If you’re a writer you’ll know that characters need a weakness. Sometimes it’s called the ‘fatal flaw’. General writing advice is directed at writers making stories for adults. So I will take a close look at some classic and popular children’s stories asking the question: Do characters in children’s stories also need a fatal flaw?
WEAKNESS AND ITS LINK TO DESIRE
Here’s another slightly more complex writing rule: Your character’s weakness is linked to their desire:
- A story only becomes interesting to the audience after the desire comes into play.
- Desire drives the story.
- Desire is intimately connected to need. In most stories, when the hero accomplishes their goal, they also fulfill their need.
- Need has to do with overcoming a weakness within the character.
- Desire is a goal outside the character.
- Need and desire have different functions in relation to the audience. Need lets the audience see how the hero must change to have a better life, but it remains hidden, under the surface.
- Desire gives the audience something to want along with the hero. Desire is on the surface and is what the audience thinks the story is about.
— John Truby from his screenwriting book, Anatomy of Story
DESIRE AND NEED IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
Children’s writers have to deal with something other writers do not: The expectation from a large proportion of the book-buying public that the empathetic character behaves in a model-like fashion. And if they don’t? That’s okay, so long as they’re punished.
Must Children’s Book Characters Treat Others Badly?
After looking at a lot of children’s books with this exact question in mind, the answer is no. There are several reasons for this:
- Some characters in children’s books represent the Every Child. When a reader is meant to paste themselves onto the character we don’t want that character to be too specific. For similar reasons a lot of picture book characters are cartoon-like and minimalist. (For more on that see Taxonomy Of Detail In Character Illustration.) Even in stories for older readers, these Every Child characters are given a ‘cosmetic’ weakness rather than a psychological and moral one, which makes them far more generic and less interesting. For instance, a common cosmetic weakness in young adult romance is ‘clumsy’. Bella Swan is one example. Even in stories for adults you’ll find the Every Man. Susan from Desperate Housewives is clumsy but this clumsiness functions to provide comedy. Susan has many other psychological weaknesses. She is unconfident and needy but also fake-nice and backstabbing. Susan’s clumsiness has nothing to do with storytelling.
- There are gatekeepers of children’s literature — people responsible for buying the books and putting them into children’s hands — who choose literature with the philosophy that characters in stories need to serve as role models for good behaviour. These people might approve of characters who treat others badly but only if that character is punished. For more on that see Picturebook Study: In Which Baddies Get Their Comeuppance.
- The wish to avoid child characters as morally corrupt may come from JudeoChristian thought in which it is thought that people enjoy an ‘age of innocence’. Strictly speaking, we’re better off using the phrase ‘age of accountability’ because the Bible does not suggest at any point that children are sinless, but rather that children can’t be held accountable for certain things due to their inexperience. Thirteen is the most common age suggested for the age of accountability, based on the Jewish custom that a child becomes an adult at the age of 13. This is no doubt related to The Magical Age of 12 in children’s literature. (There’s nothing in the Bible, however, to suggest 13 is a significant age.)
- Complex, rounded characters simply aren’t necessary in all types of stories. For action stories with exciting plots, or genre fiction — such as mysteries and thrillers — all the reader really wants is a great story. In fact, the characters can’t change all that much if the book is part of a series. Series fiction is very popular with young readers and the best-selling books are all part of a series, year after year.
The view that badly behaving children’s characters must be punished is increasingly challenged, mostly by writers and publishers who refuse to believe in the concept of the young reader as tabula rasa (blank slates), who trust children and young adults to read critically and not blindly follow their main characters into bad situations. The modern main character in children’s stories will most definitely have both a psychological weakness and a moral weakness. In other words, they will be treating others badly in some way.
This wasn’t always the case, and if you take a look at books from the First And Second Golden Ages Of Children’s Literature you’ll find many more Mary Sue/Pollyanna types, who have been written as model children for young readers to emulate. These characters are not well accepted by contemporary young readers, who have a vast selection of books to choose from and are not stuck with moralistic stories as earlier generations were.
The idea of child readers as tabula rasa was particularly strong in the Victorian era, and if young readers didn’t want moral stories they really only had the Gothic to turn to. These stories offered all the bloodshed, villainy and titillation lacking in the ‘stories for children’.
Not all writers of children’s stories are interested in this concept. Hayao Miyazaki has never formally studied screenwriting or storytelling technique, and goes about creating his Studio Ghibli films in his own auteur fashion. Miyazaki’s main characters don’t tend to have an external desire. He doesn’t bother with that. They do have psychological needs, however, and by the end of the story they haven’t necessarily got anything they wanted — but by immersing themselves in a new world, they have grown emotionally.
For this reason I feel the very concept of desire is a Western one. In Japanese language, to say “I want” something is considered childish and you’ll rarely hear those words (even though the grammar and words for desire exist). Instead, a Japanese interlocutor will avoid the assumption that you are a spoilt baby with desires and ask you what you ‘need’. English: “Do you want a drink of water?” becomes “Do you need a drink of water?” I believe Hayao Miyazaki brings his specifically Japanese sensibilities towards ‘desire’ to the table when creating his main characters — Chihiro doesn’t seem to want anything in Spirited Away — she is simply there, and if she works hard, things will come good. Desperately wanting to turn her parents back into humans would probably work against her cause.
