Who said never work with children or animals? ... by Sheila Claydon
The legend is that it was the comedian W.C. Fields but this is frequently disputed. It is generally accepted, however, that working with either children or animals on stage always carries risk. A child may steal the whole show or, instead, behave in an entirely unpredictable way, either of which is a challenge for the other actors. This is only too well illustrated by this TV clip from 1969. Admittedly the presenters were probably asking for it as they don't seem very prepared for what might go wrong on a live recording, but what did go wrong remains a favorite memory for everyone who saw it. Over forty years later it's still shown on British TV from time to time, and it still makes everyone laugh.
Using animals and children in books though it's an entirely different matter. They can be the focus of the story or act as a link between the main protagonists. They can inject humor, fear or pathos into the narrative or just provide a colourful background. They can also be used to give individual characters status. After all if a writer wants her hero to be a father, then he must have a child. The trick for the author is to decide how much of the story should be given over to the children.
I've just finished reading those great imaginary essays on history, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and she uses children brilliantly. There are many of them woven into the epic story of the court of Henry VIII and yet none of them have a star part. What they do instead is, by their behaviour, show the reader who the adults are. Thomas Cromwell, for instance, reported by history to be many things from great statesman to cold-blooded opportunist, is, in Mantel's books, a loving father and uncle. His house is full of children and when his own daughters die of the sweating sickness that was so prevalent in London at the time, he doesn't forget his responsibilities to his dead sister's children, but makes a home for them even though they can never replace his own. Yet despite this, none of the children are more than shadowy background figures. What they do, however, is remind the reader that whatever else he was, Cromwell was a man full of human warmth who was kind to those he loved. He also loved dogs and in the books is never without one and from time to time he has the sort of conversation with his dog that all pet owners will understand.
In the same books, Mary Tudor, only daughter of Henry and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, is portrayed through the eyes of the many adults who surround her. She rarely appears herself even though she is integral to the story. Instead, the reader learns much about her and about how cruelly she is manipulated while she is still a child through the words and sniggers of the courtiers. As a consequence of this clever narrative much is learned about Mary's royal parents, Anne Boleyn her stepmother, and also about Cromwell himself. Whether any of it is true is a matter for conjecture, but as a story telling technique it is masterful, as is the reference to Anne Boleyn's small dog whose untimely death supposedly caused her more grief than the loss of her own infant baby.
Ruminating on this after I read the last page, I thought about my own books. Slight they may be compared with the epic histories of Mantel, but I realised that in some of them I have used the same technique. In Mending Jodie's Heart I've gone even further. Without the children, the dog, the birds and the horses, there would be no story. The children's likes and dislikes, their hopes and ambitions are the things that fuel it. Without the children and the animals the reader would never have learned about the hero and the heroine's flaws and their strength. The children and the animals were also the reason I had to turn what was meant to be one book into a trilogy. I had to know what happened to them. Whether I managed to use them skilfully enough to show the true characters of the adults in their lives is for the reader to decide.
My books are available at http://bookswelove.net/authors/claydon-sheila/ and also at Amazon. I'm also at: