Worldbuilding: Sparklers

There’s an aspect of worldbuilding that often gets left by the wayside because it seems irrelevant to the main characters and the plot, yet can do more than a thousand words to convince readers your world could be real.

Children’s toys.

Most books, even most written in the YA genre, don’t have children as main characters. And being a parent, practically speaking, does not lend itself well to adventuring.

(I can hear everyone who’s raised or even been roped into temporary babysitting groaning in agreement. Yep.)

So children are often tangential to a story plot, at best. Yet real worlds and societies have children. So they’ll have children’s toys and games. Anything else is not realistic.

Since kids want to grow up to be adults, and sane societies want them to, many toys and games are repurposed from Adult Stuff. Mini-hammers, drop spindles, shovels, you know. And even the more “toylike” toys of dolls, action figures, and wind-up cars help kids model real-life situations. For example crashing your cars can be Bad, look at what happened to the nice paint job….

An interesting aspect of any society is, how do we refine down very dangerous items, concepts, and processes so they’re safe to raise kids around? How do we make something perilous… a toy?

See sparklers. Substances originally meant to boom or burn, treated so they light with a match and throw off pretty sparks. Yes, they’re too dangerous for tiny kids. But older ones who know fire burns, and you can’t let sparks fall on flammables like dry grass? We give them sparklers. The dangerous pyrotechnic becomes a toy.

Any realistic world should have potentially dangerous toys. Techno-wizardry, psychic materials, magically empowered rocks; yes, they might be as dangerous as nuclear fission IRL and therefore not toy-able. Yet. But if there’s a tech in your world anyone might get their hands on – and exotic powers of the mind, magic, etc. are often shown that way in-setting-

Then there should be toys. At least attempts at toys. Harry Potter has Exploding Snap, among other things. The Clockwork Heart has little birds weighted with ondium so they actually float. (And can be lost forever if you take them out without a ceiling, lighter than air metal does that.) Bridge of Birds had the Hopping Hide and Seek Game, that turned out to tell part of an ancient story of a ginseng spirit betrayed and taken captive.

Think of the special – dangerous – aspects of your world. Consider how long they’ve been around. And think of what it might take to make very low-powered, near-safe versions of it. For fun. For a toy.

Because that’s what humans do. We fool around. We poke things. We say, “Hey, watch this!”

And we hand our kids sparklers.

Your story world is your toybox. Make sure there are some actual toys in it!

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13 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Sparklers

  1. “So children are often tangential to a story plot, at best. Yet real worlds and societies have children. So they’ll have children’s toys and games. Anything else is not realistic.”

    THANK YOU. I see so many books where children get ignored, not mentioned, sidelined, etc. It’s *annoying* because it is not at all realistic. Children’s toys are a great addition to a world, even if you’re only adding them to hint at horror (see every scene where the heroes enter a burned-out house and nudge a damaged doll or stuffed animal with their foot). Writers who do not nod to children or childhood somehow just don’t make their worlds as believable as they could be. *sigh*

    I will note, too, there are times little children or even babies can be part of an adventure. The plot for Willow had everyone fighting over a baby, some stories have the hero’s children get captured or threatened, and Witness featured a boy who saw a murder and needed Harrison Ford to protect him. Spy x Family has an assassin and a spy fake a marriage and adopt a girl who they do not (yet) know was experimented on and can read minds. There are plenty of ways to include children in a story and still have high adventure, drama, and threats. It’s rather disappointing how few writers recognize and use them these days.

    …And now that I’m thinking about this, the Dinotopia books were great at showing toys for children. Dinosaur themed carts, spinning tops, pinwheels, and other wooden toys were in a number of the illustrations. It’s always fun to look at those pictures because it feels so *natural*. No one does that anymore, arrrghhh….

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Worse, some writers treat kids and babies like props. Background setting, to be conveniently present for a Pet the Dog moment only to be shuffled off as some but character or to tragically die.

    Or just be badly written.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Even if someone didn’t want to include children themselves, it isn’t that hard to have a ‘look at this, I haven’t seen it in years’ moment with a childhood toy. Or even a ‘you do know that’s for kids, right?’ ‘So?’

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oooh, or as a way to on-board someone where this stuff isn’t normal– the .22 that I used as a little kid got a lot of use when we had family-of-friends that came from Australia (the wife was from Japan before they married) and wanted to “learn all the cowboy stuff.”

      For folks who don’t have any cultural background in guns, that can be scary!

      But something that an eight year old girl could use? Much, much less scary.

      (By the time they left, the lady who’d never seen a gun in person was comfortable with my dad’s put-big-holes-in-stuff type pistol.)

      Liked by 3 people

      1. They can also show social attitudes about childhood, safety, and risk. Real life example, visiting my grandparent’s house growing up and seeing what they had to play with. A home chemistry kit, pretty much expended at that point. Or the lawn darts.

        Stuff that would send safety regulators into cardiac arrest if sold even when I was a kid.

        There can even be smuggling and illegal goods. Think any fireworks store placed less than a mile over the state line…

        This also leads into kids underestimating the danger. I still vividly recall attending a fireworks show in a park, only for my dad to suddenly tackle me to the ground from where we were sitting watching the show When I tried to look up to see what was going on, I got a glimpse of some kind of spinning firework, maybe about palm size, flying over head, the fireworks in it causing it to pinwheel around throwing sparks.

        Only a glimpse, because then I my dad shoved my head back under him so he was covering me up from that and whoever threw it behind us in the crowd.

        Liked by 3 people

  4. Japan is having a boom in “wait a minute… kids exist, they’re going to be in fiction-worlds, too” and has been doing a rather good job of actually showing kids, old people, even non-plot-relevant animals.

    I think part of the problem is simply that a lot of the folks who “make it” as visual story-tellers don’t have families, or if they do they’re not exactly standard ones– the work/life balance of a lot of media favors the obsessed. 😀

    Books aren’t quite as bad, but they do tend to be written by either folks without kids, or folks whose kids are long grown.

    Contrast the “exactly like adults, but we can hand them the idiot ball more often” type child-characters, and the little girl in Spy X Family. She’s believable, especially in the setting we’re shown.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Obviously, the answer is to use the same dodge as The Incredibles: give the baby the Invulnerabillity Superpower, and maybe throw in a Crazy Competent Babysitter for shenanigans. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

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