Friday, May 2, 2014

Characters: Don't Cheat Your Children of the 3 C's

We all have our favorite literary characters. Characters like Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, and Bullwinkle J. Moose.
Obviously, some are more literary than others.
One shortcoming these three have in common is they’re all adults. 
Sort of.
Why is being an adult a shortcoming? Because maturation destroys the most precious qualities children possess: consciousness, curiosity, and credulity. The 3 C's.
Children see. They wonder. They believe.
Adults? Not so much.
Children see everything, touch everything, taste everything. They are sentient creatures. They are sponges disguised as human beings. 
Adults? More like rocks disguised as human beings. Dull. Doubtful. Dead.
The problem for writers? Most of us are adults. Our world is populated primarily by adults. And we tend to only write what we know. 
Oh, we know children exist, so we might add one here or there to our stories, but for the most part, we force child characters into the background where they exist merely as scenery or annoyances. 
Unless you want to explore themes of consciousness, curiosity, and credulity, like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Harper Lee did.
Children are especially conscious of the what is happening around them. Much as we deny it, we adults forget more in a day than we learn our whole lives because our sick brains figure that little of what we experience is really important to our existence. The child brain, on the other hand, believes everything is important. Everything is new. therefore, children pay close attention. 
Whether it seems like or not. Whether we want them to or not. 
Like to whatever we do, say, or insinuate. 
Dickens was a master at showing consciousness in such memorable characters as Pip in Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in….well, Oliver Twist.  The reader learns early in both books that while these boys knew little about their background, they certainly suspected much. 
Dickens revealed the answers to the mysteries through childlike eyes. Through young characters, he reminded us what it is like to be a child by recreating the child's world.
 Meanwhile, Twain epitomized a different essential aspect of childhood in two of his most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. While many academics dwell on the boys’ mischievousness and imagination, the trait that enables them to deal with life's difficulties is actually curiosity.
Their inquisitiveness has never failed to appeal to readers.
Even today in the 21st Century, child readers delight in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer because like them, Tom seeks to understand the workings of the world, the Mississippi River culture, and people in general. Like them, he looks for answers in literature and experience. Like them, he makes mistakes, but through bravado, ingenuity, and experimentation, he learns. 
The more Tom learns, the more he wants to learn. In his quest, he encounters––or creates––adventures that excite his own and the reader’s imagination.
But Twain doesn't stop with Tom Sawyer. He also gives his readers a chance to grow.
Inspired by Tom Sawyer, young readers turn to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, not simply because Huck is a contemporary of Tom, not simply because they are growing up and Huck seems more mature than Tom, but because, through trial after trial, Huck maintains his childlike innocence.
Throughout his trip down river with the slave Jim, Huck questions, doubts, and reflects on the actions of the adult world. What he learns, he doesn’t like. Nor do we. However, unlike the adults Huck encounters, he retains his curiosity, rejecting the world-weariness of the people he is told to emulate.
Creating genuine child characters is not exclusively a male thing, as evidenced by Harper Lee’s Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Whereas Pip and Oliver represent consciousness, while Tom and Huck display curiosity, Scout totally embodies credulity, the willingness to believe.
Credulity is the childhood trait most quickly lost, not only in literature, but in real life. The more often a child is disappointed, the more quickly credulity vanishes. For example, when a child learns the truth about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the tooth fairy, trust in the adult world vanishes. Doubt becomes a constant companion.
Scout, however, maintains her belief in her father, her brother, and the basic goodness of people despite the anger, violence, and bigotry of Depression-era Alabama. She sees a handicapped black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white girl. She watches as an angry mob threatens her father, Tom’s lawyer. Shortly afterward, Tom is killed by law-enforcement officers trying to escape. Scout herself is attacked as she walks home from a school program.
Despite these assaults on her welfare, Scout maintains faith in the goodness of people. The peaceful integrity of her father Atticus, the protection of town outcast Boo Radley, and the virtue of everybody important to her all vindicate Scout’s belief in humankind.
The three C's––consciousness, curiosity, and credulity––are only three childlike attributes authors can use to celebrate childhood. Others include a child’s willingness to persevere through disappointment and pain, their infectious and joyous laughter, and their instinctual reaction to new people. 
Not everything about childhood is praiseworthy. For example, you may want to avoid the screams of fast-food restaurant play areas, the savage games of dodgeball on the elementary school playground, and the pink and blue sticky fingers from eating a truckload of cotton candy. Just as you may want to avoid the profanity of highway construction sites, the pension fraud, and rumor-mongering when examining the adult world.
But if there’s anything we can learn from Dickens, Twain, and Lee, it is that child characters can teach us lessons that adult characters can only hint at.
The traits of consciousness, curiosity, and credulity can infuse your story, particularly your theme, with childlike hope and wonder. The best way to show them is not with adults, but with children themselves.