Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Child Characters in Adult Books

(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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. Don’t overplay the “childishness”. Be selective and remember that fiction is merely real-life with form and well-defined boundaries.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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?


John Lambshead said...

Adults often treat children as if they were not present so children can be the 'invisible observer' who sees adults acting as if they were unobserved.

Slaves fulfil a similar role in the ancient world. The Romans called slaves 'furniture with tongues'. This was meant as a warning.


Anonymous said...

The few I can think of, the children have very minor roles, they are something vulnerable to protect, but not an actual _Character_.

I wonder if this is related to the oft found syndrome of the series MC turning into a flop once married. The literary ball-and-chain gets heavier when the heroine has to find a baby sitter before she can race off to save the hero at the last minute.

Do readers really find sexually unavailable or encumbered literary characters less appealing?

Is this one more sign that sex sells?

We'll have to see how Sarah handles it, as E grows up.;)

Anonymous said...

I like when the author not only can show when children are there, but have them be more than a scenery backdrop.

Too many stories seem to forget that children are everywhere. They make up, what, 1/4 of the world's population and yet they never seem to have any sort of decent role in books?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

John, good point.

I remember reading a fantasy book where the protagonists' plot was revealed by a child who had been playing while they talked.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, this is one of my pet peeves.

In so many shows and books the main characters have no grounding in reality, because they aren't enmeshed with the world. Having children (or ailing parents) links you to every other person in the same position.

And my other pet peeve, is that CHILDREN ARE PEOPLE TOO!

They should be real characters.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Warpcordova -- my point exactly!

Chris McMahon said...

In terms of examples - well there is good old Harry Potter.

Iron Dragon's Daughter by Micahel Swanwick. Most of the character are children, but its pretty adult.

A lot of David Gemmell's books start with a young protagonist. I think Connovar is around 12 at the start of Sword in the Storm. There must be a host of fantasy books that start with a young protagonist like this one (although my mind is blank at the moment).

I had an Australia editor say my heroic fantasy Tower of the Mountain King might be better off as Young Adult because of the 15 year old protagonist. 'You won't find may adult books with a young protagonist,' she maintained. Just how much fantasy does this woman read? I sent her back a host of examples, but got no reply.

Methinks she just dinnit like me writtin'

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

You're right, Chris. So many examples of fantasy with a young protagonist.

I like to see the child/teenage character act like a child. I read a fantasy recently where the prince's sister was supposed to be 13 and read more like 18.

Mike said...

Random thought, and I haven't read them recently enough to point to the function of the children, but Zenna Henderson's stories of the People had several with school children, IIRC. Actually, thinking about it, they were often the ones who were revealing the secret of the People to the outsider...

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I agree with you. I'd like to see a child/teen act appropriate to their age. But the caveat is that they have to act their age according to the time frame/world where they live. Nothing will send me out of a story quicker than to have a peasant child of 10 or 11 attending school and playing without a care in the world instead of working the fields or the loom. But then I have another beef where YA is concerned, actually with the librarians and teachers who choose summer reading lists -- not every YA book worth reading has to have a MC with a mental illness, or who has been raped, or abandoned by his/her parents, etc. Again, there needs to be a touch of reality there and, while those things happen, they don't happen to every kid.

Dave Freer said...

I think you need to be a keen observer of children and have spent some time with them to for most authors to do it convincingly. Yes there are examples of writers who do a good job without this, but it's one of areas where having kids in the right age group at home certainly helps with getting the behaviour and language right. My good friend Eric - who at that stage of his life saw children at 50 yards, when he couldn't avoid it, had a child character in one of the Belisarius books that he asked me to read for veracity. I found the language was too babyish by 3-4 years and the behaviour too adult by the same. Tossed me right out of the reading trance. And yet Eric is a very professional, methodical writer. The answer is the same as when writing horses or guns - unless they're your field expertise, get some readers with children in the right age to read for veracity

Anonymous said...

Even us experienced parents need refreshers. I've had to look up typical ages for a baby rolling over or crawling, and what the heck they teach in second grade. How can I have forgotten so much in a mere twenty years? I don't remember being hit in the pre-frontal cortex . . .

Kate said...

I love Pratchett's child characters, in every book that's had children.

I think children are probably much harder to write well - as Sarah can attest, dealing with small child reasoning and making it work in a story is bloody hard.

As Amanda said, context matters too. A modern American 10 year old is going to have vastly different maturity levels than a 10 year old elf prince or a 10 year old subsistence farmer's kid somewhere in fantasyland.

Personally, I think the reason there are so few kids in SF and fantasy (YA excepted, of course) is that so many authors are - like me - inclined to view children as incomprehensible and sometimes frightening alien beings that might eventually metamorphose into real humans.