Voice: Writing From the Child's Perspective
Lately, I’ve received several questions related to ‘voice’ in our writing. We’ve already discussed some aspects of voice, namely the active (I did) versus the passive (It was done), but there is so much more to this subject. So much, that I’ve decided to dedicate more than one article to the art of voice, and today I’ll concentrate on the aspect of this issue I’ve struggled with over the past two years—the voice of the child, further: the changing voice of the growing child.
Embrace your inner child. No, this is not a new-age, feel-good article, but a skill required to successfully deliver a story from a child's perspective. The child that still lives in you, as does your knowledge of your own children and every child you've ever come to know. You must dig deep and find those youthful voices that live within you if you want to truthfully write in the voice of a child. And you must also understand the limitations of each age and find a way to work with them, around them or through them—but never ignore them.
Note: I'm going to use my own writing as an example—forgive me for my self-promotion. I do have my reasons. I wish you good reading and good writing.
My Example of Using a Child's Voice
In my novel, This Bird Flew Away, we meet our heroine, Bria Jean, at the age of “almost ten.” She introduces herself:
“According to Auntie Peg, if you couldn’t hear my voice then I must have my nose in a book. That’s exactly how Jack found me, curled up in a chair with “Nancy’s Mysterious Letter” in the basement of his father’s house. I was trying to be invisible. After such a difficult day, I felt far too prickly to be nice to him, even though I’d eagerly awaited his arrival since morning.”
In the space of four sentences, we’ve learned a great deal:
- She is a bookish girl, preferring to lose herself between the covers of a good read.
- Auntie Peg is someone important in her life.
- She, like many young girls, reads Nancy Drew.
- She is hiding.
- She’s having a bad day.
- She has warm feelings for her friend, Jack.
But indirectly, we’ve learned even more:
- She is articulate, like many children who read.
- She is honest.
- She is aware of her inner feelings.
- She is not in control of these feelings.
- Her feelings are contradictory.
- We know there is something happening; there is a story here.
We know all this without being told, having learned it from four sentences narrated by a young girl. From this point on, I was restricted to the voice and perceptions of young Bria, “almost ten.” Think about this—writing from this point of view does impose certain challenges. Ten-year-old children don’t do a lot of introspection; their internal dialogue normally consists of reaction rather than pro-action.
And in my experience, very little happens inside those young minds that does not find its way out of their mouths, and that was my solution. Let Bria’s conversation tell us the story and keep her internal world limited to immediate reactions.
“Of course, and my name is Bria, Bria Jean -- not Carrot Top.” Did he think me such a featherbrain as to forget him in only three years?
No he wasn’t, not one bit. His eyes crinkled up as if he secretly laughed at me inside.Was he? The thought filled me with a flash of rage. “How would you like it if I called you Big Nose?”
“You can if you wish, sticks and stones and all.” He shrugged as though my spiteful words couldn’t pierce his skin.
This opening chapter is therefore dependent on dialogue, as befits her age and intellectual development.
A Changing Voice for a Changing Child
Three chapters later, she is now twelve, well “almost thirteen.” Her voice must also change. Pubescent girls are secretive by nature—ask any mother. Gone is the outgoing, open little girl and now we have a child who spends much time alone, writes dreadful poetry, plays with her face, keeps a journal of angst, is riddled with insecurities and awed at the changes of her body. This brings on bouts of intense drama; nothing is calm, quiet and normal. It is all grist for extreme reactions—particularly for those girls in unhappy situations.
This chapter opens with Bria writing in her journal:
September 16, 1969
God! I hate it here. You wouldn’t believe the tension. Jess the Mess! What a piece of work. She’s a slapper, a raging tyrant, a petulant brat, self-important, self-righteous, lying, unhappy sour bitch! She’s nuts, wacko and mean and her kids are even worse. Anne, older and lots bigger than me, is sneaky as a snake. If I don’t do exactly what she wants, she slaps my face …”
I don’t know about you, but this transports me back, not only to the dramas with my own daughters or my foster daughters but to my own youth, remembered all too well.
Right away, we know:
- She is angry.
- She sees the adults around her through that anger.
- She is unhappy.
- She feels alone, needing to share her feeling with a journal.
- Her situation has deteriorated.
- Something has happened; something is going to happen—there is a story here.
Gone are some of the restrictions of the younger voice of Bria, but we must keep true to that adolescent voice. She is not an adult, does not have the logic skills of an adult, cannot see the world through adult eyes which accept mitigation and motivation. Hers is a self-centered world; like all adolescents, she views all around her through the filter of her own needs and emotions, unable to see those of anyone else.
