Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 16: The Flat Archetype of the Child

In many ways, the Child is hardly a Flat or unchanging archetype at all. Even though we often perceive and remember childhood as a chapter in which everything remained the same (until suddenly it didn’t), the years before puberty are, of course, some of the most rapidly transformational of any part of our lives.

I suppose you could argue for another important life arc in there somewhere. And yet for all children, there is also a definitive sameness to this period of life. No matter our individual personalities or family circumstances, we are all children—innocents, blank slates. More than that, we are free from the responsibility of growth that arrives with burgeoning adolescence and the onset of the Maiden Arc (which, as mentioned throughout this series, can and should be taken by everyone).

At first glance, the Child archetype also seems to be lacking in the Flat-Arc ability to transform the story world or supporting characters. However, I think any adult who has had a child enter his or her life will attest that few grown-ups are as utterly transformative and growth-inducing as are children!

More than that, the Child is often a surprisingly (if unwittingly) wise archetype. If we recognize that story structure always come full circle, we can see how the final character arc of the life cycle—the enlightened Mage—is in many ways a fulfilled return to the Child’s deep connection to and instinctive understanding of life.

In her book Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World, Carol S. Pearson opens her cycle of archetypes with what she calls the Innocent and ends (even after her Magician) with the Fool—which she also calls the Wise Innocent and which she considers the highest of all the archetypes. She speaks of this end-of-life return to the beginning in a way that highlights many of the inherent if unconscious attributes of the Child archetype:

So the circle is now complete, and we are ready to experience the cycle again—but this time beginning a new level. Because we have learned to enjoy life for its own sake, we need not protect our innocence with denial or hold on to conventionality to protect our “social places.” We know it is safe to trust, not so much because bad things do not happen in life but because we have learned about our great resilience.

If the Mage’s full-circle epiphany ends the life arcs, then it is the Child at the beginning who represents all this capacity for joy, innocence, trust, and resilience—but from a place of no power and no experience. As such, the Child is necessarily an archetype of deep vulnerability. As Joseph Campbell says in The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

…just beyond the parental watch is danger to the infant…

A fortunate Child will be protected from those dangers until adolescence finally demands an opening of the eyes and an embarkation upon the initiatory journey of the Maiden Arc. But even Children who are not forced to precipitously undertake their first change arc will still encounter many opportunities for adventures and discovery—particularly as they witness and influence the growth of supporting characters around them.

The Child Archetype: Untapped Potential

Previous Arc: [None]

Subsequent Positive Arc: Maiden

Subsequent Negative Archetypes: Damsel (passive); Vixen (aggressive)

The Maiden Arc is traditionally the “YA” time of a person’s life—beginning as early as puberty but often not fully completing until the mid to late teens. Therefore, the Child is an archetype we generally find represented by characters younger than thirteen or so. Their stories (as written by adults) are often full of magic and nostalgia. Even if the plot itself revolves around adults in difficult or even dark circumstances, the story is poignantly represented through the limited understanding of the Child protagonist.

Classics such as Anne of Green Gables and To Kill a Mockingbird show us adult worlds through the eyes of Child protagonists. Even when heavy subjects are at play (problematic foster systems and racial injustice, respectively), the stories themselves are surprisingly whimsical.

Want to know how to write child characters? Study Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Despite whatever difficulties these Child protagonists may have so far endured in their lives, they have yet maintained their innocence. They are yet “one” with society’s protective figures, un-individuated from those whom they trust (or at least hope) will care for their needs. They haven’t yet cultivated the cynicism or irony of someone who has learned “what the world is really about”—namely, taking responsibility for one’s self.

Anne of Green Gables is an obvious (and perhaps extreme) example of a Child protagonist who starts the story having undergone severe neglect and even abuse at the hands of foster families, and yet who miraculously and tenaciously clings to her childish wonder of a world that she persists in believing is glorious, romantic, and even magical.

The Child is an archetype of untapped potential. We all know this character will grow up, will hit puberty, will be confronted with the Maiden’s challenges of growing up. The innocence will be shaken and fade for at least a time. But within the Child archetype, we also find the promise of what can be reclaimed if this character is able to faithfully complete the cycle of life arcs.

The Child’s Normal World

The Normal World in which the Child begins the story is, at least symbolically, the Home. It is a comparatively small place, bounded by the rules, protection, and hopefully love of the Parent or other protective figure. Already we see where later archetypes might show up (the Parent/Queen as well as perhaps older siblings in the guise of Maiden or Hero).

