Children as Props

father reading bedtime story for his daughter while lying down on the bed

What happens when lead characters have children?

Obviously children can be compelling lead characters in literature and film. Just look at some of the most popular, longstanding works we know:

The Chronicles of Narnia

Harry Potter

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Charlotte’s Web

Anne of Green Gables

There’s no doubt that a child protagonist can carry a story. But what about children that appear later in a story, as the offspring of the main characters? What do they contribute?

What I find shocking is how little such children often contribute to the larger narrative. Depending on the story and its particular medium, we might see cursory mentions of them in the text or witness them briefly on the screen—or they might become a central focus of the story itself. Whether or not the children of a lead character take the story’s spotlight, however, realistically they would play an enormous role in shaping the lead character moving forward.

Why then do we see so many shows where a main character’s children are little more than props?

This is not how real life works. Sure, not every parent spends a lot of time with their children—but whether they do or don’t has a huge impact on that parent’s identity. A father or mother’s degree of investment in a child always impacts his or her own character. Your style of parenting shapes who you are.

But instead, many children in cinema are born into a vacuum.

Their existence is little more than evidence that the lead characters consummated their marriage. Whoo-hoo. Their function throughout the story is often reduced to one of two things: a one-dimensional liability for the lead character (i.e. “I must protect my family!”) or a one-dimensional symbol of an idyllic home life (i.e. “I just can’t wait to come home every day”). Things get interesting when children take on their own personalities, but it seems this rarely happens when the children have been conceived and born during the timeline of the story. In my observation, children who are there from the beginning usually contribute far more than those that enter later on.

While we’ll never know what the writers have in mind, I suspect that prop-like children are the result of two possible causes:

1) Lazy writing

I believe this also accounts for the way that characters (especially in television) often vanish from a story without explanation. The writers want to implement a change of either adding or subtracting a character, but they don’t bother fleshing out its implications. In the case of children, the writers clearly want the lead character to produce offspring, but they devote little energy to showing the impact of parenthood on that character’s identity. In other words, they want the subliminal presence of children, but none of the strings attached. Sure, the lead character will grow and change as he or she takes on monumental obstacles and quests… but parenthood? Nah, that won’t change ’em.

2) Fear of Distraction

While some writers are likely too lazy to bother developing the parent-child dynamic, others probably fear that this added dimension will detract from the main storyline. They themselves are much more interested in the original plot, and they worry that adding domestic relationships to the main character’s life will shift the audience’s focus away from the central plot. To be fair, this can happen, and it takes strong narrative and character development to weave children into the plot in a meaningful way. But attempting to do so is better than asking the audience to forget that the lead character is a parent 90% of the time.

On a deeper level, though, it could be argued that this indifference to children is the result of a society that undervalues home life. I don’t know that I agree, but there are some who would suggest that the minimal impact children have on today’s lead characters is representative of what many parents desire: to minimize the changes that offspring bring with them.

Do you think this is the case? Or do you think the explanation lies in one of the two causes I listed?

If you see another possible explanation for this trend, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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2 Comments on “Children as Props

  1. I have to say that I never thought much about kids that are not main characters, which kind of proves your point. I’m not sure if you watch Lucifer, but there’s this kid that’s been there since the beginning, and I think it was in season 1 or 2 that she was an absolute bomb – hilarious and clearly influencing other characters around her. After that, she completely vanished to maybe come out for a couple of minutes each season. It felt very weird. As if the kid didn’t exist…

    • I’m not familiar with Lucifer, but that’s interesting that they would just remove such an influential character without any explanation. You always have to wonder with television though, because writers are always adapting the script and characters to whatever constraints come their way. Maybe an actor becomes less available for a season and they decide to keep him/her in the background…

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