Children in Fiction, Part 2: Their Characterization and Interactions with Other Characters

Last week we covered the implications which severe depopulation would present to a fictional race that regarded children as a pathology and how this relates to world-building. In the same piece where she spoke about the necessity of children in fiction, Ms. R.J. Sheffler touched on another issue plaguing their appearance in modern tales. This is the tendency of many present writers to make children “sound like miniature adults.”

Almost every piece of media on Western television, in Western theaters, and in Western print today has this problem. Japanese media avoids this trope most of the time; when it breaks that rule, it usually has a logical reason for doing so. For instance, the ten-year-old prince in Zoids: Chaotic Century* is well educated and wise in the art of statecraft because he will soon become the next emperor. He is also extremely naïve when it comes to dealing with evil, trying to negotiate with (most of) the people who attempt to capture and kill him rather than following the practical advice of his impromptu guardians.

Later, when he is around twelve, it is revealed that the young emperor is engaged to a noble’s daughter. Though he likes her, the youthful ruler finds his betrothed’s penchant for waxing enthusiastically about their future wedding in public more than a little embarrassing, both because it is a private matter and because he has other things on his mind. The most important of these items is, of course, his enjoyment of being a twelve-year-old. A twelve-year-old emperor, certainly, but a twelve-year-old nonetheless.

How many current Western stories, films, or television shows can claim this same able characterization of their child protagonists? Off the top of my head, the only films I can recall over the last ten years which come close are Captain America: The First Avenger,* Captain America: The Winter Soldier,* Avengers: Age of Ultron,* the two Ant-Man* films, The Huntsman: Winter’s War,* Rise of the Guardians,* and the How to Train Your Dragon* franchise. That last one may indulge in a great deal of juvenile humor, but for the most part the kids all act like kids, even if they are caricatures in many cases. Admittedly, The Winter Soldier squeaks into this category, since the only child character of any import remains silent during his scene in the movie.

Of course, that brings us to the image above (which I hope is legible). This screenshot captures a piece of fan fiction set at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It is a sweet piece, to be sure, and it would make a great addition to an excellent film. However, there is a slight disconnect in the story that pulls a reader out of the tale and back into the real world.

As the fanfic demonstrates, having an adult character interact with a child can give storytellers a great opportunity to expand on the protagonist’s characterization or push him to grow. At this time in the MCU, the Winter Soldier has been treated as little more than an attack dog for seventy long years. By the film’s finale Bucky Barnes has only begun to remember who he is and what it means to be human. He is picking up the pieces of himself while shouldering a great deal of guilt over what HYDRA forced him to do.

This fact is what makes the fanfic so sweet, as the girl in the story neatly contrasts the Winter Soldier. Her innocence, positivity, and kindness are all characteristics which Bucky has had beaten out of him over the course of time. She is whole, he is broken; she has no idea how difficult life can be, and he has few memories of how beautiful it is. Each is representative of the old and the new coming face-to-face in order to find wisdom, comfort, and understanding in the other. The only area where this striking contrast breaks down is in this line of the girl’s dialogue: “People can’t handle the truth. But I can.”

Any parent, older sibling, or adult who spends time around an average ten-year-old child or one who is younger knows that this is not something he or she would say. Most modern children have never seen or heard of A Few Good Men, where the line “You can’t handle the truth” was uttered. While many current writers incorporate this piece of dialogue into their work, most young children do not find it particularly striking, the way that these storytellers did when they heard it first.

One need look no further than the MCU’s version of Spider-Man to put this fact in perspective, since the boy cannot even remember the title of The Empire Strikes Back.* In Captain America: Civil War* he specifically yells, “You know that really old movie – where they’re on the snow planet – with the walking thingies?” Both Iron Man and War Machine have to puzzle out the film he means from this inspired description before they can properly act on his idea during their battle with Ant-Man.

From this we can see that while modern children may have heard A Few Good Men’s famous line quoted from time to time in various media, this does not make them predisposed to use it in casual or formal conversation. More than likely, the girl in the above fanfic would have simply said, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell,” and left it at that. Or something on the order of, “I’m not as chatty as Brenda, from my class. She can’t keep a secret at all. But I can.” That would be more natural and fitting than the adult quote from A Few Good Men, which this child has probably never seen or even heard of in her short life.

One might wonder why this author takes such issue with this line of dialogue. Aside from the fact that it pulls her out of the story, it is a sign of a systemic problem in modern fiction: the tendency of present day writers to make child or teen characters act or speak in the manner of adults. Nine out of ten tales told today paint children as smarter, more hardened, and more adult than the grown-ups they meet in the course of the story.

This should not be the case for modern fiction precisely because this almost never happens in real life. By their very nature, young children do not have enough experience or education to behave or speak in the way that adults do. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, as we saw with the illustration from Chaotic Century above. And there are times when a child speaks up and says something profound in a way that makes an adult think. (“Out of the mouths of babes” is a proverb for a reason, after all.)

