Monday, October 04, 2010

Different Journeys: The Innocent

Okay, it took me longer than I thought, but I’ve been stewing on it, plus the whole Junkyard Brain syndrome kind of interfered for a day or two.

The archetype of The Innocent strikes me as being particularly well suited to kids books, especially picture books, early chapter books, and middle grade stories. The innocent lives in a perfect world where all his needs are taken care of and no horrible things have happened to convince him that the world is other than that perfect place.

When a character is the Innocent, his developmental task is to step into a new awareness—to recognize that the world isn’t paradise and his needs will not always be met and, perhaps most difficult of all, that everyone in the world does not exist in order to please him or make his life easier.

It is a classic stage in emotional and psychological development, and it comes to all of us at different times and in different ways and we bump into it in all areas of our lives.

It seems to me it could involve:

  • That moment you realize your parents are not all-powerful or infallible
  • The realization that the sun and moon do not rise and set every day just for you
  • The first time a best friend lets you down or betrays you
  • A treasured, admired older sibling does something horribly wrong or flawed
  • That rude awakening when you realize other people are not there to simply make you happy.

In fact, one could make the argument that childhood is a series of falls from that state of innocence.

I am pretty far removed from picture books these days, but one example that springs to mind is Kitten’s First Full Moon, a classic example of this ‘fall’ from innocence. Kitten is certain that the full moon is a bowl of cream, meant just for her. The book is about how she learns that isn’t the case at all. Can any of you think of picture book examples?

In a YA or adult book, it seems as if this type of journey might work for someone who’d led a relatively perfect and charmed life and met their first hardship. Other than that, once Innocents get past about ten, we tend to think of them as narcissistic. ☺ Even so, that journey from self absorption to self awareness is a powerful one. As an adult, however, it also requires a high degree of willful denial and a determination to NOT see in order to maintain that pretense. But lord, we’ve all met adults who were stuck there. I think the big difference, though, in dealing with the Innocent in an older book is that you have to take them farther on the journey moving them into and through other stages (which I’ll talk about in the future.) They can’t end simply with the realization that they are not the center of the universe, whereas a kids’ book could conceivably.

So what then, would the steps be of an innocent’s journey look like?

Act One:
Ordinary World—show the protagonist either using people or being oblivious to their needs.
The Precipice—hint at fall or minor fall, the catalyst provides the initial crack before the entire façade begins to crumble.
The Fall—protagonists eyes are painfully opened to the realities of the world

Act Two:
Coping mechanisms- denial, band aid fixes, attempts and adjusting shallow surface behavior. To learn that we've been fundamentally wrong is painful so there is some denial, as well as guilt, fear, shame, all those horrible feelings. 
Tip of the iceberg—the crack created by the initial fall spreads until the whole world/situation is different. Cannot go back to the way they were at the beginning of the story. (midpoint) 
Regrouping—Now What? Moving through the full chaos of the real world with eyes open.

Act Three:
Evolve or Die (metaphorically, at least) Trying to re-understand the world with this new awareness; attempts to adjust, either through solving the problem or shifting behavior. First couple of attempts fail or, even better, make things worse.
True understanding and acceptance—either of the world the way it is or human frailties
Integration—something that shows he’s truly absorbed all this and moves through the world in a new way.

I think one of the things that makes accepting that fall so difficult is, to accept it, we have to realize our own culpability in what has transpired. Obviously to a much, much smaller degree in kids still developing normally through those stages, but even they have to accept that they were wrong. I think that’s why kids sometimes have such a well developed sense of ‘when I was little” even though the event they’re talking about might have only have happened six months ago. It’s a way to disassociate with the embarrassment one’s younger self brings them.

The kinds of things that motivate the innocent are fear and need. Probably pretty basic needs on Masler’s scale: need for safety, whether emotional or physical, the need for shelter and food and someone to care for them.

What do you guys think? Do you see other steps or ways to move through that journey?
Can you think of any good examples of books or movies in which the hero is an innocent?


Sherrie Petersen said...

Omigosh, I'm so glad I stumbled on this post! We were kind of talking about this yesterday in our critique group, but you've stated it so perfectly here. Thank you!!

Robin L said...

Oh yay on the timing, Sherrie! So glad it helped.