Raised in a small town, Teresa Frohock learned to escape to other worlds through the fiction collection of her local library. Teresa has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying. Miserere: An Autumn Tale, her debut novel, will be available in July from Night Shade Books. You can find her at www.teresafrohock.com.
Writing a realistic child character in any genre is probably one of the hardest things to do. Too often, I’ve seen novice fantasy writers present child saviors that act with more experience than they possibly could have acquired in their short lives. When these characterization defects are pointed out, the return cry from the author is that the character has an “old soul.”
Sorry, I’m not buying into the myth of the old soul. Nor do I believe an old soul gives a child instantaneous emotional maturity.
Guillermo del Toro rendered an eloquent old soul in Pan’s Labyrinth. In the opening narrative, we are told that Ofelia has been born many times, yet rather than give us a miniature adult, del Toro shows us the world through a child’s eyes. Better still, he gives us glimpses of Ofelia’s emotional growth throughout his tale so that, in the end, Ofelia’s actions are perfectly believable.
In the opening scenes when her mother is sickened by the car ride and asks the driver to stop, Ofelia doesn’t stay by her mother’s side. Instead, she wanders off to explore while the adults are preoccupied. Her curiosity and innocence are the first things we see.
Del Toro isn’t afraid to let Ofelia make childish mistakes. That’s not to say that Ofelia is presented as stupid. She proves herself to be quite intelligent and resourceful, but like a child, she doesn’t consider the ramifications of her actions before she acts.
After numerous admonishments to stay pretty for an upcoming dinner party, she impetuously hangs her dress on the olive tree and goes to do battle with the toad. She doesn’t contemplate how disappointed her mother will be when she returns to the mill, because in Ofelia’s mind, the battle must be fought now. She doesn’t consider whether she should wait.
Nor does she consider the consequences her actions will have on others. When she is stealing the dagger from the Pale Man, she gives in to her temptation and takes grapes from his table, thereby causing the death of two of the fairies. Only after she has returned safely to her room does she begin to understand the ramifications of her actions, and though she is genuinely sorry for the deaths she caused, del Toro doesn’t give us a quick fix by having the faun resurrect the fairies.
The faun berates her, harshly, just as her mother admonished her for ruining her dress. To reach emotional maturity, Ofelia must not only succeed, but she must also fail, for without failure, she has learned nothing. Del Toro shows us Ofelia’s growth symbolically by having her pass through tunnels and corridors as she emerges from each new experience. Her character matures, never all at once, but in increments.
Precisely the way we grow in real life.
It would have been easy for del Toro to have made Ofelia the savior of the rebels by cleverly foiling her step-father and saving the day, but del Toro wisely left Ofelia’s story distinct from that of the rebels. Their respective tales separate and overlap; the same way a child is immature in one moment and can show startlingly adult observations in the next.
In a novel, we as authors are condensing those years of a child’s growth into a very strict timetable, exactly as del Toro condensed Ofelia’s emotional growth into an 119 minute movie. That’s not an easy task, but done with care, authors can produce child characters that are not only believable, but memorable.
Let your child characters make mistakes so they can develop their emotional maturity over the course of your novel. Don’t pop them into the plot fully formed. Give your child character principles and allow them to practice those principles and fail, then allow them to learn from their failures. That is how an old soul is grown, by gradual nurturing, not with instant karma.