Characters appearing in My Hero Academia Manga | Anime-Planet

Nevertheless, kids are still kids. Even those children that have been severely abused, like Eri in My Hero Academia*, still express themselves in the way children raised in healthy environments do and have similar desires to children living with a loving family. The most mature thing Eri wants after her rescue is to get to know the heroes who saved her. Beyond that, she desires to see her friend dance and to eat a candy apple, both things many other girls her age would want.

While there are exceptions, present day writers from the Land of the Rising Sun tend to capture childhood innocence and profundity better than Western writers in the last decade have. There are exceptions in both cases, of course, but that is why this contrast is so obvious; the general trend in the West is the exact opposite of the inclination from the East.

As a counterbalance to the fanfic pictured above and the example from Chaotic Century, in the story of Final Fantasy VII*, the cult classic video game from Square Enix, players are introduced to Marlene Wallace. The adopted daughter of Barrett Wallace, a member of the player’s party, Marlene is four years old and rather precocious. She usually helps another member of the party, Tifa Lockhart, run the 7th Heaven bar. From what I understand the adults in the game actually trust Marlene to work behind the bar solo from time to time, which is something I have a fair bit of difficulty believing.

If true, however, that is the only aspect of this character that is out of place. Marlene’s mannerisms, outlook on life, and stubbornness are all quite childish. For an example of what this looks like, you can play the video from the Final Fantasy VII Remake below (and/or listen to the Japanese translation here):

Aerith Comes To Marlene’s Rescue During the Attack on Sector 7 || Final Fantasy VII Remake

Along with Eri and the prince from Chaotic Century, Marlene exhibits the true innocence, simplicity, and associated wisdom of childhood. More interesting is the fact that numerous teenage characters in shonen and related Japanese genres tend to be more naïve than their fictional Western counterparts. There are genres and characters which are exceptions to this rule, but these are the relative outliers.

One argument against portraying children and teenagers as wholesomely naïve is that this isn’t the case in real life. This begs the question of why it isn’t true in real life, since once upon a time it was a very accurate and authentic portrayal. One need look no further than The Andy Griffith Show*, Leave It to Beaver*, The Munsters*, and even The Rifleman* to see this fact on clear display. In The Alamo* John Wayne’s character, Davy Crockett, says with a laugh and a smile after meeting a little girl, “Isn’t it a shame they have to grow up to be people?”

What changed? Why did it stop being realistic to depict children and teenagers as being concerned primarily with the facets of life they were best prepared to handle? Why did we go from “Isn’t it a shame they have to grow up to be people?” to the remake of The Parent Trap where one of Lindsey Lohan’s two characters says to her prospective step-mother, “I think marriage should be about more than sex, you know?” From what I remember, the original made the same point without compromising the characters’ relative ingenuousness.

Yes, there were and have always been exceptions to the models in the above-mentioned media. No one is disputing this fact. What is under dispute is why writers have to make almost every child character or teenager as worldly wise and/or sexually aware as adult men and women. Authors told great stories without resorting to this kind of juvenility before, so why are so many doing it now?

In part, I think it is a writer’s attempt to reach young readers where they are. To make them feel that the character in the story is just like them, so they can identify with him/her more easily. Young Adult fiction is notorious for this, but other genres have the same crippling weakness as well.

There are several problems with this approach. First, no one truly reads a book to find a character “just like [them]” whom they “can relate to completely.” They read novels precisely to “meet” people they would never know and who they want to emulate so that they can become their best selves. A certain amount of relatability is necessary, of course, but it does not require that the character behave or speak in the same manner that the younger members of the audience do.

As an example, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were admired by millions of boys not simply because they had similar characteristics (e.g. an interest in girls and dreams of adventure), but for what they had that their viewers did not have or did not believe they had. Princess Leia Organa inspired the same esteem in female viewers, who wanted her looks as much as – if not more than – her ability with a blaster. Young male viewers of Star Wars* wanted to be as strong as Han and as good as Luke. Female viewers wanted to date men like these two heroes, and they wanted to emulate Leia to do it, primarily because she demonstrated that it is possible to find a good man in this broken world.

So why is Star Wars better at connecting with viewers than a large swath of modern day Young Adult novels, films, television shows, and cartoons? The answer, I believe, may be found in this quote from Professor Tolkien: “…..Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?’” (On Fairy-Stories, 1939).

Just like adults, teens and young children read to escape the world they live in. If the statistics about broken homes, domestic abuse, sex abuse, drug addiction, et cetera are to be believed, then today’s youth market is largely looking for any way out that they can find. They want to break out of the cycle that put them in these situations in the first place, which is impossible if the entertainment they consume only shows them more of the same. To quote from the video linked here, entertainment which depicts teen and child characters “just like them” inculcates in its readers a pessimistic mindset that is permanent, personal, and pervasive. Nothing and no one really changes no matter what anyone does, so why should they bother trying?

To project adult misery on teens and children through one’s own youthful characters is downright nasty, future writers. It is unutterably cruel and heartless. It makes readers in these harmful circumstances feel more trapped than they already are and gives those in healthy situations an imperfect picture of life. While the latter may (or may not) be able to better relate to their peers after reading such stories, it will not help their counterparts in their situation, who may never encounter their sympathetic contemporaries at all due to distance – emotional or physical.