Within this world, the Child has a surprising amount of freedom. Unlike later archetypes, the Child has few responsibilities imposed either from without or from within. The Child is free to roam, to play, and to discover. And usually, it is this propensity for discovery that creates the dilemmas and opportunities for the story’s plot.

Many an episodic children’s series (such as one of my childhood favorites, Trixie Belden) centers around the protagonist’s incorrigible curiosity and the mysteries they keep sniffing out book after book. Particularly in stories aimed at a child audience, these protagonists never change much, never grow up. But their innocence in “not knowing any better” often leads them to insights that the adults around them would never have noticed.

Some stories feature a Normal World that is not safe and static, but that is changing right around the Child protagonist, even though the Child doesn’t yet notice. The Child has no idea life is about to forever change (and probably launch a Maiden Arc). Rather, the character romps through the last halcyon adventures of a dying age, such as in Rob Reiner’s classic film Stand by Me, set in the 1950s (and based on a Stephen King story).

Stand by Me movie

The Child’s Relationship to the Thematic Truth

Although the Child will likely learn many things, he or she will not fundamentally change except perhaps at the very end of the story with the foreshadowing of the inevitable Maiden Arc to follow. Instead, as with all Flat-Arc characters, the Child will (probably unwittingly) convey a thematic Truth to at least one supporting character, who will change as a result. (The supporting character may or may not undergo a fully developed archetypal journey, depending on how prominent the role is.)

Because the Child has not, in fact, learned any archetypal Truths at this point in his or her young life, the thematic Truths in these stories tend to focus around the perennial themes and gifts of childhood: innocence, joy, love, presence, playfulness, loyalty, etc. The naïvety and innocence of the Child allows the character to believe in the uncorrupted virtues that many adults struggle with and/or mourn for the rest of their lives.

How the Child Creates Change in Supporting Characters

Unlike other Flat archetypes, the Child has not yet personally gleaned Truths that can be shared with younger characters. All of the characters will either be fellow Children at the same level of innocence or older characters who are much farther along the archetypal journey of growth.

And yet, the Child’s purity and innocent wisdom still has the ability to profoundly impact the change arcs of supporting characters. Even if the supporting characters should resist the change inspired by the Child, the audience will still understand the profundity of the Child’s simplicity. The Child has the opportunity to offer a sort of “redemption” or “return to innocence” for older, more hardened supporting characters. We can see this in Anne of Green Gables, in which the buoyant orphan Anne revitalizes the lonely and hardened older couple with whom she comes to live, and in Oliver Twist, in which Oliver (another orphan) inspires compassion and (ultimately fatal) virtue in the prostitute Nancy who tries to help him escape the criminal underworld of London.

Types of Stories That Feature a Child Protagonist

Even more than with most Flat-Arc archetypes, the possibilities for the type of story are particularly vast. The story can be fun and funny or dark and dangerous. It can be about the relationship between the Child and other Children, or about the Child and any of the adult archetypes. It may be a story of redemption for an adult character, or it may be a story about a family overcoming adversity. It can be set in any time or place and can be framed within any genre. It can be written for children or for adults.

Cozy mysteries and memoir-like adventures are popular and fun. But serious social commentaries from a child’s perspective, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, can be all the more powerful for their atypical narrator/protagonist.

In many ways, the “untapped potential” of the Child archetype makes it one of the most versatile of all the Flat archetypes. In fact, writing a Child character can invite us back into the uncensored creative options of this foundational period in all our lives.

Examples of the Child:

Examples of the Child archetype include the following. Click on the links for structural analyses.

  • Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Tom Sawyer in Tom Sawyer
  • Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables
  • Oliver Twist in Oliver Twist
  • Johnny Dorset in “The Ransom of Red Chief”
  • Nat Cooper in Forever Young
  • Trixie Belden in Trixie Belden
  • Gordie LaChance in Stand by Me

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the Flat archetype of the Lover.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature the Child? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Dennis M. Montgomery says

    I don’t really know about other authors, but I have feeling that writing child arcs are difficult. Most of us have lost that innocents or that sense of wonder that made the world so interesting and engaging. The older we get the harder it is for us to grasp it. I think it is funny, that the one thing we want as children is to be older and thus be wiser, yet when we become older we yearn to have an uncynical view of the world.

