Y is for Youth

Y is for Youth

He was little, that was the first thing. Standing up, he might only come to her knee, but otherwise he was a perfect little scale-model in miniature. His shell was a kind of bright bluish-green, cheerful in the sunlight, and his tiny antennae jittered like the wind-up arms on a tin toy. He was wearing a toddler’s tee, pulled up and secured with bands of electrician’s tape into something like a cotton harness. His pants were pajama bottoms, dark blue with rocket ships and stars on them, pulled up and fastened at the knee-joint with neon-colored hairties in pink and green. He was sitting in the dirt, in between the blade of a lawnmower and some massive soot-black engine, with half a milk jug and some tin cans before him, playing Trucks. –Cottonwood

* * *

“I was well into my majority when he was born, yet well I remember him as a lad, lining his iron warriors across the foot of his bed and striding before them, giving the most heartening battle addresses ever issued from the mouth of a six-years’ before marching them to their fates.  And the medals he gave to the victors, ha!  And the funerals to the fallen…”  —The Army of Mab

* * *

So you’ve gotten over your fear of alien interspecies sex and your character has spent the night being written into several compromising positions with a variety of jointed, barbed and prehensile appendages. Now that she just might be getting ready to lay two or three thousand eggs, it’s probably a good time to mention that sex has consequences.



Adding children to your non-human race subtlely suggests continuation and how they raise them allows you to demonstrate your race’s core beliefs without relying on narrative or expositional chunks of text. In fact, one of the best summaries of a people I’ve ever read came directly from a scene with children, from a comic book series called ElfQuest, by Wendy Pini: Children of the Go-Backs play with sharp things. One line. Eight words. And doesn’t that just tell you everything you need to know about them?

But I don’t see a lot of children in sci-fi and fantasy, unless the kid is the hero or the sarcastic guttersnipe sidekick. But why would you, some argue? Unless you’ve got one of your own, how many kids do you see socially, really? It’s true that kids are a lot like Bigfoot—you hear them and smell them a lot more often than you see them, unless you go someplace where they’re known to congregate, like a bouncy house or a Disney movie (‘they’ being kids, not Bigfoot).


Although old ‘Foot does like him a good bouncy house.

So why worry about it? Well, there was a time in the history of sci-fi when a writer could make an alien culture or scientific speculation the whole point of the book, but these days, even sci-fi is supposed to have a plot. In most ways, that’s a good thing. I’m not saying hard science sci-fi is bad. I’m just saying it’s boring. I buy books because I want to hear a good story. I write books because I want to tell a good story. So in that sense, I think it’s great that a writer should be more story-driven than world-driven.

However, the non-human race and non-Earth world is what separates sci-fi and fantasy from other genres, so as writers, we have to make room for those elements in our stories. And while it’s relatively easy to introduce physical traits—the glow of the fey lord’s eyes, the sickly yellow color of the alien sky, the unnatural cold of the selkie’s skin—cultural differences are what really set ‘us’ apart from ‘them’ and they can be more difficult to work in. In my extremely limited experience, the best way to bring out your non-human race’s non-humanness is with five fundamental aspects: sex, death, status, religion and children. The first four probably seem self-evident, but why children? Say your book doesn’t have a smartass orphan pickpocket or endless prissy princess escort quest (thank you for that, by the way). You’re not writing about kids, so why waste time developing cultural attitudes about them?

Because the tree grows as the sapling is bent. In other words, even without kids in your book, your characters were children once and those cultural attitudes made them who they are as adults. In order for you to portray them as multi-dimensional, fully-realized people, they have to have a history, not just a personality. So with that in mind, let’s begin at the beginning.

Birth. A birthing scene is inherently dramatic even when it takes place in a hospital with a doctor telling how to do it. Remove that familiar setting and you create a sense of unpredictability that amps up the tension even more. Do your non-humans even view childbirth as a medical issue? Historically, many people turned to midwives, an occupation usually held by females, who specialize in helping women give birth. Some were trained in this craft, others experienced mothers themselves, and still others a kind of combination healer-hedgewitch who, for all the respect afforded her for her skill, might be otherwise ostracized by her neighbors.

baba yaga

Can’t imagine why.

And what about the birth itself? In some cultures, giving birth was considered a community event and the mother-to-be might expect to see relatives, friends, neighbors and even total strangers traipse in and out of her room, munching canapés and remarking on her performance. For others, childbirth was a solitary affair in which the expectant mother would build a temporary shelter away from her people and remain there until the baby arrived, without help of any kind. For some cultures, only women were permitted to come into contact with the mother-to-be; for others, only family members (related by blood, excluding the baby’s father). Not too long ago, right here in America, it was unthinkable that the mother should have visitors while giving birth. In order to be with his sister while she had her first baby, my father had to register at the hospital as the father of the baby. He did it again a few months later for his other sister. And again a few months later when my mother went into labor. The nurses were really starting to give him dirty looks by then.

mean nurse

“Exactly how many more arrivals can we expect to see this year, Mr. Smith?”

Once the little bundle of drooling delight shows up, there comes the question of what to do with it. For most cultures, the mother provides most if not all of the child’s immediate need, with or without the help of relatives or a mate. Because this is so readily assumed, it’s a fun thing for a writer to play with. In Arcadia, Taryn naturally expects to care for little Lugh as she did for Aisling, but Antilles, as Lord of the Valley, just as naturally assumes Lugh will have a wetnurse and nanny and live in the palace nursery where he grew up. In Olivia, the mother has the sole care of her offspring, but is not permitted to provide for herself; the same gullan who have adopted the radical (for them) notion of a female leader are utterly incapable of allowing the same woman to have a baby but not a mate. For my alien yang’ti in Cottonwood, marriages are extraordinarily rare and parenting is left almost exclusively to the father after the egg hatches. And as I’ve said before, in Heat, neither biological parent is involved in childrearing; women raise adopted daughters and men raise adopted sons.

