(Thanks to Dave for an entertaining blog post — a round robin story about goblins and hooligan juice. We’ll have to see if we can put it up somewhere).
Thanks to John Singer Sargent for his painting of children.
Something that came up during the week’s blogging was the subject of children and how they are (or in some cases are not) portrayed in books for adults. Are the child characters treated realistically? What purpose do they serve in the narrative? etc.
I write for children as well as adults so I’m comfortable writing child characters but do adult readers want child characters in their books when there are holiday destinations that ban children? Fantasy books often have a young (15-17 year old) protagonist. I tried googling this topic and didn’t find much on it. (Perhaps it is just me!)
Here is a list of classic books with child characters. It raises some good points:
Read or reread a classic (or at least well-known) adult novel from among the titles listed. Think critically about the work from the singular point of view of how the nature of the child and the condition of childhood are represented via the child character or characters. Consider questions such as:
Is childhood characterized as a halcyonic or nightmarish period?
Are there striking or subtle autobiographical references to the author’s life?
Is the child exceptional, proto-heroic or more in the normal range?
Is the portrayal of the child character(s) predominantly external or internal?
Is the view of childhood represented by the novel appropriate to the date of composition and/or to the fictional time setting?
Does this work evoke comparison to or contrast with any children’s book(s) of the same time period in its perception of the child and of childhood?
Is the portrayal realistic for a child of the class, society, situation, and time?
Then I found a list of books for adults with child narrators like:
To Kill a Mockingbrid (Harper Lee)
The Tin Drum (Gunther Grass)
A Painted House (John Grisham)
A High Wind in Jamaica (Richard Hughes)
But why use a child narrator? What can you reveal (or hide) by using a child narrator? A child is essentially a ‘stranger in a strange land’ because they are constantly trying to make sense of the adult world.
And then Gary William Murning has a section on his site about writing child characters in adult books here.
He comes up with some good suggestions.
So how do I approach writing child characters for adult consumption? This is a difficult one to answer. My way of writing is fairly instinctual. I’ve been doing it so long that I no longer think about it (that’s a joke, incidentally… more or less.) Nonetheless, a few points occurred to me earlier today that I thought I’d share with you. Feel free to add your own.
- A child is as multi-faceted as any other character. The expression of these “facets” will differ in many cases to those of an adult, but they will nevertheless possess common roots in the reality we all share. Their interpretation of the world around them may at times be unique, but it’s the same world your adult characters inhabit.
- Writing completely from a child’s point of view can rob the work of necessary perspective. Try to allow for adult exposition etc. (for example, I tend to have my narrator looking back from a future place, slipping the odd insight in here and there — though there are other methods.)
- Don’t overplay the “childishness”. Be selective and remember that fiction is merely real-life with form and well-defined boundaries.
- Toys, favourite TV programmes, pop groups — all these can give a good sense of time, place and character. But don’t do it on every page! (See David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green if you want to read a great book on childhood that almost falls into the Space Invader Syndrome trap.)
- And finally… child characters are not adult characters, but they deserve to be treated/represented with the same degree of honesty. Childhood can be a terrifying, confusing place — even for a child with a stable background. Don’t fudge it. Be prepared to revisit those childhood nightmares and ask yourself, Did they ever really go away?
I like Murning’s point about honesty. In George RR Martin’s Fire and Ice series several of his main characters are children and Martin doesn’t treat these children any differently from the adults. Nasty things happen to them, their parents are killed and at the end of the last published book we still don’t know if they will survive. Like so many children in the real world, the fact that they are youngsters does not save them from life’s cruel realities.
Personally, I try to avoid exposition (Murning suggests using adult exposition to overcome the fact that children won’t understand everuything they see). I like to leave it up to the reader to make deductions about what the child sees and fill in the gaps. I think readers should be made to so some work.
What books can you think of that use child characters? How do they treat these characters? What purpose do they serve in the narrative?