22

The reality of pre-Industrial Revolution times was that about half the children born died before age 5. It would be a mistake to think that parents cared less - we have multiple written records showing that they cared very much. At the same time, there was this coping mechanism - parents tried not to get too attached to very young children, because of the possibility of losing them. In some cultures, for example, children were not even named until about 1 year old. Another coping mechanism was of course that there were other children to take care of, and very soon the mother would be pregnant again. The lost children were mourned, but the loss was endured.

To a modern reader, losing a child is a tragedy one can hardly recover from, it very much is the end of the world. It is something that does not, should not, happen, a terrible mistake in the running of the cosmos. Treating the loss of a child as anything else is treated as almost inhuman.

Those are the two conflicting views I try to balance, setting a story in a pre-modern setting. The problem becomes particularly pertinent in a story that sprawls over several decades (with time skips), and thus the issue cannot be just "invisible". It seems my options are:

  • No dead children. Every character has ~10 siblings, and consequently ~100 first cousins on each side. This option looks a bit crazy.
  • Characters have dead siblings, somewhere in the time-skips they also lose children. All of this happens off-screen, and only gets mentioned in passing. Does this risk alienating my readers?
  • Losing a child actually happens on-screen, within the melange of all the other events (but not taking central stage for very long). I address the tragedy and getting over it. Again, what would be more alienating - the previous option, or this one?
  • People just seem to have a smaller number of children, no explanation given. This option is not too realistic, and always stretches my suspension of disbelief when I see it, but maybe it's necessary?

Are there any options I am missing? Or anything about the solutions presented that I am missing? Which solution is preferable?

My particular story is set in a royal court, and spans several decades. Under those circumstances, the number and health of royal children become important both to court politics and to international politics.

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about historical birth and mortality rates has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Feb 8 at 18:35
  • Every character has ~10 siblings, and consequently ~100 first cousins on each side. => I don't see the problem: my grandmother had 12 siblings, only one of which died at an early age... – Matthieu M. Feb 8 at 19:54
  • @MatthieuM. Well the problem would be that as a writer, I'd have to keep track of all those relatives, who they're married to and how they interconnect, for the whole court, for two generations of plot. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Feb 8 at 20:29
  • @MatthieuM.: Your grandmother was likely born during the period when medicine had reduced child mortality dramatically, but birth control was not available and/or the cultural shift that reduced child mortality == reduced child birth hadn't kicked in. Pre-Industrial Revolution is lot further back, and 11 surviving siblings was almost unheard of, let alone each of them having 10+ surviving kids of their own. – ShadowRanger Feb 9 at 1:43
  • 1
    The Ashkenazi population of Eastern Europe grew from a population of ~1000 around a thousand years ago to nearly 20 million by the early 1900s, based on an average surviving child count of nearly 1.5 children per parent (so 3 surviving children per couple), and 3 surviving children per family was unusually high by the standards of the time. From a base population of just 10 million, 10 surviving children per family would reach insane population levels (as in trillions of people) in a matter of a couple hundred years if sustained. – ShadowRanger Feb 9 at 1:46
21

I would go with characters have dead siblings; but that happens off-screen.

Showing it on-screen, and in-period-realistic, might be off-putting itself.

Everything you are talking about is a statistical distribution; averages, a bell-curve of sorts. Nothing says your character have to reside in the center of it. So child-deaths can happen primarily to others, not the MC king or his relatives.

Much of those deaths were due to the poor nutrition and the extreme labor of day-to-day living for the majority of people, that many royals need not experience directly. They have servants, they can rest all day, they don't have to struggle to feed themselves or other children.

So I would portray the societal milieu somewhat accurately, but my characters are lucky enough to not experience the child deaths directly (unless that serves some plot purpose). They still recognize it, they still fear it, but hey, they're special, God takes pity on them and they're grateful for it.

You can still have their relatives suffer that if you want, they just don't experience it themselves. A courier arrives with news of their sister Jane, she has lost her third child in a row. Thank God she has produced at least one heir. We must have her up for a visit, so we can comfort her.