Once the child hits a certain stage of development, people begin to groom it to join society. For most of us, this means some form of education, and as with childcare, I tried to handle it a little differently with every new race. In Heat, I imagined schools would be for higher education only, with the parent providing the basics; Tagen mentions his father trained him from childhood to enter the Academy, said training often consisting of taking the young boy out into the woods and leaving him there. In Arcadia, the Farasai foals are placed in whatever capacity around the kraal they are most suited to and once they take their paints (at around two years old) this will be their job for life. In The Last Hour of Gann, Meoraq, like all boys born to the warrior’s caste, is sent to the Training Hall at the age of three, returning home only for the coldest part of winter. His lessons include reading, writing, science and all that jazz, with an emphasis on the tenets of his religion and laws, but the real focus would have been on physical training and combat techniques.

Eventually, there comes a time when the child is ready to become an adult  and here is where I think we in America have really dropped the ball. See, we don’t have any real ceremony of recognition for young adults. There’s just this blurry phase wherein the kid ideally has a job and most of the typical adult skills, but the parents still provide for most of his care. The closest thing we have to a rite of passage is high school graduation. For most of us, adulthood is a magic number. At eighteen, the law recognizes you as an adult, whether you’re ready or not. In my house, we weren’t adults until we moved out and even then, it was more probation than anything else. I’m almost forty and I still get The Look when I cuss in front of my father.

The reason why adulthood rites are phasing out of fashion across the world is pretty obvious, though: they’re usually incredibly dangerous or painful. I guess the idea is that adults have to deal with the tough stuff whereas kids can still run away or cry or just use common sense to avoid situations where you have to jump off a rickety tower straight into the ground with a frickin’ vine tied to your ankle to break your fall.

land diving

In fact, my mother specifically told me NOT to do this.

Rites of adulthood throughout history and around the world provide eye-opening or occasionally eye-scrunching and cringing examples of what you might consider for use in your alien world. Ritual purifications are a common theme—through intense fasting, sweating, smoke-smudging or just plain bathing—as are tests of endurance, such as ritual beatings or prolonged periods of sleeplessness. Some, especially boys, may be expected to go on a hunt or a raid, proving their right to be called a man through combat. Spiritual worthiness may be tested—many cultures send their youths into the wilderness to invite spiritual direction; others use hallucinogens or other ceremonial drugs to allow the adult-to-be access to the invisible world around them. Stoicism is often a key element of these rites of passage; the young girls of the Mentawai Islands who have their teeth sharpened (with a stone knife or chisel!), the Fula girls who have intricate tattoos raised across their faces by repeated stabbing from sharp sticks, and the many cultures who beat, whip, scar or circumcise boys and girls—all are expected to endure it without giving any sign of pain. Sexual initiations may also occur, as young men and women are instructed by older, experienced persons in various practices or pleasures. (Oddly, from everything I’ve read, this is not as fun as it sounds.)

One last thing (and now that I think about it, it really should have been the first thing). When writing children, give them personalities of their own beyond being cute and take special care to portray them realistically and intelligently. You can’t write them like adults, unless you want them to seem creepy and socially awkward, and you have to be careful of writing them too simply or they’ll come across as idiots. Remember that real children tend to avoid abstract concepts in favor of definite ones; a kid is far more likely to refer to someone else as “the fat man” or “the man with the puppy” than “the nice man”. Avoid overly innocent mannerisms and speech. The best example I’ve been given of this pitfall is the child character who asks, “Why are your eyes wet, Mommy?” Kids cry all the time; they know what crying is. It may be scary to see the infallible Mommy doing it, so they may start crying too or ask her what’s wrong, but they know what she’s doing. On the flip-side is the child who doesn’t know why Mommy gets mad when he cuts up her dresses with scissors. Kids have a finely-tuned, if not over-tuned, sense of what will get them in trouble. It may not stop them from cutting stuff up with the shiny, shiny scissors, but they know damn well why Mommy’s mad, enough to blame little brothers, dogs or random dress-slashing strangers. Allow them to act on impulse and ignorantly put themselves in harm’s way, but keep in mind that kids are aware of danger and do have survival instincts. Childhood is a frankly terrifying time and kids know perfectly well that there are monsters in every dark crawlspace just drooling at the thought of plump and juicy childmeat, all crunchy and screamy and delicious. On a related note, kids may believe in a lot of things adults find silly, but they do know the difference between reality and imagination. Yes, they might believe in unicorns even though they’ve never seen one and yes, they might believe in zombies because they see those in media all the time (the best parent in the world can’t keep all zombies out of a kid’s consciousness anymore than she can keep the sea from hitting the shore), but no matter how much they play “pretend”, they all know toys don’t really talk back or walk around and they will not take that stuff in stride.

As with any other aspect of your book, if you’re going to write about children, research them. If you have a kid, try to observe them in their natural habitat whenever possible, among their own kind. If you don’t have a kid, borrow one (IMPORTANT: Always ask before borrowing children!). Listen to how they talk. Watch how they play, fight, make friends and throw tantrums (you should be able to get that all on one day if you’re lucky). And make sure you get them at the same age as your character because nowhere else does two years make so much difference as it does in a kid’s development.


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