A 100-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor on How Books Save Lives

Ms. Helen Fagin

A work of fiction might be the only lifeline a child or teen in broken or abusive homes has to the world outside their horrible circumstances, as Ms. Helen Fagin states in her letter here. She was in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland for years. Her only way to escape from this dehumanizing situation – one she shared with the children trapped in the camp with her – was a good book. It was a book that dealt with manners, high society, stormy romances, and a bygone age of chivalry and courtly ladies.

If Gone With the Wind* could provide this respite from a world of deprivation, horror, abuse, and death, why cannot present day writers strive to offer their teenage readers the same escape? Whether we grew up in stable, loving homes or not, every writer knows what it is to be trapped. Every one of us feels that, in one way or another, at some point in our lives. Just like our readers, we want to get out, to go somewhere better, happier, and more fulfilling.

For authors, telling stories is our way out of the every day grind and into this fairy tale place. Why, therefore, should we make it a land of nightmares rather than a dream world of possibilities? Shouldn’t we strive to give readers an idea of what life can be rather than focus on making the young heroes “relatable to” them?

Surely it can’t hurt to try.

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

For some ideas on how to write young characters, check out the latest installments in these series by L. Jagi Lamplighter, Raymond Arroyo, and Alexander Hellene. Not only do the stars behave like kids would, so do their supporting casts. Pick them up today!

6 thoughts on “Children in Fiction, Part 2: Their Characterization and Interactions with Other Characters

  1. And here I thought I was going to disagree with you. 😀

    Kids do act like little adults– but when I say that, I mean basically that they’re people, just ones with less history behind them.

    They definitely do NOT act like…well, folks who probably have as many years of memory of being in college as the kid does of life, period.

    Part of why I nearly flipped for joy over the new Spiderman is that the character utterly gutted the nasty habit of “Kids are my idealized version of what I was like as a kid.”
    And they’re usually written by folks who are older than I am. So movies that are so old that I, a middle aged gal, don’t remember them coming out– are treated like they’re new and shiny.

    So you get, say, a lot of kids gushing about how they want to be the first person in their family to go to college. In the 2010s.

    In the 1990s, not going to college was signing up for rather nasty social abuse. Even if you went military, instead. It was expected. You could drop out after the first year, especially if you said something like how you wanted to see the world etc, but you had to at least go to college.

    But my mom, who went to college half a century ago, did actually go with a decent number of folks who were the first in their family etc. (A lot on GI bill, of course.)

    Take a wild guess at the age of the guys writing all these stories!

    The inability to write kids as anything besides short versions of themselves goes hand in hand with the issues writing any other characters; like how you’ll be reading a novel set in a magical mystical type fantasy setting, and a bunch of the characters are obnoxious upper-middle-class coastal American twits. But with swords! And magic!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And you’re right, a real little girl would probably just say “I won’t tell,” unless her family uses that line as a joke a lot. Which could’ve been suggested by some hint of military about the girl or kids– say, the mom has a PROUD ARMY WIFE sweater, or something. Our kids use five dollar words, because we use five dollar words– they also quote the Princess Bride and say both “The more you know” and “knowing is half the battle!” (Have never seen GI Joe.)

    And color choice would probably either be “my favorite color” or “like your eyes.”
    (My newly-minted five year old is obsessed with things being blue like her eyes, or [number] like her age, etc.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. From what I understand the adults in the game actually trust Marlene to work behind the bar solo from time to time, which is something I have a fair bit of difficulty believing.

    Would depend on the clientele- and probably is drawing on the Japanese custom-thingie of sending very young kids with fairly big jobs, like “deliver high school age brother’s lunch to him.” The idea, as it’s been explained to me, is that it is a community building type thing. Shows up in anime sometimes, via the grown-up or high-school-age characters falling all over themselves to help the adorable little kid do the recognized custom of their First Big Errand.

    So it’s not about the character, it’s about the community.
    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-09-28/in-japan-small-children-take-the-subway-and-run-errands-alone
    (I don’t see any howlers in this article, but again it’s been a while since I was looking at sources I trust. I think it was in Elegant Yokai Apartment Life?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah! Thank you! I did not know this. Of course, we used to do the same thing once upon a time. Now we do not, for various reasons, and that just goes to show how much more we have lost over the decades. 😢

      Hmm, I should find a way to put this in a story somewhere……

      Liked by 1 person

      • They had mostly lost it, too– this is something deliberately brought back.

        Part of the cost for that was truly draconian punishments; the two idiots from my ship-group in Japan who did a purse snatching got something like a decade in what boils down to solitary confinement, because the pushed the little old lady when they snatched her purse. (she was not injured, thank God) When I forgot my debit card in a machine, nobody even TOUCHED it until a police officer should show up to pick it up, because they didn’t want to risk being accused of attempting to steal it. (I had not slept for more than two hours for at least a week prior.)
        There’s probably also some very careful selection of errands, too. 😀 I know that I am more cautious about what the kids are asked to do than they think I am!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Children in Fiction, Part 3: Are Heroes and Heroines Interchangeable in Fiction? | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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