  • 10
    Don't count out the royals. Many deaths were due to illness. Edward VI and his uncle Arthur both died aged 15 that way, and possibly of the same illness. Anne lost 16 children. Haemophilia killed many members of Victoria's family in the 1800s. – J.G. Feb 7 at 20:43
  • 11
    @J.G. The whole point of my post, and the game we are playing here, is to give Galastel a plausible excuse for her characters not suffering the fate of dead children. Regardless of history, in a work of fiction being royal, with perhaps a competent royal physician, better nutrition and not having to labor for a living, along with plain luck, is such an excuse. We don't care what really happened here, we just need a plausible reason for readers to think that, sure, this fictional MC dodged the child-death bullets. It is true not everybody lost all their children. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Feb 7 at 20:58
  • 2
    Those are good points. All I'd add to them is that the risk of death is well-placed in such a plot (even if it never comes to anything), no matter how plausible the excuse is, simply because death was lurking everywhere. Now, by "well-placed" I don't mean it's unavoidable, if the writer wishes not to address it. I mean only that we can have it both ways, with the risk a point of drama even if it's decided it's best avoided in the final plot. – J.G. Feb 7 at 21:14
  • 1
    @J.G. Haemophilia is a hereditary illness and not so widespread. It's true illnesses also could kill royals and even now there are such illnesses which can kill billionaires. But there was and is a big difference between these people who have much more possibilities than average people and average people themselves. Not sure your examples show an average royal family. And the real danger for a member of royal family was... other people. – rus9384 Feb 8 at 5:52
  • 1
    This is exactly the approach taken in Hallmark(TM) movies, where the existence of a dead parent is part of the pathos of the story, but (I assume) because they're light and fluffy stories, the death never happens on screen. So you could follow the same approach. The death is briefly mentioned, but not at all dwelled upon. – bob Feb 8 at 21:25
17

Take cues from historical source material

You've clearly already put in some research. How did contemporary people address the loss when writing about their lives? (Hint: the answer varies, from stoicism and scarcely mentioning it, to hopeful talk of an afterlife and being reunited, to uninhibited grief.) If you're trying to give the flavor of a time period, lean on original sources to guide the manner in which you address things.

Write for your audience, but tell YOUR story

It's entirely true (although I was in denial of for a long time) that if you want anyone else to be interested in or enjoy your writing, you have to shape your writing to be digestible and interesting to THEM. However, writing as if you're doing a paint-by-numbers, and being sure you add enough of every shade "because that's what the audience likes" usually gets the audience wrong. You're probably better off writing the story you think is interesting, and finding an audience that is interested in the same thing (like life in the past, with the bleakness and trials we have often forgotten about in our modern comforts) than to guess (probably incorrectly) at what "other" people like or can bear.

Bridge the gap between the world you're portraying and the audience that is reading it. Although you shouldn't forget that sometimes granularity of detail is just a bad idea because the amount of energy in telling is not a justified investment (think Chekhov's Gun, not so much in the usual terms of expectations as in terms of extraneous and irrelevant content). But if you're writing about the vicissitudes of royal succession in olden times, it's almost certainly the case that high infant mortality and low childhood survival rates SHOULD be front and center to the plot.


On a personal note, my mother lost a baby, and when others told her that they couldn't have gone on if that had happened to them... She remarked to me that, with all her other children and responsibilities, she just didn't see any realistic option but to go on. It's likely that the realization of being able to continue in the face of serious grief and loss because of necessity is a theme that will naturally arise in a story that wrestles with mortality and the young.

8

So far, there are no Chinese voices yet. So, here is my voice.

I learn a lot about my own family history from my father and my father's older sister, as well as my mother and her side of the family.

No dead children. Every character has ~10 siblings, and consequently ~100 first cousins on each side. This option looks a bit crazy.

