For God’s Sake, Think of the Children
I wonder, sometimes, if anyone writing for TV has ever met a child. Or anyone writing for film. Or even just writing fiction. So often, kids appear in one of the following guises:
- As the well-behaved dress accessory
- As the clever, snarky brat
- As the magic engine of emotional change
- As the target of horrifying eeevil
- As a sickly sweet Sainted child
What they don’t so much show up as are as people.
The dress-accessory child is sometimes issued as part of the “have-it-all” package, often to a parent who is more to be scorned than admired. Such children are frequently unruly brats, due to a lack of attention from parents who thought they needed a kid like they needed a picket fence or a dog. But there’s another sort of dress-accessory child: the one who is in the story so that the mother (or father) can be a single-parent-with-a-child. Such a child is there to look cute, to provide shorthand about the parent’s character (“how brave they are, parenting along, putting the child first, yada yada”). The dress-accessory child may be used to generate plot complications (“I want you,” he said, breathing heavily. “We mustn’t! Little Timmy is right next door…”) but never actually gets in the way unless the author wills it so. (“Don’t worry,” he breathed. “Little Timmy’s in the well with Lassie.” “Thank God.” She abandoned herself to his carresses…). When not need to provide complications or establish parental bona fides, Dress-accessory children are hung up like costumes to await their next cue.
Then there’s the snarky TV brat, whose sole purpose (whether in a TV show, movie, or book) is to say rude, funny things that no adult could get away with, rude funny things that seem ruder and funnier because the speaker is only six years old. The snarky brat is very often, though not always, paired with the Wise, Long-suffering Wife (that’s another rant), although if Mom was that wise, surely her children wouldn’t be such brats.
Then there’s the Magical Child–the child whose sole purpose is to make a character a better person. This often means that the child needs to suffer or die. Redemption through someone else’s suffering! Good work! The Magical Child exists so that another character can learn, reach inside, find their individual strength or not take life for granted. Pollyanna is a Magical Child (although she’s well enough drawn that she does achieve a little life of her own) who fixes an entire town, for heaven’s sake. The Magical Child is closely related to the Sainted Child (you’ll find a bunch of them in Victorian literature–Dickens loved him some Sainted Children) who dies to raise the pathos-level of the store, a short-lived engine of repentance and change.
And there’s the Child in Jeopardy. A staple of suspense fiction requires people who cannot defend themselves being menaced. The worst offenders of the child-in-jeop trope tend to linger over the danger, almost pornographically, returning again and again to the menace hovering over the kid. Little Timmy’s whimpering cries for Mommy, the evil smirk on the face of the villain who closes the top on the well, muffling Timmy’s yells and Lassie’s frantic barking.
The thing is, none of these circumstances make bad fiction, as long as the child is not a device but a person. I’m going to care more about Timmy when he already exists as an individual small human. Kids aren’t plot devices. They’re not miniature adults, either. Kids have a different perspective, not just because they’re littler than adults, but because they’re newer. They don’t know how everything works. Sometimes they make up reasons or rules because the ones adults use are not available to them. Kids can be incredibly heartless, incredibly defeatist, incredibly empathic, incredibly resourceful…just incredible. There’s a huge range of things kid characters can be that will enrich your fiction.
But first, they have to be people.