I recently finished reading Michael Crichton’s The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park. About three-quarters of the way through the book, I realized that I didn’t hate the kids in it. It was a strange realization, and I realized that it was driven by the fact that in many recent blockbusters the children are worse than useless.
They’re foolish and they actively endanger themselves, adding what feels like artificial drama to the movie. Not only is there a major problem going on, but the children’s unrelenting curiosity and lack of a sense of self-preservation causes them to want to be unreasonably close to whatever danger there is. Consequently, the adults spend just as much time in the movie protecting the kids from their decisions as they try to resolve whatever the big problem is.
This reeks of artificial drama. If you’re like me, you end up hating the kids because they’re just so dumb and they don’t add anything to the story.
However, Crichton uses kids totally differently.
First, they contribute to the team in ways that the adults can’t. The book came out in the 90s and seems to use what I would consider “cutting-edge” 90s tech. The majority of adults in the story are middle-aged scientists. What they know is science and how to interpret it. Like many middle-aged people today, they don’t know their way around a computer.
So, instead of just being objects in need of constant redirection lest they put themselves in unnecessary danger, these children are able to meaningfully contribute to the mission. Their knowledge of computers solves a few problems the adults would never have been able to get around. Not too many, mind you, perhaps three times in four-hundred pages. But enough that they pull their own weight.
Second, for most of the book, they are the characters in the least amount of danger. One of the adult’s priorities is to ensure that someone is always watching the kids, which prevents them from wandering off and getting into trouble.
Not that they would, because they may understand the gravity of the situation better than the adults do. The adults take risks, and sometimes they’re shortsighted, stupid risks. But they never do that with the children around.
Of course, the children weren’t supposed to be on the dino-island at all. They were promised a trip with all the equipment that was repurposed for this mission. Consequently, being told they couldn’t go resulted in them stowing away, a fact that was discovered almost immediately on arrival. They don’t have a chance to get into trouble after that point.
That is, until the major themes of the book start playing out.
Crichton takes a hard stance on human hubris. Those who have the gall to mess with the natural order of the island all end up dying at the hands of nature and her fearsome herald, the Tyrannosaurus rex. Even one character who removed a baby T-rex with a broken leg from the nest with the intent of healing it ends up dying. Two of the main characters nearly die for operating on the baby. Even after they return it to its parents, they still get a sampling of nature’s wrath.
The humans who created the dinosaurs were ultimately unable to control them. The continued attempts to study the creatures fail because humans constantly underestimate the intelligence and ferocity of the technically-extinct creatures. Now resurrected, they refuse to be domesticated.
The other major theme is the insufficiency of technology against nature. Even equipped with what would have been state-of-the-art in 1995, the expedition experiences numerous failures. Some are related to the fact that that technology fails more often than biological systems. But, the majority of failures are due to the fact that the limits of human engineering fall short of complete mastery of nature.
20-ton herbivores crush heavily armored vehicles. T-Rexes push a mobile command station off a cliff. Chemical and electrical deterrents work less effectively than excepted. The slightest mistakes, especially those due to a lack of foresight or planning can result in technological failure and death.
It’s telling that while technology and their own hubris put the adults in danger, it is the adults who put the kids in danger. A distracted adult drops one of the children towards a herd of angry raptors.
Ever resourceful, the child manages to lock himself in a cage designed to hold small dinosaurs, ironically using it to protect himself.
So, how do you write good child characters?
Crichton answers that question by giving the kids a function.
In a lot of modern media, they’re just a replacement for the damsel in distress. They’re more plot than substance.
So, Crichton gives them a function. They hold skills the adults don’t have.
But, furthermore, they advance the philosophical questions underpinning the book.
“Why did the dinosaurs die out?” is the question that spurred the expedition, the thought being that examination of their present behavior might reveal an answer to that question. Like good scientists, they have different theories, and gently bicker among themselves as the story progresses.
But they also teach the children what they know in the quiet moments while the story progresses. In these moments, they not only pass down the substance of their knowledge, but also the process or the behavior of being a good scientist. The knowledge is only valuable in context of the process.
This stands in stark symbolic contrast to the island’s many problems, but especially the one regarding behavior. The animals on the island and their immediate ancestors were created in a lab. So, while they have instincts, they lack behavior. There were no pre-extinction relatives to show them how to be a good dinosaur.
This is most prominent in the raptors, who are wildly inefficient. They hunt as a pack but expend a lot of effort in infighting, wounding and sometimes killing each other. Their instincts are intact, but they have no learned behaviors to channel those instincts. They’re intellectual children, unable to progress beyond their basic desires.
The human children serve as a mirror to these problems. They’re somewhat benignly neglected at home,1 meaning that the question is not if they’re going to be smart enough to make something of themselves, but whether they will receive the attention and correction they need to grow.
And, unlike the dinosaurs, they have many mentors.