This is actually not that crazy. My paternal grandmother's mother (my great grandmother) married her cousin. The cousin-cousin relationship resulted in one daughter that was born first, eight sons that all died in childhood, and one daughter that was born last and became my own grandmother. My grandmother and her older sister had a 16-year gap; at the time, it was a generation gap. My grandmother's older sister married and had children, but all her children died in childhood. Meanwhile, my grandmother had four children - two sons and two daughters; and every time these urban-dwelling sons and daughters were to visit their aunt in the countryside, the aunt would proudly introduce them to neighbors. She treated her nephews and nieces as her own children. In the Chinese language, an aunt (姑妈, actually referring to the father's older sister,姨妈, actually referring to the mother's older sister)has the word 妈 in it. In a way, the aunt is like a mother. She's from the older generation, the parental generation. My aunt once told me that she wanted to take care of her own aunt in the aunt's old age, but when my aunt was fully grown, her aunt died, presumably of stroke. All I know is that the woman experienced bad headaches. My paternal grandparents worked as factory workers in the city and had four children. According to my aunt, having only four children was considered unusual at that time. Most families had more than four, all crammed inside a tiny room. But with only four children in the house, there were more resources to go around for each child. If children didn't die of natural death, then they might die of famine.

All this stuff takes place in modern China, because modern China started after the fall of the imperial dynasty. At first, modern China was ruled by the Nationalist party in the Republic of China era, but nowadays, this party is located in Taiwan. Then, modern China switched to the Chinese Communist Party in the People's Republic of China era, and this sovereignty continues to this day. Up to the 1980s, much of the Chinese population lived in rural areas. In rural China, agriculture was based on human and animal labor, though I think this is rapidly changing, as China becomes a fully industrialized country in the future. Having a lot of children was normal, because the children could help run the farm. My paternal grandfather's side of the family would live in a cluster of houses in the countryside. Then, the entire family moved near the big street for convenience. They helped each other build houses from scratch too, and their numbers are in the hundreds.

Characters have dead siblings, somewhere in the time-skips they also lose children. All of this happens off-screen, and only gets mentioned in passing. Does this risk alienating my readers?

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn has one character with a lot of dead babies.

Losing a child actually happens on-screen, within the melange of all the other events (but not taking central stage for very long). I address the tragedy and getting over it. Again, what would be more alienating - the previous option, or this one?

I agree with the opinion that you should definitely show how a character deals with losing a child. The emotions can reveal what the character is like.

People just seem to have a smaller number of children, no explanation given. This option is not too realistic, and always stretches my suspension of disbelief when I see it, but maybe it's necessary?

This option is actually not that unrealistic. Refer back to my family tree. No one has told me why my grandma only gave birth to four kids in a time when having four kids was considered "few". No explanation is given.

Are there any options I am missing? Or anything about the solutions presented that I am missing? Which solution is preferable?

You may be missing consanguinity. In the past, Chinese families would want to maintain friendly ties between themselves, so they would arrange the marriage of their children even before the children were born. If the child of one family was a son and the child of another family was a daughter, then they would be paired. If both families gave birth to sons or daughters, then they would not be paired. This led to some consanguinity and inbreeding problems.

You may also be missing out recognizing daughters as part of the family. Historically, daughters were not considered part of the family. They were raised by the natal family for another family. Family records would never mention women, because they would just marry out. A family with only daughters was a family without children. But that changed dramatically in the beginning of modern China, and women were finally liberated. I think this also applies to Jewish families a long time ago, where Jewish families would just not record women in the family records.

My particular story is set in a royal court, and spans several decades. Under those circumstances, the number and health of royal children become important both to court politics and to international politics.

Well, if the family is royalty, then the family probably wants to keep power and wealth within the family.

4

Is child mortality relevant to your story? If not, then I just wouldn't bring it up. There are all sorts of tragedies in the world. I don't consider a story unrealistic because it failed to discuss every possible thing that could go wrong with anyone's life. In the 21st century, people die from cancer, but most novels never mention cancer. People lose their jobs, but most novels don't discuss unemployment. People are robbed and murdered and kidnapped, but most novels don't mention these events. Etc.

Frankly, I would be very surprised if, say, a murder mystery said, "Detective Brown arrived at the scene of the crime. Brown had two children, a boy and a girl, plus a second daughter who had died of leukemia many years before. Brown and his wife were very upset when their daughter died. Mrs Brown cried uncontrollably for days ..." etc, and then have all of this never be relevant to the murder or to anything else in the story.

In general, we don't expect a story to describe everything that ever happened or might have happened in every character's life. We expect a story to have a point and a focus. I am suddenly reminded of a piece of writing advice I read many years ago: Don't tell everything that happened. Tell everything RELEVANT that happened.

