It may have started with the second V series, the 1980s sci-fi miniseries that introduced as part of its story line a human/alien hybrid child. At the end of the second miniseries, the child had “magic powers” and used them to stop the aliens. This was, for me, the first time I encountered the Magical Child trope, and even then I knew it was bullshit.
Over the years it has become more clear to me that this trope, the idea of a godlike child, is one of the nearly universally hated tropes. A great example would be Anakin Skywalker in Episode One: The Phantom Menace. People hated that he was a kid. His “yipeee!” and “wizard!” outbursts along with his painful dialog with Padme was made all the worse by knowing that this, ladies and gentlemen, was the character the whole damned saga was hinged upon.
Let’s look at a recent fiasco: the Mass Effect 3 ending. Here again we get the omnipotent child. Granted, this is just an appearance, but it’s the same thing – a child-like understanding of the world and more power than the hero. It’s annoying and even folks who liked the endings hated that character.
How about Ultraviolet? It could have been a good movie…maybe. But they also have the godchild concept. To be honest, perhaps every writer should have it stamped on their foreheads (backwards, so they can read it in the mirror) that adults don’t like seeing magic kids save the day.
What of Harry Potter, you say? Well that’s quite different for two reasons. First, Harry IS the hero, and all his friends are of the same age. He’s not some left-field addition to the story to try to bring some “humanity” to the hero. His story is THE story. Second, Harry Potter is British. They, for some unknown reason, have a much better handle on the whole trope.
For example, look at Doctor Who. There are any number of episodes with god-children. It still works, mostly because no matter how godlike the children are, the Doctor is still…well…the Doctor. He doesn’t bow to the child, though he might give them a nice lolly.
Seriously, though, whenever a kid is involved in an ostensibly adult story, and they aren’t there to either be the hero’s ward (ala Lone Wolf) or the kidnapped waif to be rescued, they’re jarring, annoying, and worthless. They can completely ruin an otherwise good story. I get that a lot of writers see being a child as something magical. It is, sure, but being an adult is too, if you don’t give up what it is that the writers see as magic in children. A sense of wonder, whimsy, and perhaps madness. For example, again, the Doctor.
That does mean that adult characters have to take on a few traits of children. Lying, for example. Children lie all the time. Writers tend to forget this, but children are usually far less honest than adults. Part of growing up is, in fact, accepting that telling the truth is better than lying. Children lie because they can, not because they have to, and they do it all the time. In a way, they are just trying to make life more interesting.
Being imaginative and holding on to the slimmest of hopes is another trait characters would have to have. The idea that things can end with “and they all lived happily ever after.” Most writers reject that because life doesn’t work that way. But why? Sometimes life DOES work that way. Maybe not “ever after”, but at least for a while. Sometimes the good guys win, and they don’t have to die to do so. Sometimes the bad guys win, but at such a cost that the good guys still live happily ever after. Being dark and depressing doesn’t make a story deep, it only makes it dark and depressing. Children know life is more than that. So do characters who are still children at heart.
But what it really comes down to is this: most of us spent a good eighteen years trying to reach a point where we had control over our lives. Maybe only tenuous control, but control nonetheless. To introduce a magical child who essentially breaks those boundaries you fought so hard and long is just a slap in the face. Maybe it’s time for that trope to be retired for a while, and for adults to regain the stage.
Give me A New Hope Luke over The Phantom Menace Anakin any day.