I wonder about children. Some part of me is awkwardly fascinated that there are people on the planet who have never experienced so many things. Never been to a live concert. Never made bread from scratch. Don’t know who Luke’s father is. That scraped knee is no big deal for adults, but for many children, it’s literally the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. They don’t have context.
I don’t remember how old I was back then, but I do remember being asked if I thought the Redwoods on California’s north coast were beautiful. I didn’t know how to respond. Fascinating, yes. I couldn’t stop staring. But the word beautiful had a much more narrow definition than it does now. I hadn’t experienced anything like it, and didn’t have anything to reference, or anchor that experience to.
We’ve all – without exception – been children at some point. It follows therefore that I should be much better at writing a child. Then why is it so difficult to recreate one?
I think there comes a point in growing up that everyone experiences: they realize that the childhood they had wasn’t normal. That they were a really weird kid. For me, it was relatively late. I was in my early-twenties when I realized things that made sense to me might not make sense to another, no matter how much time I spend explaining. Not everyone goes over every day’s experience at night before they fall asleep. Not everyone travels 45 minutes to school. Not everyone can trust the water that comes out of the faucet. Not everyone inherits their older sibling’s or cousin’s clothes when they big enough. Weird.
Of course, as grown-ups, this all makes perfect sense. We’re aware that everyone has their own experiences, and that everyone is the main character in their own story. But as children, the “this is how life is” mentality doesn’t even occur to us.
Without children of my own, I relate this mostly to creating characters in a role-playing game. We start at Level 1, often with a predisposition toward a certain role in the big picture. Then, as we grow, that idea shifts. We experience the real world in bits and pieces, hopefully – if our parents are there to guide us – in small enough chunks to handle. Whatever happens, we level up, and that shapes who we are.
I also wonder about origins. Yes, Batman watched his parents die, and that formed much of who he became as an adult. But what about that homeless guy? Many of the homeless I know are running from something until that lifestyle became easier than the responsibilities of an adult. But what was his childhood like? That serial killer, that movie star. How did they get there?
That’s the only way I know how to write children. It’s like offering a bit of some future character’s origin story. I have a plan for their future, and who they will become. Often that image is a mix of the adult characters around them.
Many adults will readily tell you what they don’t like, and their biggest pet peeves. But adults rarely like something without letting it define them. Christmas is a time when all that comes to the spotlight. I got lots of writer stuff this year, and lots of tea. I love it all, and much of it defines me.
But children like all sorts of things. They have favorite colors, and a different favorite animal every hour. They’re not shy about what they want. They’ll sleep anywhere, and be ready to go a thousand miles per hour the instant they wake up. If they encounter someone new, they rely on their instincts about that person. Even the smallest experience carries an enormous weight.
All this crosses my mind when I write a child character into a story. But if you have a kid, I’d love to hear your opinion on the subject. Please comment below with some of your experiences, or even a short anecdote!