You could, of course, write a good story about the grief parents suffer when a child dies. Or about the effect on society of high child mortality. But if that's not what the story is about, don't drag it in just because it exists.

4

In general, I agree with @Amadeus above, however suggest that using your third bulleted suggestion is the best. Character development is important, and losing a child is a great way to show how that character responds to tragedy. The death of the child doesn't need to be graphic or detailed, but maybe the response of the POV parent should be.

3

If it were me writing such, I would combine the second and third options. Children are fortunate to live to be old enough to help with the farm/store or whatever the family uses to survive. I would mention lost children - some stillborn and others died of malnutrition, illness or accident.

I would have maybe five surviving children, perhaps remembering the last baby to die and afraid it would happen again as there was a new addition due any day. Fears of the mother dying in childbirth would surface and the living children would be the most fortunate ones.

I would include a scene, perhaps not the MC directly, but of a child who dies of an illness. Let the parents mourn and the siblings. The parents must rise the next morning - farms don’t run themselves. Grief stricken, they go about their lives because they have no choice.

If they are servants, they might have even less opportunity to grieve and keep their sorrows to themselves. A general sense of personal tragedy but so common that others just nod and know - lost another one.

If someone asks how many children a family has, perhaps, like Wordsworth’s We Are Seven, living and dead have equal presence in their lives. Never forgotten, but there are others who need care, others who must be consoled and many tasks to complete before they can have some privacy and weep for the lost.

In certain parts of the world (I canvassed for the CCF) parents must choose whether to sell one of their children so that they can properly feed the others.

1

Remember that on average so many children died. But not in every family the children died.
And not every woman had 10 children, some had only one, as they died in child birth of the first child, others had 20 children of whom some or even many survived.

Not in your time span, but in the 20th century, my one great aunt had two children dying in child birth and in the third, the child survived but the mother died. My other great aunt had 13 surviving children and at least 4 more who died (quadruplets who did not survive the first 24 hours.) The women lived in the same village, were sisters in law.
This is a 20th century example but this is not unlike something you see in records of earlier centuries.

Some women were plain unlucky, or had health problems as child which resulted in them not being able go get children. Or had a fever after birthing their first child and lost the ability to get pregnant. Others had relatively easy pregnancies, had luck with no diseases around and enough food to bring up their children.

You intent your target family to be royals. That will protect them a bit, as starvation is less likely. But most diseases do not pass the palace, so even every little prince and princess was at risk, if maybe in a bit better condition due to good food.

For yourself, write a family tree for each family, with different numbers of children born, died as baby, died as a child and died in war or child birth or for other reasons as a young adult. Have some people grow old, (while not common, some people did get in their 70's, or even older,) and have many die at a lower age for different reason.

But only mention babies passed away if really needed for your story, mention children, say over three years old at least, as brothers or sisters missed, when it fits your story.
Mention siblings, aunts, uncles and so on, who made it to adulthood and have since passed away. With pride if they were a hero or a good mother (or father but that was less likely to be mentioned) and with sadness when appropriate for your story.

If it fits your story you can have a disease or plague going around in your story, in which one or more children will be in. Most of those were regular enough that all people met them as children, getting ill, either dying or recovering and getting resistance.
The next time the same disease comes around these children will not be at risk but the younger siblings are.
Besides 'natural' illnesses you can also have people trying to kill the kids or adults, poison was common enough that royal families had tasters and other methods to avoid the risk, whether working or not.
And depending on your period, witches were often seen as the reason people (often kids) died.

1

Put the first instance on-screen, then use that as an assumed precedent for why the others disappear over time. You could use the solution of mentioning their deaths in passing, since that was likely part of casual conversation, but putting one death on-screen and using that as the precedent is fairly common for mass tragedy.

For instance, in Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind, a plague is released into the country. They are alerted to this plague by one villager bringing the MC into their home to ask what's wrong with their kid, and the MC's brother and the village elder say that the kid has the plague, specifically "tokens" that mean he is going to die soon. The other deaths are then mentioned in passing (besides a death of a central character), such as a mention of prostitutes infecting the border guards that were supposed to be isolated. This was an organic way to 1) show the tragedy, but then also 2) show the effect of the tragedy without taking up too much of the viewer's time.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.