    Out of curosity, how many of us can write believable child characters?

    • LadyAnne says

      I think the difficulty of writing children is that people can overcompensate and make them TOO childish, TOO innocent. Children are smart. Children know what’s up. I don’t remember being a child. I remember being me. “Me” just happened to be seven years old.

    • Anthony Pero says

      “Out of curosity, how many of us can write believable child characters?”

      I would say that whether we can write a character that reads realistically as a child to a modern reader is beside the point. I’m not sure such characterizations actually effect the archetypal role that child might play in our stories. I think the archetype is less about the reality of being a child, and more about how the adult psyche processes childhood.

      I do think you are right, however; while I think it’s relatively easy to write a child as a non POV character, it can be very difficult to write a child’s POV. They make so many chaotic decisions that are in conflict with reality and their own minds, that it’s almost impossible to write from the POV of a small child. You almost have to write them as tiny teenagers.

    • Grace Dvorachek says

      I agree with LadyAnne… sometimes I feel like we underestimate children. When we were kids we thought that we were pretty smart–we thought we understood things (at least, I did). When adults would talk to me as though I couldn’t possibly understand something, I remember being very irked. That said, obviously children don’t understand a lot of things. But I feel like, in some ways, they possess knowledge we’ve forgotten.
      A lot of stories today focus on the bad side of people. And, obviously, we’re all bad to some extent. But I remember, as a kid, being so oblivious to that fact. Kids can be so trusting. I feel like adults have been in the “real world” for so long that they forget what being a kid was really like. Writers try so hard to write child characters that many of them miss the character altogether. Then the child ends up being just another mini adult or cliché kid.
      But they’re not adults. And they’re certainly not indistinguishable beings who all act and think the same. They’re humans, too. They’ve got their own opinions, their own personalities, their own emotional struggles. It may be on a lesser scale, but it’s still there.
      And, like LadyAnne said, most kids don’t really think of themselves as “kids.” They’re just themselves. I think if writers spend a little less time thinking of their Child character as just a child, and a little more time thinking of them as a person, we might find a few more believable kids in the world of fiction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It can be challenging, for sure, but there are authors that do it well. Harper Lee of course comes to mind.

      • Grace Dvorachek says

        I agree… though I’ve read many failed child characters, I’ve also certainly read my fair share of very believable kids.

        • Grace ~
          .
          Reading your comment, an interview with Andy Griffith came to mind. He was relaying one essential element about Mayberry. To paraphrase, there had to be that one character that had to be totally honest (for the humor to work) and that character was Opie.

          • Grace Dvorachek says

            Huh, that’s interesting. Opie sure can be honest, which makes for some good laughs. But it can also make for some good serious moments, too. Like when a child is the one who points out the MC’s Lie. It kind of stops them in their tracks because, not only is it so painfully true, but it’s also coming from the mouth of a kid. Most characters are supposed to have their secrets–their hidden opinions. But there are times when we need someone like Opie… someone who will just speak the truth.
            Thanks for the input–it helped clarify things in my mind!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            That immediately makes me think of the episode when Barney tries to become a wheeler-dealer realtor, and Opie ruins his sales because he insists on telling about the house’s problems. 😀

  2. Anthony Pero says

    What are your thoughts regarding Ender form Ender’s Game, in light of this archetype? While the events of this novel have a huge impact on him in later books, that first book, I think he quite nicely falls into this archetype. I love what OSC does with the character as the series progresses. I wonder how much of the archetypal cycle you are writing about is present in those original four novels of Ender’s life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. Good example! The children in that series are, of course, abnormally intelligent, so they don’t always “talk” like children. But many of their actions, especially Ender’s in the beginning of the first book, still maintain a certain “child logic.”

      • Anthony Pero says

        I think the black and white way Ender sees the world is very child-like. I realize that there are plenty of adults who see the world the same way, but I think part of maturing is losing that sense of certainty regarding how things are. Some of us, perhaps, double down on the security of false understanding, and fail in our own journeys with regards to that.

