On children, The Chosen One, and realism

I’ve been having a few philosophical and writing-related rants over the last few days…I’ve done one on prgenancy and childbirth, and another on diversity. And I got to thinking about children, and orphans, and family.

I am aware of the reasons to use orphans in fantasy; it’s an escape, it’s a useful device to make the character ‘real’ to everyone. It’s particularly useful for children who want to be something ‘other’; you don’t have to break them out of their family confines to start the story, as they’re already in the bad situation. You don’t have Mum and Dad already there to perform the rescue; you don’t have to destroy the Responsible Adult role, and the child can destroy the Baddy all by herself. It allows for the mysterious Unknown Background, unexpected magic, secrets and surprises and there’s no “why didn’t you tell me?” explanation.

But jeez, does it get old.

I recently had to put down a book where the heroine was a lowly farm girl from an unknown background, and oh look, she’s got magical talents…yeah. I don’t care. I admit I loved The Belgariad, but I loved the Sparhawk books more. I like Harry Potter but I also like the stories where the hero (please read that to encapsulate all genders, by the way) leaves their family, breaks out of the confines themselves, learns something or succeeds in their quest or generally changes despite, or because of, that family background.

(On a side note from a friend who’s a teacher; all the kids she’s taught who have a shitty family upbringing or are orphans or have a bad home life make really bad decisions, don’t have a moral compass, and are flatly the opposite of the sort of hero you get in kid’s books…we both agreed that it’s a plot device to remove the parents, but where do these orphaned children get their brilliant moral compass and excellent decision-making skills from?)

You don’t need the orphan to have a good hero. And to me, family can be anything. Harry’s family ends up being Hogwarts, the Weasleys, his friends. Garion’s family is his Aunt and Grandfather, his companions, the farm and Durnik. Yes, the orphan allows for the mystery element, but usually you’ve got someone who has to explain all that stuff anyway. He’s gotta find out sometime…

Anyway *sighs* I guess I’m sick of not seeing the family. I’m tired of not having the siblings. Where’s the fantasy book of The Road, of the father who has to Go On A Quest but can’t leave his daughter? I admit it’s a bit of a brain-twister but imagine The Dark Tower series with a child in tow! How about Batman who suddenly finds out he has a daughter when Catwoman gets pregnant and he suddenly realises he wants to settle down? How about Lord of the Rings where Boromir can’t come on the Quest because he values his two daughters over some madcap scheme? Pick your own favourite and then add some children in! What happens?

This isn’t as big a rant as my others, but it does get wearing to pick up a book for adults, and either have the children as teens (because that’s a good age to change) or have none in it at all. Particularly in a medieval setting (which most fantasy, particularly High, tends to be) – they had large families! Where’s the laughter? Where’s the six-year-old coming to show his mother what he’s just found on the street? Where’s the unfortunate blurting out of information at the worst possible moment? Where’s the ten-year-old dressing up in her superhero Daddie’s cape and parading round the house, much to his horror? Why is no-one ever late because their six-month old wouldn’t sleep? The children are the victims, the tear-jerking moment of rescue from a house fire, the Hero’s Cause. Where are they in everyday life?

But…I can understand why the children are left out. For example, I love The Dresden Files, but it’s a good demonstration of the problems; Dresden’s a lone worker (or forced to work with others), and having a child in tow would change the style of the book. Even in The Hunger Games, Prim is mostly left out; she’s too young (in everyone else’s opinion) to make a difference. Young children, let’s face it, aren’t the best subjects for plot; they don’t make sense, they’re thoroughly irritating, their motives are incredibly changeable, and their physical capabilities are small. Even older children are still children; they’re learning, changing, developing personalities. It’s hard to fit an eleven-year-old into “The World Is Ending” plot as anything other than a burden. Adults don’t listen to them, and usually don’t understand them.

Having said that…YA is changing the reading world. The Lord of the Flies was one of the first ‘adult’ books to have child protagonists; there are plenty of other examples, even if most are lumped into ‘children’s reading’. Harry Potter is as much for adults as it is for children; I can’t think of more off the top of my head (even though I know there are plenty!) but I’m sure that people will suggest some!

So, I think what I’m asking for is just a spare thought. When you consider your characters…do they have a child, or two, or three? Do they go home at night to a full and sleepy household, pick them up from school, help with their reading? Can the children be something other than plot devices? Can they have a little more of a hold on our hearts and our attention before they get kidnapped and used as hostages? Can we see the troubles and the pain, the sleepless nights and the daily, routine duties? Can we see a little more of the homely world that most people in your fantasy city would inhabit?

Author: kate

Kate Coe is an editor, book reviewer and writer of fiction & fantasy. She writes the sparkpunk GreenSky series and blogs at writingandcoe.co.uk. When she's not working, she fills her spare time in between writing with web design, gaming, geeky cross-stitch and DIY (which may or may not involve destroying things). She also reads far fewer books that she would like to, but possibly more than she really has time for.