Updates sporadically.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Problem Child (or Child Problem)

Think about everything that makes up a person. A person is a sum of their experiences, their circumstances, their genetics. They are influenced by friends, family, enemies, acquaintances, events. They are motivated by lust, greed, empathy, generosity, hormones, or even just the phase of the moon.

There is a lot that goes into writing a character that feels real -- even the most obvious author simulacrum creates headache and heartache as the writer attempts to create motivation and consistency that represent a personality and establish real personhood.

Which is why things get even stickier when we're talking about child characters.

The Problem with Tiny Tim

Who's worse: Tiny Tim or Pollyanna?
Writing believable children is hard. We've all been children, but it's nearly impossible to remember what being a child was really like and to present it in an honest way.

For writers, it's twofold problem. 

Fold #1: Children, varying by age, just don't have full people brains yet. They don't act, react or even speak in ways that most adult brains act, react and speak. Figuring out how a child would act in a certain situation basically requires clamping down on a piece of your conscience that tends to be pretty vocal in our typical thought processes.

Fold #2
: The roles children are given in literature are generally nauseating. They're precocious or righteous or sweet or wise or any of those things that children really aren't so much. Sure, there are kind children. But kindness and generosity in children tends to look a bit less "God bless us, everyone" and a little more like "I bet they'll give me more cupcakes and hugs if I say something they like right now". Child characters fulfill the purpose of basically being omniscient little Jiminy Crickets who toddle around chirping wisdom that turns your blood to sucrose.

In real life, you're not going to meet many* Tiny Tims** who remind us to thank each other and prattle on about goodness. You're more likely to encounter children who thank on command and who rage about fairness. To speak broadly, that's just how their brains are.  

Kids are People, Too

It's not that kids don't do good things, or that they're all jerks. I'm sure your kid is great. But ... it's like owning a cat. Your cat is the best, most special cat in the world and other cats all just kind of suck and are total buttheads in comparison. That's what you need to be focusing on. The buttheads, not the special exceptions.

Writing a believable child hinges largely upon fold #2 mentioned above. If you have a child character, you need to have a very clear role defined for that child in your head. If that's child's sole purpose is to be a little angel of wisdom and sugarcane then you probably*** need to reconsider.**** 

Children are people too, believe it or not. Your child characters need to be treated as people, not plot devices or moral pundits. While their thoughts and desires and concerns might seem frivolous to an adult, these things are of tantamount important to a child. You can't tell a 12-year-old that owning those jeans that everyone else has isn't important because they won't believe you. You can't tell a 3-year-old that you can just buy them a new toy giraffe named Freckles because to them Freckles was special and possibly their best friend. Most importantly, never ever tell any child age 3-8 that life isn't fair in response to injustice or perceived inequality. Fairness is the most precious of all traits and no amount of tantrum is too much in order to guarantee it.

So if children have to be people, then how exactly are you supposed to make them people? 

It's time to find your true inner child. 

Finding Your Inner Child

Outside of finding your very own MPDG, how exactly do you find your inner child?

The best answer is to find an actual external child. I recognize that this may not be an option for everyone. And please don't go lurking around playgrounds and scribbling notes as you stare at children -- it's just not a good idea. But if you have a niece or nephew, son or daughter, friend's kid, kid cousin, etc. who is around the age of your child character, then there is no better solution than to just observe. Observe language patterns, how they interact with adults, how they move, what fascinates them -- all of it. Take it in and think critically. How would your child character act in these situations? Is your child character acting in a way that would make them a peer to this real child? If not, why not?

Don't know any children? Well, as unfun as this sounds, it's time to get thee to a library: the book kind and the Netflix kind. There is benefit to being knowledgeable in a grown-up way. So read up on child psychology -- in particular, I recommend looking into educational psychology. How the brain develops, how children learn, etc. Having some understanding of how children's minds and thought processes differ from yours can grant a lot of insight.

But for as good as adult knowledge can be, kid knowledge is infinitely better. So while you're at the library picking up a book on Piaget, head over to the child-sized shelves -- the ones that only come up to your waist -- and pick up See Spot Run, or Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, or Where the Wild Things Are, or The Adventures of Captain Underpants. Or something else. You get the point. Then go home, scroll through Netflix, and watch some age appropriate children's shows that you think you child character would like, be it Power Rangers or My Little Pony.***** Expose yourself to things made for kids, things that kids like. It'll not only give you a better grasp on how their little kiddo brains work ... it'll also get you thinking like a kid.******

**It's worth nothing that Dickens never actually says who old Tiny Tim is. But given his tininess and his miniature crutches, I've always imagined him around 5 years old. I am basing his inclusion in this post entirely upon my imaginings.
****not do it.
*****Actually, just watch this anyway. It's adorable
******An alternative to all of this: when discussing with my partner, he made the comment that children are just like super drunk people. So you could try that too.*******
*******Don't drink and drive, mmkay?

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