  3. Thanks for another great archetype distillation. These have generated such great questions to ponder, bringing greater depth to my characters and plots. I used to be a teacher. As I read through this post, I kept seeing my students and imagining how I would write from their perspective. I taught at all levels, so I have been thinking about what the different ages of childhood bring to the character table, how each grade-level would be a different type of catalyst. Like using Kg-Gd2’s lack of “appropriate conversation filter” in asking any and every question that some might be thinking but no one older would ever ask out loud. Each stage of development brings such potential for wonder and conflict. I’m even pondering if I could include a child POV in the sci-fi series brewing in my mind, if there is a place where that unfiltered, unchanging catalyst would be the best voice to tell the story. So, thanks again for this great series!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice! As I was reading your comment, it occurred to me that someone with your insight into and experience with a range of young age groups might be able to provide a resource (a book even) that would be helpful to writers trying to get back into the mindset of their younger selves. Just an idea. 🙂

      • I’ll have to think about that. Thanks for the idea! 🤔

        • I liked Linda Sonna‘s – “The Everything Tween Book: A Parent’s Guide”.  It covers the 8 to 12-year-old range (Hey MG).  She goes into their brand of logic and what motivates them, the reasons behind the misinterpretations and conflicts that occur during interactions between adults and tweens, and how tweens interact with each other.  It helped me climb back into that mindset.

  4. Grace Dvorachek says

    Would a child who acts as a mentor (giving advice, etc.) be an actual Child or a Mentor? I know for the Positive Change Arcs, you said that their archetype depended on what stage of life they were at. Would this also be true for the Flat Arcs?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Both potentially, in that a child can mentor and a mentor can be childlike. However, the archetypal Mentor, as we’ll discuss him later in the series, is specifically someone who has progressed through all of the life arcs up to the Mage. It’s possible in certain storytelling contexts that a child character could represent this, but realistically it’s unlikely.

      • Anthony Pero says

        In the context of something like a cycle of rebirth, a Mage might become a physical child again, and not have any of the memories, but somehow retain the wisdom. Or such wisdom could peek through only occasionally, allowing a Child character to inhabit the mantle and energy of the Mentor briefly.

        If reincarnation exists in your worldbuilding, then presumably, every character has already gone through all of the archetypes and journeys presented here—they just don’t remember the lessons.

        Viewed through this lens, something like the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan could be viewed as the story of Rand al’Thor’s journey from Maiden to King, at which point he stalls, briefly descending into Tyrant until his fractured psyche reintegrates with his past lives. This reintegration jumps him from King—right past Mentor, a state he’d already reached in previous lives—to Mage. His arc in the last two books would then take him from Mage to Saint.

        This is a very interesting framework to consider, especially in the context of a long series like that. Thank you!

        • Grace Dvorachek says

          Okay, thank you both! I was mainly thinking of a kid who innocently gives some very sage advice without even perhaps understanding the full extent of the situation. I see now that would probably be a Child and not a Mentor, as the character I have in mind wouldn’t be reincarnated or anything.
          @KM: Love the posts… keep ’em coming!

  5. Joan Kessler says

    I love children’s books and read them regularly. For some reason, I was not much of a reader growing up, not like now, so I’m enjoying a prolonged childhood, at least in print!
    That’s a great note about the way a Child character can impact the change arcs of supporting characters, and in turn impact the plot.
    Would you include Lennie from “Of Mice and Men” in this archetype?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ah, interesting that you bring up Lennie. He’s obviously a complex presentation of the archetype, but, yes, I believe he’d be a Child.

  6. Lazar Milo says

    A great example of how powerful a story can become when viewed through the lens of a child is The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas. The emotional impact is magnified for the reader because we are allowed to revert to a state of innocence on such a serious subject.

  7. Yet another compelling post. I don’t think I’ve written a child character in my adult writing career, and I find myself wondering why. I suppose I’ll learn the same is true for the other flat arc characters, but I think children offer a remarkable opportunity to bring reality to other characters. They can act as foils by asking questions others may be too mature to ask. They can raise the stakes by almost compelling protection without potentially negative gender commentary. They can act as catalysts for insight and transformation.

    I tend to write more adult fantasy, and I think it would be hard to develop that from a child MC perspective because I think you really do want a positive or negative arc most of the time. But I’m feeling a bit disturbed that I’ve never seriously considered using a child as a major support character. And there’s definitely room for a child POV in a multi-POV novel.

    Thanks again for teaching an old dog a new trick, or it least getting him to chase after an interesting new scent.

