Saturday, 18 February 2012

Someone Needs a Nappy Change! - Charley R's Guide to Your Characters' Offspring

Fictional kids are just as difficult as real-life ones. Perhaps they're not as prone to screaming fits, stinky nappies and perfecting the art of sleep deprivation, but, just like the bundles of pink squishy matter you meet in the playground, they come with their very own bundles of joys and jubilations. 

And that's just for the characters.

Admittedly, I'm not a great one to talk about children - the closest I've come to parenthood is the occasional  babysitting shift, or working with the younger girls in my boarding house at school. That, and I have no maternal instinct towards children whatsoever. But that's another story.

However, even for authors who are parents themselves, writing about children of any age presents a challenge and - unfortunately - there are good many times when it all goes horribly down the plughole, accompanied by several stinky nappies. 

In my experience, there appear to be three main causes of chronic failure when it comes to children in books:
1 - Children are not portrayed correctly, whether in point of view, or through observation by other characters.
2 - Children are used as vehicles for author wish-fulfillment - e.g. Possessing the potential to be equal to, or surpassing, the magical power / beauty / massive intelligence of the parents.
3 - Children are used solely to create sympathy and pathos - e.g. You show that your grizzled, jaded 987-year-old warlock has a heart by giving him sole guardianship of the sweet innocent little orphan the company picked up on the roadside after the kid's parents were killed. Child may also be killed off for no good reason to jerk at the reader's tear ducts. Note: This never works.

With regards to the first issue, it's probably the hardest to solve. If, like me, you have no children of your own, and / or an aversion to anything under 5 feet tall and incapable of holding a discussion over anything more intelligent than the colour of a rubber duck, then you probably aren't in the best position to produce an accurate representation.

In which case, I have two pieces of advice for you. One is relatively simple - peoplewatch. We all do it, usually when waiting for a bus or train, or sulking over a soggy tuna sandwich in Starbucks, but the trick is to do it productively. Take note of any kids in your vicinity, and ask yourself a few simple questions about them. See how they react to people and events around them, watch for their mood and wonder why they might be acting that way, watch the parents and see how they act around the children. If, as often happens, the child makes eye contact with you, try pulling a few faces. Not meaning to sound like a creeper, but I find it's very easy to work out what sort of child you're looking at by the way they react to me. The braver ones will laugh and hold the look, the shyer ones will look away - or, in some awful cases, start bawling! Though whether that's as worrying as the ones who pull faces back I don't know.

The other solution to the problem of inexperience is, of course, to keep kids out of your story as much as possible. As with any other character, unless they are beneficial and useful to the plot, save yourself the hassle of scraping vomit off the wall and get rid of them. However, if they are essential to your plot, try and work out cunning ways of keeping them as marginal as possible. Here are a few I've used over the years:

- Keep your narrator busy with tasks that will have them out of the house and away from kids.
- If the child in question is very young, it will probably spend a lot of time asleep. Exploit this.
- If (as mine was) your narrator is a clueless male, he may avoid children simply because he has no idea what to do with them. His thoughts shouldn't be too hard to dissimilate from your own.
- If the child is old enough to be off doing things themselves, let them wander! Heck knows my brother and I amused ourselves through much of our youth and left our mother alone ... until we got bored or hungry, of course.

However, on the flip side of the coin, issues two and three are really just the results of poor writing and intention. Obviously, genetics makes it quite likely that a child born to magical parents is likely to have a higher chance of inheriting magic themselves, and kids are - to most, at least - very endearing and empathy-generating things. By all means use this - you'd be daft not to - but please, spare the readers the indignity of a 300-page chapter on how wonderful the fruit of your characters' loins is. Besides, if you're planning on sequels, wouldn't it be more interesting to have a child who didn't turn out like its parents? Nobody is a carbon-clone of the parent and, no matter how much we love the original characters, or how much the author loves the idea of this super-special bundle of genetics that is the combination of every awesome trait they put in the parents, the readers aren't going to believe it, and the child will not turn out well - Mary Sues thrive on advantageous gene combinations.
Besides, everybody loves the screwball hero, don't they? 

Cop-outs on growth and maturing are also very irritating - I might name Renesmee of the Twilight saga as a perpetrator of this, using her uber-speshul vampire blood to age enough in half a book to participate in the action ... and become imprinted with a werewolf who could have been her father. But let's not mention that. Time travel, magic potions, curses and all the rest are out too - your child is a child, and like it or not you cannot entirely excuse its parents (or some unfortunate peasant / wizard / princess who finds the little tyke on their doorstep) from raising it entirely. No matter how fast one wants the child to grow up, there's no Fast Forward button. However much we might wish there was one.

Anyone else been put off the idea of parenthood forever by reading this?

- Charley R


  1. (But you still like me don't you? - Ryan peeps over Cathryn's shoulder, and then looks oddly at his author for typing Cathryn rather than Elo)

    *eyeroll* Well, given the squees you give me for Ryan I say that he probably works out well... It probably is a plus that I try to use him sparingly (not that he wouldn't like to take up our time chattering). And I have the plus of having two children about his age, who were actually the inspiration for him.

    Oh course I'm not put off by parenthood (not that I have a choice now *grin*) as i'm surrounded by drawings from my daughter and they are both playing together so nicely upstairs, leaving me to do my adult stuff...

    I wonder what my kids would do if you pulled faces at them, providing they didn't know you were Spook first, because they both know Spook is Mommy's friend.

    :} Cathryn

    1. Ah, you have the advantage - you know what kids are like, and you know not to use them as vehicles! You're probably one of those lucky people who DOESN'T need this post, lol! Of course there are pros and cons for kids but, as I said, I have no maternal instinct, hence have no idea how good things could outweigh bad from my experiences of the little rascals - though being mauled by the cousins is quite good fun at times :P

      And of course i still love you Ryan *hugs*

      I suspect your kids might be a little weirded out ... especially as some of the faces I can do are truly fantastic. Jiggling eyeballs anyone? xD

  2. Great post! I agree on the whole cop-outs on growth thing. One doesn't really realise how common it is until you start compiling a list of all the books that have something of the sort, and then you realise... oops!

    I remember having a conversation with a few people on Protagonize at about how few characters have children, or CAN have children. As with Elo's Sarah, they often have some sort of issue that means they won't accidentally have children.

    I mean, writing YA fiction means you'll often not have to worry about this, though it can work well. I'm never going to have that problem with Watching/Destroying/Returning - never did, I should say, since I've drafted them all. Well, there is a baby in the last chapter of Returning, but it doesn't come into the story much.

    Then again, babies can be amazing in fiction. Look at Anwen in Torchwood: Miracle Day. Not only does she give Gwen an extra motivating factor to get back to her family, and another reason to beat up the bad guys - if they get her baby, she'll get them - but it also shows us how uber hardcore she can be. Holding a little baby in pink with fluffy earmuffs in one hand, and a massive gun in the other, shooting down a helicopter... yep, that's Gwen Cooper for us! Often she is separated from Anwen which obviously works, since we can't have her constantly worrying about her, but then it adds a time limit on things as she has to get back to Anwen. So yep, works.

    1. Also, I'm not all that much more than 5 foot (okay, three inches)....

    2. Totally agree with everything you said there, though I don't watch Torchwood, lol. And Anwen isn't forever being used as a major plot point, or supremely overpowered (i.e she is not picking up mummy's guns and taking out troops of bad guys singlehandedly by the age of three, is she?)

      Also, with regard to your height, see the second half of the statement. I know for a fact you pass THAT criteria xD