I’m overdue for contributing something to this site. I think I’ve written an article…never? Yup. Never. So *knuckle crack* here we go.
Kids in Fiction
Most of my works involve children and I occasionally write stories for children so I thought kids in fiction might be a worthy topic. We all know what kids are. We’ve been trapped on planes with them. We’ve been forced to watch them sports ball. We have to put up with their stupid cartoon fads festooning everything we own. They are legion. They are everywhere. Except in fiction. In fiction, children often fall into the category of seen but not heard. They’re kidnapping MacGuffins* that we endanger with Mary Sue* abandon. But this does not have to be. No. There are other ways.
Every story has that moment when things need to be explained to the reader. Those moments of exposition, however urgent, however important, come across as mood killing dirges of white noise. Imagine a Motorhead** love song in the middle of a Samuel Becket*** play, that’s how awful exposition is. The smart way to handle the problem is the old adage of ‘Show, don’t tell’ – but let’s be honest, who wants to write a scene explaining something that’s so obtuse the regular story parts failed to convey it? We just want to spit it out and move on. The less words the better. You could save one character explain something to another character. Fail. We all know clunky dialog when we see it. If a character babbles something no real world person would say you catapult the reader off his couch and into the kitchen for snacking, abandoning your story indefinitely.
But this is an article about children, not sammiches, so aha! A child is the answer. Children love to incessantly ask stupid questions that drive non parents and a few teachers screaming out of the room. Let them prompt you. An adult would just acknowledge your point or argue it’s merit, wasting valuable word counts when you’re just regurgitating reasons.
“And that honey is why daddy has to brave the vacuum of space.”
“I just told you.”
“But why you? Can’t the soldier man do it? I don’t want you to go away.”
“It has to be me darling because…”
* TvTropes. It’s your friend. Know your weapons and when not to use them.
** It’s not my fault you don’t know who Motorhead is. Go YouTube it or something. I can’t do everything for you.
*** You don’t know who Samuel Becket is? Forget WikiPedia. Go read! You can’t write if you don’t read. It’s like painting with your eyes closed.
Elephants on Parade
Children are delightfully straight forward. They provide a perspective that moves a story along at light speed. If there is an Elephant in the room, they will scream “Elephant” while the adults try and look the other way. Another example; a child will blurt out, “I don’t like him!” The terrfied adults are too busy saluting and playing nice because the villain is in charge.
Children have moments of doubt, we all do, but they also naively say the obvious that wishy washy adults aren’t ready to accept. “Why isn’t he wearing pants? Does he know how to dress himself?” If you have anything to point out, a child will gladly shout it at the top of their lungs.
Children require simple and direct instructions. Keeping it simple allows you to get to a point across decisively. Imagine instructing a child on how to escape a burning building. In just a few words you’ve laid out the plot and placed Chekhov’s gun squarely on the mantle.
You can do the reverse. Adults talking down to kids is a classic way to cover up the long winded technical gobbledy gook that plagues genre fiction. Dr. Who is an ideal example of this. How does temporal mechanics work? Well we humans are scientifically illiterate cave men next to the Time Lords, so “Wibbly Wimey Timey Stuff” is all the explanation we need. How does the ship’s warp drive work? “It makes us go really fast and makes the stars look funny. It’s also bumpy when it stops, so put on your seat belt.” See how I did that? Didn’t talk about wormholes. Didn’t describe the folding fabric of space. Didn’t give you the sordid history of how Zefram Cochrane stole the idea of warp technology for Zaphod Beeblebrox.
Words are hard
Children don’t use big words or state complicated thoughts in long soliloquied monologs. They do, however, try to use them, and try to explain themselves in what amounts to rambling excuse filled monologs. Let’s consider a child overhearing a thug use a word like “Extreme Predjudice”. Now let’s interrogate the sucker.
“He said he was going get his friend some ‘Ice Cream and Juice’ and then he ran off. I think he went that way. But I didn’t see any Ice Cream. And I ‘m thirsty. Do you have any Juice?”
Here’s another one. The boyfriend comes a callin’ while the kid does the stalling’.
“Mommy has a My Grains. She said you should go away.”
This little trick ads a bit of comedy to an otherwise dark situation. Imagine now a child who spilled something. They are apologizing with a long winded reason about why it was not their fault, it was just an accident. Which is fine, but our hero wants to know a certain detail that only the kid knows and its the key that will solve the mystery.
Children are very open about how the entire world revolves around them. Imagine a super hero on the way to the store is called away to foil a bank robbery. Is the kid impressed? “Where’s my present? You said you were going to bring me something.”
Children will reduce and describe things in analogies they understand. “The monster was playing with him like my Barsky does with his toys. But he’s not getting up now.” Bringing the world down to a child’s level gives a scene impact. No one wants to tell a child that Santa Claus is real, or that their parents are dead, but doing so will tear the readers hearts open in sympathy. We were all kids once. We remember how scary the monster was under our bed. We remember that the monster wanted us. Out of all the beds in the house, out of all the children in the world, the monster chose us and never did we question it. That has primal power. Use it.
Children are Brave
A child’s lack of knowledge can equate to a lack of fear. Children will play with a bomb. They will give a flower to a monster that looks sad. They will run right up and yell at the villain for hurting their family and friends. Children will shelter a rabbit from a werewolf hunting it.
These situations not only provide complications for Mr. and Mrs. Protagonist, they can provide a perspective that everyone other character in the story misses. The child sees E.T. but the rest of us see a monster come to destroy us all. It takes a child to see that Godzilla is on our side, and maybe we shouldn’t shoot him.
Even better, children share their bravery. They will tell their teacher, “You can do it, you’re smart.” A child’s faith can drive a character paralyzed by fear into action. Children will believe in someone when others doubt. Children want you to be a hero because they know you are one. That’s all the power a hero needs.
Fool them twice, shame on you
Of course a kid can be tricked. But they can learn. And they do understand vengeance. There’s no stronger moment than a child turning on the villain, doing the one thing that can thwart him, when no one imagined they would.
They hate to be alone
Children are not manikins waiting around to be noticed. They aren’t guards waiting to give their one line before you barge past them. Children have no patience. They do not wait. If you have a child in your story, make them will cling to an adult for company. Give them a pet or a friend because if they are ignored, they will make up friends or befriend things that aren’t really friendly. “My friend likes to live in the walls. He only comes out when you’re not around. I left him a cookie in case he gets hungry.”
And most importantly, kids play.
No matter how dystopian your world, kids will be kicking a ball or a skull around in some form of game. Kids will not put away their dolls and hide when the disfigured bounty hunter rides into town. If you want it dark, have their mothers yank them away from their hopscotch when the desperado draws his gun at high noon. That’s more compelling then a ghost town with eyes peering through the blinds.
His Name Was Max
The final use of children is that of legacy, of seeing the future. The feral child in The Road Warrior can grow up to be the next Max. John O’Connor can lead our future to franchise victory. Children are our future. So go out and write about them.