Common Character Weaknesses In Children’s Books
They may be common but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep using them:
- Naivety. This is arguably the biggest weakness any children’s book hero has. It’s a good one, too, because the child can’t help it. Failure to understand the world is an easy weakness to improve upon over the course of the story, providing ample opportunity for a character arc. Hence, every story is a coming-of-age story.
- Cheekiness. These characters are fun to be around. They won’t let horrible adults get away with treating kids badly without at least a little backchat. Judy Moody.
- Talking too much. Anne Shirley grew up in an age when children should be seen and not heard. There are many modern Anne Shirleys, always getting into trouble but adorable nonetheless.
- Shyness. Then you have your socially anxious characters who don’t find themselves in trouble with authority but who must learn to stand up for themselves and others, and for what they truly believe in.
Below are some modern and not so modern case studies of weakness and desire in (Western) children’s literature.
THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT BY KATE DICAMILLO
DiCamillo conveys the main character’s (Peter’s) desire by having him visit a fortune teller at a marketplace. This is a nice way of introducing desire, because it ‘shows’ rather than needing the unseen narrator to spell it out. DiCamillo is also a little tricky about how she reveals Peter’s desire — the masterful thing she does here is making the reader wonder what it is that Peter needs to know. DiCamillo understands that the reader needs to know what Peter wants, and she withholds this information for a few pages in order to create suspense.
He put the coin in his pocket. He took the soldier’s hat off his head and then put it back on. He stepped away from the [fortune teller’s] sign and came back to it, and stood considering, again, the outrageous and wonderful words.
“But I must know,” he said at last. He took the florit from his pocket. “I want to know the truth. And so I will do it.”
[several pages later]
Peter felt a small stab of fear. What if, after all this time, he did not really want to know?
“Speak,” said the fortune-teller. “Ask.”
“My parents,” said Peter.
“That is your question?” said the fortune teller. “They are dead.”
Peter’s hands trembled. “That is not my question,” he said. “I know that already. You must tell me something that I do not know. You must tell me of another–you must tell me…”
The fortune-teller narrowed her eyes. “Ah,” she said. “Her? Your sister? That is your question? Very well. She lives.”
Peter’s heart seized upon the words. She lives. She lives!
In this way, the reader can guess already, after only four pages of story plus one full-page illustration, that Peter desires to find his lost sister. Several lines later, in case the young reader missed it:
“If she lives, then I must find her; so my question is, how do I make my way there, to where she is?”
The reader wants Peter to find his sister and will now follow him on his journey through this intriguing world full of magical realism.
When we first meet Peter he is struggling internally with a moral dilemma: Should he spend the coin on food, as instructed by an adult in a position of authority, or does he use it to possibly find out about his lost sister?
Peter doesn’t know which adult to believe. Does he believe his soldier-caregiver who says his sister is dead, or does he believe a disinterested but shady fortune-teller who says his sister is alive? Peter’s main weakness at the beginning of the story is that he is looking to adults to know what to believe. Over the course of the story he must mature by relying upon his own inner compass. Until he learns to trust in himself, he won’t be able to lead a good life, because other people don’t have his best interests at heart.
GINGER PYE BY ELEANOR ESTES
In this classic story, the desire of main characters Jerry and Rachel changes over the course of the book, from wanting a dog of their own, to wanting their beloved dog back after he is stolen. The desire is established as soon as the book opens:
Would Gracie-the-cat be jealous if the Pyes got another pet — a dog? That was what Jerry Pye wanted to know and what he was dreaming about as he sat with Rachel, his sister, on their little upstairs veranda.
In case the young reader has missed it, the second paragraph opens with:
The one thing that Jerry Pye wanted more than anything else in the world right now was a dog. Ever since he had seen the new puppies over in Speedys’ barn, he was not only more anxious than ever to have a dog, he was most anxious to have one of these Speedy puppies.
There are 14 chapters in this book. The first desire is met in chapter two when Jerry and Rachel earn a dollar and are able to buy the dog they want. This might mean the end of the story, unless something else happens: the book turns into a crime story/mystery when they feel they’re being followed by a ‘mysterious footstepper’, and the dog goes missing in chapter 7. The following 6 chapters detail the lengths Jerry and Rachel go to in looking for their dog. Naturally, the dog is found in chapter 14, and there the story ends, because order has been restored.
The main problem Jerry and Rachel have is that they
- Are too trusting of people who shouldn’t be trusted
- They jump to conclusions, making them terrible amateur detectives.
The adults in their lives also suffer from these character flaws, which one could argue are strengths as much as they are flaws. They trust Wally Bullwinkle, who has stolen the dog, because they get it into their heads that the dog thief is your archetypal criminal — a grown man. Yet they jump to this conclusion with no proof whatsoever, and even draw a sketch for the local policeman, who is influenced thusly.