Miss Coalbins called her and told her. Boy, did I get into trouble. First, a couple of hard slaps and then, she sat in a chair with this ridiculous pained expression. I mean honest, her bottom lip quivered. She said, “I demand an apology.” Of course, I had to give one. I like my face up here on my head.
These chapters make great use of Bria’s narrative voice, letting us in on her personal world. She trusts us, the reader and shares her secrets with us, but keeps them closely guarded from those around her. We have become her BFF.
Writing the Teen Voice
Compare this to the “almost sixteen” aged Bria, whose voice has grown considerably, but whose inner dialogue still lacks the maturity of an adult. She is sixteen, believes herself all grown up though it is quickly apparent to the reader she is not.
“Well maybe you do lie to me, and maybe you don’t. You tell lot’s of lies, Ted Lassiter, so why would I be the exception?”
Ted pulled at his blond hair, something he always did when he thought. Lucky for his hairline, he didn’t think too often. For once, he beat me to the last word.
“Seems to me, you proved my point. Hearing someone tell a whole lot of lies does make them hard to believe, but I can promise you one thing: I don’t lie to my friends – don’t think that’s something you can say.”
Chagrin at not having a witty comeback and humiliation at finding myself bested by the slow-witted Ted struck me speechless. Not even Jack could leave me wordless like he did that night.
Typical of teen-aged children, Bria is quick to under-estimate the intelligence of those around her, believing the world to be what she thinks it is. Is there any greater know-it-all than a teenage girl? All you parents are nodding your heads, especially if your teenager is a touch on the ‘experienced’ side.
Which brings me to an important point: not all children grow equally. I’ve met nineteen-year-old persons who seem twelve and vice verso. Children forced to fend for themselves become street-wise, worldly, able to ape the mannerisms of adulthood—but they are not adults. Their brains do not function as an adult’s, no matter what their experiences. We must strive to keep true to that reality.
Nothing deters me more than reading a story where young people are given the voice, the inner dialogue and intellectual capabilities of an adult. This never rings true. The voice is hollow, unreal and difficult to accept and engage.
Another truth: the developing mind in the teen-age years changes rapidly. There can be a world of difference between sixteen and seventeen, and again at eighteen. Sometimes six months can bring in sweeping change.
This is Bria’s voice a year later. Here Bria is meeting her dear friend Jack’s girlfriend for the first time—one of my favorite scenes, I must admit. Leslie speaks first.
“So you’re Jack’s little Bria? How happy to meet you. Jack speaks of you all the time.” Her voice spoke to a child of ten. Her eyes measured my womanhood.
I returned the examination: good legs, nice cheekbones, professional makeup job, expertly dyed blond hair and boobs a Jersey cow would be proud to own. Even I recognized the clothes as couturier. What did she want with Jack? “Hello, how are you?”
Bria’s voice has grown considerably, but she is still only seventeen. We find she can hold her own against this adult rival for Jack’s affections, but her internal world is still immature. We readers are privileged to share her inner dialogue—Jack and Leslie are not. They will see a girl older than her years; we see the child.
I owe much of the success of Bria’s teenage voice to my beloved granddaughter, who stayed with me during the time I was writing these scenes—she was “almost seventeen,” then. I must take this opportunity to say, “Thank you, Paige for all the time you spent reading my early drafts, discussing what Bria’s emotions might be and reminding me of the difficulty of not being a child, nor yet a woman. Thank you from my heart.”
There it is—my example of the difficulties and challenges in writing from the child’s perspective. Did I have any motive beyond promoting my own book, you ask. I do, though of course I want to promote my book (available January 27, 2011 by the way.) In order to give a good example, I needed a work I know inside and out—my own.
Now on to the meat.
As an adult, how can you write in the voice of a child?
An Essay on the Child's Voice
You must be able to tap into your own past, your own childhood and once again be the person you used to be. You must actively engage with children at every given opportunity, and remind yourself of the special attributes of that unique time of growth, wonder and curiosity.
But this is not enough.
Age and the distance of time can rob us of perspective. I often sit with proud grandparents who watch their beloved second generation and say such things as “Isn’t he advanced for three or four? What a smart little whippersnapper he is.”
Of course, I agree, but with the added advantage of having worked with children most of my adult life, I think to myself, “No, he looks pretty normal for that age. You’ve simply forgotten what three or four was like.”
The same distance of years that makes us suddenly think the cops little more than kids, see thirty-year-old adults as barely out of their teens, and so quick to dismiss the wisdom of the young also skews our view of age-appropriate child behavior, intellect and vocabulary.
And we don’t have to be in our dotage for this to happen.
Even adults in their twenties and thirties, busy as they are with careers and building a life, soon forget the ‘personhood’ of the child and what they are capable of—unless they have children and are reliving those moments with them.