  8. Another excellent child character can be found in Katherine Applegate’s book Crenshaw where the child protanganist, Jackson, deals with his family becoming homeless and ‘car camping.’ The author interviewed children from a special school for homeless children and her research and empathy for their experiences really shows. It’s a brilliant example of both the innocence and the wisdom of the child as well as showing how adults underestimate what they do know.

  9. This post helped me to understand why so many comic strips feature children as a main character. Probably because people look to comics for nostalgia and family-friendliness. But also because the children characters can keep having essentially the same adventures for years of publication without it seeming too weird.

    From your examples of novels, I’m realizing that children protagonists are often useful for counterpointing the lost innocence of the world around them, sometimes giving an entry point to address horrific acrocities. This could be a reason why many movies that have children on the cover end up being about post-apocalyptic wastelands. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, stories heavily featuring children will be about adults learning to have fun and open their imaginations.

    So the tone of children-focus stories tends to be really extreme: The devastating Holocaust novel “Tzili: The Story of a Life” by Aharon Appelfeld or the Adam Sandler summer vacation romp “Grown-ups.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agree with everything you’ve said! In regards to comic protagonist, Calvin & Hobbes immediately came to mind.

  10. KM ~
    .
    Gonna take this chance to ramble out some thoughts on the Child and their representation in the two Disney flicks of Mary Poppins–particularly Mary Poppins Returns (MPR, 2018).
    .
    *SPOILERS FOLLOW*
    .
    From what I’ve read out of your post, the flat Child is easy to see in Jane and Michael (J&M) from the first Mary Poppins (1964). It is the father, George Banks, who undergoes a positive change arc (I’ll venture Snow Queen to King). J&M are children at the beginning and are such at the end, never having to face a thematic truth (despite Bert’s speech from when they’re lost).
    .
    I submit, the writers/producers of MPR wanted the same for the children in that flick. Perhaps they have accomplished what they want, but for reasons that stick in my craw (putting it politely). John, Annabel and Georgie (JA&G) DO have a thematic truth to face, they DO have to change, they DO learn something about life that smashes their world (the home) to pieces! I mean that literally. Inside I am so angry at the flick for its failure. Perhaps because I lost my father at a young age, but let’s not boil this analysis down to one personal thing.
    .
    Jumping to the point, the adult Michael properly grieves the loss of his wife (as does Sam Baldwin in Sleepless in Seattle, but don’t get me started on Jonah). But JA&G are not so allowed–I mean that literally too. They instead have to be Michael’s source of strength. Childhood, in the way you mean it, is forced upon them and they are Michael’s pillars in a reverse of roles. They become the protective parent even though the writers will have you believe they remain children. All this in spite of the loss of their mother (Queen?).
    .
    To illustrate, there’s that first “Good Night” scene where JA&G speak to Poppins of their mother. Poppins kicks out this wonderful song about the stars and lost loved ones. It’s perfect, in that Poppins way, except the children are NOT allowed to cry, not even a few quiet tears. Annabel even goes to the window and joyfully smiles. That one less-than-a-minute scene kills the whole flick for me. Children can be sad, should be sad, even in the magical world of Mary Poppins. (Hook, 1991, does this also with Pan and the boys dancing and celebrating while Rufio’s body is laying around somewhere in the battlefield.)
    .
    The rest of MPR plays out where the grown Michael comes to terms with his grief, the home is saved, JA&G remain children. I don’t know if there’s a kicker to this reaction of mine except maybe a message to prospective writers: Look again before keeping your child characters, “Child” characters when life throws them under the bus.
    .
    ~ P

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for sharing this. I didn’t resonate with the recent Mary Poppins and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. This could be the reason. I’ll have to think about it some more.

  11. Excellent article. Gave me lots to think about. Thank you.

  12. Was just thinking about how great a sequel Doctor Sleep is to The Shining, and it occurs to me in The Shining the Danny character is in a Child Arc, but in Doctor Sleep he grows up and is in either a Crone or Mage arc. I’m leaning towards Crone but will have to think about it more. Also, in Doctor Sleep there is another character he acts as Mentor to, but she’s in either a Maiden or Hero arc. Really hard to decide which. It might be both characters are in double arcs. Loved Doctor Sleep so much — I’m not a huge fan of the Shining, but the sequel is done so right it elevates it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] If you’re developing your characters, Janice Hardy helps us make sense out of character wants and needs, and K. M. Weiland gives us part 16 of her series archetypal character arcs: the flat archetype of the child. […]

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