1. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    How do I not make a child character the load/MacGuffin?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Link the Writer, Jan 28, 2016.

    And I mean a child character that is crucial to the plot, hangs around with the main character, but isn't the protagonist him/herself. In my novella, set in a fantasy universe, this child is three-years-old and journeys with the main character and her companions as they embark on a quest to reach a particular destination. It should probably also be noted that this child is not related to the MC or her companions. She was an orphaned kid, the sole survivor of a murder spree that claimed her family and the MC found her and took her.

    Problem is, I'm not sure how to properly write the child so she's more than just either the load (ie, someone only there for the MC to look after), or the MacGuffin (ie, the plot piece people desire. Well, one seedy person does desire this child, and the protagonist does want to protect her from that person, but that's not all this character is.) How can I depict the child as a well-rounded individual that won't make readers go, “Thank God! What was the point of her being there?!” once the story concludes and she goes away?

    Also, is her being three a little too young? Should I age her up to, say, 5 or 6? Would it be realistic if, over time, she developed an emotional bond with the MC and see her as a parent (or at least a sister/caretaker)?

    Thoughts?

    Disclaimer: I'm not, nor do I think I ever will be, a parent. So I've no clue at all.
     
  2. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    I'd be surprised if she could form complete sentences and have opinions of her own >.>
    Probably put her more a the 8-12 year mark.
     
  3. KhalieLa
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    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    If you want to go young your fine. Maybe think 4 or 5 years old.

    I have a random 7 year old that gets to say the darnedest things! I use him for my "out of the mouths of babes" moments.
     
  4. Robert Musil
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    Robert Musil Contributing Member

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    I don't really have an opinion on age; I don't have too much experience with small children either. I would wonder, though, if a 3 year old could even just physically keep up with adults traveling on a journey, especially if this is in a setting with low-tech means of travel (no trains or automobiles).

    Anyway: I think you've hit on the reason there aren't too many child MCs. In most societies (even fantasy ones), children are pretty much at the mercy of adults, and don't have enough agency to do anything interesting. There are some exceptions--in a school setting where the supervision isn't as close, or among homeless street children who are unsupervised and possibly living in a boxcar. But mostly this is just a hard issue to get around.

    Even a book famous for having a very fully-realized child protagonist, Ender's Game, only gets there precisely because the adults choose to empower the protagonist, because they need him to do something for them. The whole theme of the book is how, even though he's been given all this special attention and help and told how important his actions are, he still isn't really choosing anything for himself; he's just working for the grown ups.

    So...do I have anything actually helpful to say? I guess one way people get around this is by making a child the observer/commenter. Since they are so innocent and inexperienced, children often point out the little hypocrisies or white lies that grown ups use routinely. But this might not be enough to build a character around who's more than one-note.

    Also, I imagine a lot of children make up vibrant internal lives to compensate for their lack of external choices (at least, I remember this from my own childhood). Maybe there's a whole parallel story going on in the child's imagination? Or maybe (what a twist!) it turns out that the imaginary fairies or whatever the child keeps yammering on about have actually been following our heroes the whole time trying to sabotage them, and only the kid knows how to beat them?

    Anyway, this post turned out pretty rambling and unfocused, sorry :meh: I hope it's at least food for thought.
     
  5. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    That's what I'm suspecting myself. At age three, she likely wouldn't be able to keep up with the adult characters -- having to be carried most of the way. I imagine if she were six or seven, she'll be able to mostly keep up on foot, though she'd probably want to hold onto someone so she doesn't get too far back.

    If she were older (and I'm thinking she would be), she'd be able to engage in a bit more conversation with my adult characters than she would if she were just three.

    OK, so she'll be older than three. Six to eight at the most.

    That...might actually help me make her character more interesting than just the load/MacGuffin. She'll have a lot more interesting things to say and talk about, and she might even be helpful a time or two for my MCs.

    Perfect! :D

    I've not a whole lot of experience with children in fiction, but when reading Green by Jay Lake, the opening bits stated that the titular character was four or five, but she acted like a six to eight year old.

    I suppose the reason it's so difficult is because we adult writers don't have much experience around children unless we either taught in an elementary school or are parents ourselves, so we just do an arbitrary ‘they're younger than a teen’ and stick with that.
     

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