There’s a perception, particularly with books like Harry Potter or Pixar films, that they effectively treat their young characters the same as adults. In other words, the children aren’t shielded from complicated and difficult problems just because they’re not eighteen years or older. This, of course, is a closer mirror to reality, in which random circumstance doesn’t particularly care what age you are. Of course, the risk you run when you put children in adult situations is that it’s too easy to have them react not as a child would, but instead as an adult. A person with plenty of coping mechanisms, with decades of experience and, for better or for worse, a world-view.
A Monster’s Call is a movie (based on a novel) that attempts to cover this treacherous territory with a young boy – I didn’t get the age, but 12-14 years old? – whose dealing with his mother’s illness. The story, and the reason for the monster’s existence, revolve around the boy eventually coming to terms with that situation, among others, through a child’s methods. Namely, imagination. Connor doesn’t have experience with this. He doesn’t have solutions, and he doesn’t have the sort of vices that adults might use to cope with things beyond their control (drugs, alcohol, spur-of-the-moment month-long trips to island jungles to ‘reflect’).
The neat twist in this story is that the monster doesn’t indulge Connor. There is no escape here. The monster has no interest in helping Connor run from his problems, but rather attempts to help the boy find, if not answers, then at least an understanding of the situation. By the end, we don’t receive a magical fairy tale. We don’t get problems wrapped up in a box and presented with a bow. Connor hasn’t turned into a model human. What he has learned, however, is to live in his life rather than run from it.
It would be easy for the lessons here to come across heavy-handed. No, Connor, you can’t run. Be a man and deal with your issues. Fight the bullies. Stop whining. The sort of stuff we’ve seen plenty of times before and that would seem to rely on a character transformation un-earned by the kid we see at the start of such a story. A Monster Calls doesn’t presume to argue that Connor has some mighty valor hidden deep inside. He’s not a super hero at the beginning, and he’s not at the end. Not every change he makes is positive.
Now, what I’m taking from this as a writer is twofold:
- Child characters can handle adult scenarios, yes, but they should do so in a way that is in their worldview. They shouldn’t be mature, they shouldn’t be reasonable (for the most part), and they should respond with the naivety that makes childhood such an appealing topic in the first place. Whether that’s through imaginary friends, constant questioning of situations adults would take as normal, or other options, a child sees the world through a different lens as an adult, and the story should use that perspective.
- Don’t be afraid of putting your childhood characters in tough emotional situations. See how they handle it, and explore those opportunities. The way an 8 year-old handles the loss (or gain) of someone meaningful is going to be very different from a 45 year-old, or a teenager. As these situations occur, don’t run towards the easiest possible explanation. We’ve seen countless stories of kids lashing out when in strange scenarios – all too few really get in that child’s head to ask why, to attempt to discover just what is tales are being told in their minds to deal with the world they’re living in.
Of course, I’d recommend watching the movie as well, though you may want to have some tissues handy. A Monster Calls is streaming now on HBO.
And if you need another reason – Liam Neeson voices a giant tree creature who says more than “I am Groot”. It’s excellent.