What Use Are Children?

In adult fiction, the appearance of any character under the age of 12 ushers in a special set of problems. To start, it is hard for them to control a point of view because a kid’s perception of the world is confined to the limited amount they know. Such immaturity can be charming—and even compelling in the hands of an excellent writer—but it is hard to take cute affirmations seriously. I too once wanted to play baseball in the major leagues, and look where that road went—perverted by the world of books!

Their lack of what adults would consider common sense curtails their ability to impact a plot. In the crudest terms, it is hard to believe a child would cynically mow down a villain, or even conceive of why that would be a good idea. A child is a poor choice for any romantic involvement. Most adults in a room will not take the advice of a child about what to do next. The old adage about being seen but not heard applies here, but in this case it’s impacting where your story can go. 

A third limitation extends beyond the mind into the practical world of getting things done. A child cannot drive a car, arrange for a business lunch, or make an assignation. They cannot slip payoffs, organize sophisticated conspiracies, or any other of a dozen interesting plot turns. You might derive tension from the fear that a child will bungle the job, but that begs the question of: why did the adult think it was a smart plan in the first place?

The best use for a child is often as a victim. The same helplessness that hinders their ability to direct a plot works in their favor when it comes to sympathy. Readers understand that children are at the mercy of an evil adult, since that happens all too often in real life. “Go to your room!” is only a benign expression of this total power. Thoughts of a child lost in the woods, or stowed away in an attic, are among the primal fears that a parent has.

A child alone as a protagonist is a bad idea, but pairing up an older child with an adult, on the other hand, can provide some real zest to a novel. If you imagine a wisecracking pubescent from Southern California, you can immediately see the sort of flavor that could be added. The adult is still on hand to drive the plot forward.

Exercise: Review your manuscript for any action involving a child. Is the kid causing the action, or is the event acting on them? If it is the former, make sure the child can really carry that dramatic weight. If the premise seems phony, see if you can either make the child’s success an accident, or add an adult to the proceedings.

“Adults are just outdated children.”
  —Dr. Seuss

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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