By the end of the story they have discovered the truth of what happened, and are berated by the local policeman for drawing a misleading sketch. They have presumably learnt a lesson about making up stories:
[The Chief of Police] came by just then, having had his buns and coffee at last, to make a report on latest developments. […] “The young-uns threw me off the track with that picture they drewed of the man.”
“We thought Wally Bullwinkle was just a boy in my class,” explained Jerry apologetically, for now it seemed as though , from the beginning, it should have been as plain as the nose on his face that Wally had been the thief. “We didn’t know Wally was a thief and he didn’t look like the picture we drew of the unsavory character. We didn’t know an unsavory character could be just a boy in my class,” said Jerry.
The confrontation/acknowledgement above occurs just three pages before the end of the novel. The final three pages are used to show that everyone is happy now and back to normal.
Estes makes use of dramatic irony throughout Ginger Pye — the young reader will work out long before Jerry and Rachel do that Wally Bullwinkle is the dog thief. We’ve given more than enough clues. This makes the reader feel smart, and has a pedagogic effect of conveying the message that ‘bad people are everywhere; they are among the people you know’. This also means in effect that the main part of the story is the moral need of Jerry and Rachel rather than the desire to have their dog — this being a children’s book, we know this is probably going to happen (unless you’ve read Where The Red Fern Grows, in which case you might be bracing yourself for sadness…).
MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS BY LISA YEE
The main character of this book is a nerdy genius type who is starting senior high school at the tender age of eleven. Millicent’s surface desire is to be accepted in the college course she will be attending for the first time.
She wants someone to sign her high school yearbook, even as she is dismissive of the hysteria end-of-school seems to inspire in others.
After a while it became clear that I wasn’t on the top (or even on the bottom) or anyone’s autograph list.
Millicent’s medium-term goal is to become valedictorian.
Maybe when I’m valedictorian my autograph will be more sought after.
The reader is also told about Millicent’s long-term goals at the end of the first chapter, but none of this exposition is really about Millicent’s desire line — rather, it’s to explain Millicent’s psychological and moral needs:
“I know exactly where I’m headed.” It’s true. I’ve mapped out my goals for the next fourteen years.
“Try veering off the road now and then,” Maddie suggested as she lugged her dragon around the room. “Take a few side trips, see where you end up. You might be pleasantly surprised.”
I stifled a laugh as I sipped my lemonade. Everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Why would I want to take any other route?
We learn at the beginning of chapter two that she plans to win the Fields Medal by the age of twenty, or possibly 23. We’ve also told that this medal is for high achievers under 40. We can see that Millicent may be smart, but she has no real concept of age, which places her firmly as a child (at least, in an adult reader’s mind).
Millicent is not well-liked by the older students in her class, for reasons that are obvious to the reader, but not to her. The reader sees how she is accepted only by adults and fellow nerdy types. In self-centred fashion, Millie writes a list of things to do with her grandmother over summer, ignoring the possibility that her grandmother might want to do a few things on her own.
In order to have a better life, Millicent needs to learn some humility and genuine wisdom. As it happens, we have been clued into her psychological and moral weaknesses in the opening paragraph, so we can expect that by the end of the novel, these traits have been somewhat ameliorated:
I have been accused of being anal retentive, an over-achiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things. My disposition probably has a lot to do with the fact that I am technically a genius.
Does the reader really want Millicent to become valedictorian? I actually don’t! Not without becoming a better person. The rest of the book will be about Millicent becoming a better person, treating others better and coming to grips with some of her own more disastrous quirks. This will allow plenty of room for comedy, often with Millicent as the butt of the joke.
THE BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA BY KATHERINE PATERSON
Sure enough, Jessie Oliver Aarons, Jr has a clear desire, explained to the reader at the very beginning of the story: Jesse wants to be the fastest runner in school. In the first scene, he is getting up early to train.
Remember that scenes also need their own desires. Jesse’s ‘mini’ desire in the opening scene is to make it downstairs without waking anyone up, because ‘Momma would be mad as flies in a fruit jar if [he] woke her up at this time of day.’
This is one of those stories in which the reader is encouraged to feel sorry for a boy who is surrounded only by sisters. (Aside: Does the inverse story work, too, in which we feel bad for a girl because she only has brothers? Or is it more likely that she’s ‘lucky’, because she turns out a ‘tomboy’?) Basically, Jesse is lonely. This is his psychological need. Paterson subversively turns this into a feminist-friendly story by having a girl move in next door, rather than a boy. Jesse’s moral need is that he is dismissive of girls in general as companions.
Four year olds were a pure pain.
This is something he, as well as readers, have absorbed from the dominant culture — it is genuinely problematic when he is forced to wear his sister’s ‘girl’ shoes to school. But over the course of the novel Jesse learns to form a friendship with a girl despite her gender, and as a consequence he learns to appreciate his little sister May Belle more, and treat her as a companion rather than as a nuisance. Jesse also learns to embrace the parts of himself which are considered ‘feminine’ such as his love of drawing. This, too, is established early on.
Ever since he’d been in first grade he’d been that “crazy little kid that draws all the time.”