In most adult fantasy fiction you’ll usually find very few characters who are under the age of 16. Of course, a great deal of children’s or young adult fantasy definitely contains kiddies, but there is a bit of a tendency to shy away from them in the more serious adult genre. This may be because there’s a lot more blood, guts, sex and violence in adult fantasy and it feels a bit wrong to include young characters in such settings. Or, it could be that we treat adult fiction a bit like when we want a romantic weekend away with our partner and leave the kids with granny and grandpa so they’re out of the picture. Or, maybe as adult writers it can be difficult to relate to children and create a realistic child character. Whatever the reason, it’s worth considering including children in your stories as they offer a huge range of different opportunities to broaden your plot and increase the emotional wattage of a story.
- Protection – If you’re a parent yourself or have a great deal to do with children, more than likely you will have very strong feelings of protectiveness towards the children you love and watching them do anything dangerous results in a quick response from you to make them safe. As a writer this is something you can use to provoke these protective feelings in your readers by including incidents where children are endangered. A great example is Juliet Marillier’s “Foxmask” where newborns on an island are barely emerging from their mother’s womb when a terrible song pierces their home and snatches the little life away. Instead of joy upon the birth of a child the entire population of the island lives in dread of a pregnancy. This provides an intense plot device that drives each of the characters in the story in a number of different ways and provokes empathy in the reader because they want this dreadful problem to stop and want to know how the author will achieve this.
- Little accidents – An unexpected child is a plot device that takes your readers (and your characters) by surprise, whether it’s an unintended pregnancy, a baby/child left at the door or a child simply turning up and adopting one of the older characters. How your adult characters respond to a child who is essentially forced upon them says a great deal about each individual. Some people may completely fall to pieces, others may initially be angry and then just grudgingly accept it, others may hate the child but eventually come to love it, or it could all go pear-shaped and the child is hand-balled from person to person. But a little “accident” like this may also bring danger, to the child itself or to the adult characters. What if having an illegitimate child puts the mother’s life in grave danger because of the laws of her land? Or the child itself houses a terrible curse or power? Or the father of an abandoned child suddenly turns up to claim it whether that’s good for the child or not?
- Innocence – How a child innocently observes the world and explains what they see from their perspective can definitely open the eyes of the adults around them. In your writing you can make this quite spooky, like the kid in “6th Sense” saying, ‘I can see dead people’ or it can be more endearing, like when my littlest asked a lovely elderly lady whom we’d known for years why there were ‘spots’ all over her face (they were warts). Your adult characters will respond to such comments in some way because they’re so unexpected and because they’ve been expressed without any guile – they could laugh, cringe, shout, scream, etc. The child is simply saying what they see or asking a question because they don’t understand what they see – they don’t regard either as being a problem and often don’t understand the reactions of the adults around them, particularly if they’ve said something rather disconcerting.
- Ignorance – Fictional writing can play off the ignorance of children in many ways. It’s always good having someone in the story who knows very little about an important part of your plot, as it gives you an opportunity to have a more knowledgeable character explain what’s going on. Ignorance can also put a child character in danger. George R.R. Martin uses this to his advantage repeatedly in his “Game of Thrones” series as he’s not averse to including a number of young characters, where their childish ignorance puts them in dire situations that are far removed from the innocent games and fairytale stories they are accustomed to. Another example written by David Eddings in the “Belgariad” plays upon the ignorance of a boy from birth right through to the age of 16, by keeping him in the dark about his royal and magical ancestry until the last possible moment in order to keep him safe from extremely powerful enemies he didn’t know he had.
- Manipulation – Innocence and ignorance combined can also put children at risk of manipulation, as their inexperience with the adult world means that that they simply cannot comprehend the little nuances and intrigues of truly nasty adults. Children inherently put their trust in older people (which is why we have to warn them off talking to strangers). This is another good device for your stories. For example you could have a child do something wrong thinking they’re doing the right thing because an adult character told them it was OK, or to place the child in a dangerous situation because an adult told them it was safe. I’ve used this type of device in my novel “Cry of the Elemental” where a child is not only manipulated into poisoning another character, but is also mutated by the bad guy into another innocent creature (a kitten) to intensify the danger to the child.
- Attitudes – If you’ve ever watched the film “Oliver” you would have seen some wide ranging attitudes from the adult characters towards children of various ages; from pure loathing that they even dared to exist, through to sympathetic love for their plight. In your own life I’m sure that it seems that every adult you know has a different attitude towards children, and if this is transferred into fictional writing such feelings can provide true insight into your adult characters. Of course, you can be a little more extreme in fiction where your nastier characters can be rough in their chastisement of a child or speak harshly about a child to another person while the little one is standing at their feet. While those characters that simply can’t abide children may take to ignoring them completely. Then there are those with a little more empathy, who may crouch down and pat a child on the head, secretly give them a small treat and a gentle smile.
- Comedy – Like animals, kids can provide wonderful comic relief because they aren’t constricted by the types of boundaries that we put up around us as adults. Kids will play games anywhere, pretend they’re an animal, have imaginary friends, suddenly start dancing for no reason, spin in circles because they like being dizzy, eat sweets until they throw up, speak in a funny voice, love toilet humour and any number of other daft things because they think it’s funny or they get a great reaction from the adults around them. My sister once taught her little 2 year old niece to say something a bit rude, which we all laughed at, so the toddler kept saying the expression while we continued to laugh (yes, sorry, we were being a bit naughty). So including child characters in your writing doesn’t have to always be serious. Children can suddenly do or say something really funny and this can inject comic relief into your stories when it’s needed most. It’s worth jotting down the funny stuff you see kids say or do to use in your work.
- Irritation – Not every child is angelic, funny or beguiling. There are always the little darlings who drive you absolutely bonkers. This can start from a very early age when the child has regular tantrums to get their own way. To kids who know if they press all the right buttons they’ll get the reaction they’re looking for from their parents. Right through to older kids who are just downright smart-alecs and have no respect for you at all. If you’re looking for inspiration, just walk through a bunch of kids on a school trip some time and see how they speak to their teachers – it’s quite an eye opener. These kinds of characters can also be included in your stories, usually as a means of annoying everyone else, such as; bullies, teasers, smart-alecs, whiners, daydreamers, nose-pickers, sniffers, shouters and those ones that just push other kids to the ground for the laugh. There’s nothing to say that kids like this can’t turn out all right in your story, but the more they irritate your other characters, the more your readers will want something bad (or maybe even something good) to happen to them. It’s always worth having a background story to such kids if you want to deepen their character, by indicating why they behave like they do.
- The “old” child – The concept of a child who behaves and/or thinks like an adult is often seen in fantasy fiction, such as the child-like empress in “Never-ending Story” or princess Amidala in “Star Wars“. There’s something quite endearing about a whole heap of older characters trailing after such creatures, hanging on their every word. But I don’t find this particularly believable if no reason is given, as in the real world this rarely occurs. If a child is to be adult-like in their behaviour then there needs to be strong reasoning behind how they came across the level of wisdom that adults will pay attention to. Just making them “royal” or “rich” doesn’t give them that wisdom, it has to be earned or magically bestowed in some way. The Lemony Snickets “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books had 3 children, 2 of whom acted very adult-like, but the bad guy very definitely had the right of things when he said, ‘No one listens to children’. So yes, you can have old heads on young shoulders, but be careful to explain or demonstrate how they were able to reach such heights and earn the respect of their elders, or it may all fall flat.