to be/have been homeschooled, because it was a really great opportunity for my family. I think something I'd love to see more of for homeschooled characters is that they enjoy it, because most are portrayed as hating it. Of course, some do and that's okay, but some of us thought it was pretty awesome!

    Again, this was a really fun and great post!

  11. Thank you for everything you just said. I agree wholeheartedly. I feel like homeschoolers are one of the biggest minorities in fiction today, even though we're a steadily growing community.

    As a homeschool graduate myself, I find it disheartening to find a book with a homeschooler only to have the same old plot. Weird homeschooler convinces parents to go to school to realize how sheltered they were and start doing everything they "missed", most of which isn't worth it anyway. Oh, and their parents are probably hippies are something. Can we please get more books with homeschool characters and realistic plots?

  12. Loved this post! I was homeschooled elementary and middle school and now I go to a university with a lot of kids who were homeschooled. There really is a huge variety within the umbrella of "homeschooling."

    Also, Blimey Cow! I haven't watched them in years! (On that note, I'm a tinsy bit disappointed you didn't point out the difference between being a homeschooler and being homeschooled, lol).

  13. I was homeschooled, and I'm laughing because I actually fall into most of these stereotypes myself! But no, most of us aren't like me.
    One thing I'd like to point out is that homeschooled doesn't necessarily mean you're completely separate from the school system. I never went to public school because of disability and health concerns, but I was technically enrolled in their special ed system and there was an open invitation for me to attend a few classes a week (but I didn't because germs). One time, I was assigned email penpals with some of my "classmates" and most years I got the same textbooks my peers did, and the school had tutors come to teach me.
    (And then there were years where they dropped the ball and we were on our own...)

  14. *Applauds* *Stands up* *APPLAUDS*

    As someone who was homeschooled and never set foot in a normal school, this is a great post! I haven't read many books with homeschoolers, but I have been asked all of these questions personally. The ones I got the most were, "can you take breaks from homework any time you want!? Can you do homework in your pyjamas?!"
    I loved being homeschooled!! The only sad thing is I'm a nerd without anyone to nerd out with!!
    I'm surrounded by a community of homeschoolers who won't read or watch anything with magic, or superheroes, or sci fi, but are all in love with the classics like Emma, and the When Calls the Heart TV series. They are sweet people, and we can relate a little, but it is so hard to be alone and not be able to share Narnia, Hobbits, Wars/Trek, Batman, Captain America, or Harry Potter with anyone. *sigh*
    Oh well, great post and love the veggietales clip!

  15. YES! This is amazing! Its nice to know that there are more people out there that get it.


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