I’ve noticed a vacuum developing in fiction. Popular novels, particularly fantasy and young adult, tend to exclude child characters. And if children do play a role, they’re caricatures of how small people actually behave.
For most of human history, people didn’t live in segregated groups but in communities that put all ages within the same social sphere. However imperfect many of those models were, they reflect the basic human experience. When we write, we aim to replicate that as truthfully as possible—and overlooking children weakens our efforts. We miss four opportunities to enrich our stories with their enthusiasm and innocence.
1. Children Are a Keystone to Realistic Worldbuilding
Many visitors to Story Embers love fantasy, and their goal is to make their fictional universes as believable as possible. If you’re part of that crowd, you need to consider children as you’re fine-tuning all the other details. In high fantasy with a medieval setting, children should be everywhere. While various methods of birth control have existed throughout history, due to religious convictions, its use wasn’t widely accepted until the twentieth century. Whether your genre is historical or futuristic, evaluate the culture’s views on children and what effect that has on the character’s surroundings.
J.R.R. Tolkien does this expertly in Lord of the Rings. Middle Earth isn’t lacking in children and families, yet they’re never central to the plot. The world is fuller because of the hobbit children’s delight over Gandalf’s fireworks, and because the men of Gondor and Rohan sent their families away from the fighting. Even in the midst of noble battles, children are present. In Minas Tirith, the white city of Gondor, we meet a guardsman’s son named Bergil and several other lads who stayed behind to help their fathers defend the city. If Tolkien had forgone this aspect, we might not notice, but his world would lose a layer of reality.
Children won’t always be directly involved in the action. But they’re an important part of any human society, fantasy or otherwise. Don’t forget to listen for their voices and look for their fingerprints as you worldbuild.
2. Children Raise the Stakes
Kids are vulnerable by nature, and in any circumstances, the audience will worry about their wellbeing. The compelling horror of The Hunger Games is due to the danger posed to children. When Katniss joins the Games in lieu of her little sister Prim, she’s launched into the book’s main drama. As events unfold, her relationship with young Rue is first touching and then heartbreaking. Replacing Prim and Rue with older characters would reduce tension and emotional impact.
Similarly, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road revolves around a father who is driven to protect his son at all costs as they navigate a post-apocalyptic landscape. Without his little boy, the story couldn’t be told.
We all want our stories to grab another person’s heart, and sometimes the character we need to increase this emotional punch is a child.
3. Children Provide a Unique Perspective
Kids see life in black and white. Their “limited” perspective, simplistic beliefs, and unrestrained honesty affords chances to communicate thematic content in an unexpected yet natural way.
The fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes requires the stark perspective of a child to prove a point. The child notices what the adults are unwilling to admit—the emperor is naked—and vocalizes it (as all kids are apt to do at the worst moments). Because the child speaks up, the adults realize they’ve been duped by their own pride.
Jesus Himself declared that “whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). Childlike honesty and humility are virtues that Christians should strive to nurture.
As writers, we’re on a journey to craft captivating stories about characters who change from one kind of person to another. A child adds a special viewpoint that no other character can.
4. The Absence of Children Can Be a Powerful Plot Device
So far I’ve argued that writers should include children in their stories; however, a world without kids is a grim place. A story that purposefully omits children holds numerous possibilities that are worth exploring.
Partials by Dan Wells is an alien dystopian novel in which a virus kills infants hours after birth. The dwindling communities are desperate to discover a cure, and part of their strategy involves requiring all fertile females eighteen and older to bear children.
Another story that examines a world without kids is the movie Children of Men. Women all over the globe mysteriously become infertile over a period of about twenty years. In a race to save mankind, the protagonist is roped into rescuing the only pregnant woman on the planet. The resulting action is disturbing and powerful.
Leave No Stone Unturned
As writers, we must be intentional with our craft. If you’ve never considered the impact children can have on your story, don’t hesitate to try. It might not be what your story needs, but then again, you might strike a note that will move your worldbuilding to a new level.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.