Authors so Often Short-Change the Child's Voice
Common belief states children are inarticulate; children have no understanding of their emotions; children don’t understand the world around them. Writers who believe this and write accordingly tend to be condescending, or precious, or preachy, or worse—their children sound like intellectual adults, without respect for the limitations of the age. Or worse yet—their children are hollow, void, stick characters from a morality play and infantile rather than just plain kids.
Here’s an example: did Timmy from the Lassie books act like a real boy, think like a real boy or speak like a real boy—not one I’ve ever met. He came across two dimensional, one of those child characters written by an adult to instruct children how they should be. Even as a child myself, I dismissed him, knew such a child didn’t exist, and if he had, I wouldn’t have liked him—too prissy, obedient, polite. If it hadn’t been for the dog, I never would have sat still for the stories.
Here’s an example of a great child’s voice: Harper Lee’s Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Lee presented a real little girl, one all women could relate to and a beautiful portrait of childhood. (That’s my role model, by the way—my goal.)
Writing from the viewpoint of the child does not give us the right to make of our characters what we wish children were—but to consider them as they are.
Kids go about the business of being kids no matter what goes on in their lives. There’s this wonderful resilience kids have… They stay innocent and keep reinventing themselves despite all the appalling crap. I find the ideal of childhood innocence played against the cruelty of the world very inspiring.
Even in the most despicable of circumstances, they maintain that wonder and magic in their views of life and the world. They are all philosophers, processing everything around them and always ready to ask, “Why?”
They are painfully honest. Up to about age ten or eleven, what goes on in their minds is exactly what comes out—nothing is filtered for politeness, nothing censored for political correctness, and there is never any chance a child says one thing but thinks another. This is a powerful tool for a writer—a complete lack of subtlety, or deviance.
Those qualities in adults that attract, impress or disgust children are so far removed from what other adults see, it is a whole new way to see the world. Writing from the viewpoint of the child allows us to describe our world from a fresh perspective, and possibly, quite possibly shed some of society’s preconceptions along the way. The false belief that children are inarticulate and incomprehensive of the world should be the first to go.
They do speak their minds (sometimes embarrassingly so) and do understand their environment, but from the viewpoint of a child. (Who is to say one person’s perceptions are more true than anothers; perhaps the children have it right and the adults see things falsely.)
When This Bird Flew Away went out to the advance readers, in total more than one hundred, I noticed those who considered the dialogue of the young Bria as too mature for her years were those, I learned upon questioning, had little day-to-day contact with children, or none. When asked which passages disturbed them, they found it difficult to accept a bookish girl of ten would know such words as ‘precious,’ or that a twelve-old-child would have the phrase ‘raging tyrant’ in her vocabulary, or would express her anger so articulately.
Other readers, those with children now or recently at home found no discrepancies of language or thought patterns.
They, like me had daily reminders of how very succinct and eloquent our children can be.
Children Echo and Mirror What They Are Given
My neighbor, Maggie, age ten and a book-lover like me, one day came for a chat. With a big sigh and rolled eyes, she announced her brothers were “decidedly idiots —as one would expect of boys.” Another day she invited herself in to my lanai, waiting for Mother's retribution for some minor crime, as yet unreported. “I thought I’d best come and visit you one last time,” she announced. “Because when my Mom hears of this, I’m going to my room and I ain’t never getting out of there. I’ll be an old crone the next time you see me.”
My youngest grandson, Elian, went through a phase at age three where the word “actually” was used in every sentence—and correctly.
While taking a stroll in a Vancouver Island winter some years ago, my niece said to me. “Auntie, my hands are virtual blocks of ice—just thought you’d want to know.” She was six.
When Paige was four, I repainted my living room. She stood in the middle, one hand on her hip and surveyed my work. “Well isn’t this simply charming,” she said, leaving me struggling to keep a straight face.
My younger granddaughter, Lauren, now six, told me on the phone all about her ballet class’s invitation to join the Calgary Stampeders’ (football) cheerleaders at half-time. She chanted the cheer for me, then added, “… and with a good shake of the pom-poms, we did our finale. It was exhilarating.”
If I were to write these true anecdotes as dialogue, some of you would find the language age-inappropriate—it is and it isn’t, depending on the child’s reading habits, education level of the parents, opportunities for intellectual growth—but still, I most likely wouldn’t use it. It would come across too cute and precious.
My point is, when writing from the point of view of the child, don’t short-change their abilities, their vocabulary, or their intellect. Make sure you have an understanding of the developmental level and mental acuity of the age of your character. If you don’t know kids, befriend one. You're in for a treat and more material for your writing than you can possibly imagine.