I’ve always enjoyed featuring children in my novels — quite often in very pivotal roles. For me, their insights, recorded correctly, can be as deep in their apparent simplicity as anything the philosophical greats had to say. There’s a no-nonsense approach that allows a degree of freedom that adult characters often repress. This, together with the relative lack of responsibility that comes with childhood, allows me to pursue literary avenues that would otherwise largely be off-limits.
But I don’t write children for children. The children I write are quite often influenced by the children I knew, for one thing, and whilst we weren’t exactly the roughest kids on the block, we were alarmingly real – especially when our parents weren’t around. Also, my themes are adult themes (in the nicest possible sense, of course ). Writing a “Young Adult” novel is something I’ve never wanted to attempt. As realistic as such novels can now be, this latter point largely prevents it; the children in my novels express themes concerning the forty one year old me, not those of a fifteen year old reformed twocker.
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?
If you are interested in how I applied this knowledge, you might want to check out my coming of age story, Children of the Resolution.