How to create an authentic child’s voice in fiction


19 February 2021
Author Blair James shows how she created a convincing child character for her novel Bernard and Pat
How to create an authentic child’s voice in fiction Images

Creating any kind of narrative voice requires the writer to 'get into character'. To do so one must adopt the individual character’s unique interpretation of the social consciousness.

What generic information informs their actions? How well-developed are their genres for different types of experience? What are their common responses, their conventional attitudes, their oft-told stories, their sayings – all of which pertain to their specific social culture? In other words, what is their understanding of life and how does it reflect in the things that they do and say and think and feel and value?

Getting into character as a child

With the child’s voice we must 'get into character' as we would any other kind of voice but a child’s engagement with and capacity for understanding the social consciousness is radically different from an adult’s. We all have experienced life as a child but it is near impossible to create such a perspective on experience as adults because our brains are far more developed and we have accrued millions of moments of experience with which to inform our interpretation of life.

It is difficult to achieve the child’s voice in particular because such a task involves attempting to 'forget' momentarily what is known in order to re-embody the childhood experience. The child’s voice must encapsulate the unreliability of the child’s perspective.

There is a fine line when creating such a voice between authenticity and hamming it up, so-to-speak. Of course, there may be times when a writer may want to ham it up. I find hamming it up to be quite a large part of my style as a writer. But understanding the workings of the child perspective certainly helps to direct creative representations of it. And, there are techniques which seem appropriate thus for conveying such experience. I re-read my novel Bernard and Pat (B&P) in order to highlight my own attempts at working with the 'child' genre and the qualities which emerge from the child’s conscious structure.

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See the world through stories

Initially, we must understand that the child understands its world through stories – the stories it is told and is part of. Furthermore, if no one tells stories or they tell or act out instead incoherent stories, the child’s own capacity for understanding and creating their own stories will be limited. The voices of parents and caregivers inform the creation of our self and our conscious experience. Of course, we ought think about the narratives of the adults around the child when considering ways to shape the child’s voice. In B&P, Catherine is told stories of 'stop'; 'no'; 'you’re too small'; 'don’t' and more interestingly 'Catherine'. Furthermore, what informs Catherine’s narrative often is no voice at all. What this produces in Catherine’s story of life and her voice is a longing for explanation, a feeling of 'not-ness', of 'no'; a negative disposition; a generalised anxiety; and perhaps most distressing a lack of self – a detachment or dissociation from her designated name and character, a needing to be someone or something else.

Admittedly, the child’s voice need not be one influenced by traumatic experience. But the same questions must be asked. What stories inform their perspective? These stories might be about 'yes'; or 'I love you'; or 'well done!'; or 'you’re okay'. These are all types of stories which will inform the child’s perspective of the world and life and how people treat each other and who they are.

Establish their role in their surroundings

Another type of story is about their role in their group: their family and caregivers, mainly. Older children will also adopt a role in broader social groups such as when they attend school and begin to navigate their way around friends, foes, teachers, and so on. Through these groups they learn about themselves and the roles which they serve in their groups. At home a child may have a younger sibling, a situation which might translate into them adopting a “protector” role. Parental stress may cause another child to become overly-complacent as an attempt to please them. In order to understand the stories which inform a child’s voice we must examine their social relationships.

See the world with limited experience

While we can begin to build up a voice based on perhaps the voices of the adult characters and the material of our story, we need to realise also that children have a much more limited experience on which to base their perception and understanding of life – they are as yet 'underdeveloped'. Obviously, this observation does not tell us anything new about children but under closer inspection it can inform the creation of a child’s voice. The limited information which a child has to advise their dealings in the world translates to a more intense experience of each of their scarcely-informed concepts but also a limited understanding of things that we take for granted as known. Children draw odd connections between things because their range for comparison is much smaller. Essentially, children have a much weaker or a premature conceptual ability. But, there is a strange profundity in the simplicity of their conceptualisation and, certainly, a 'matter of fact'-ness.

Amplify the significance of events or emotions

In the child’s perspective the relativism of significance is illuminated. Things mean, simply, much more to children. Because they possess less meaning, the things that they do understand have a much larger sense of meaning. As adults there are still things that we categorise as 'good' and things that we categorise as 'bad' but because we have accrued experience enough to fill out a life, there a lot more things which are just 'in the middle'. Our spectrum of experience is much more varied and well-developed (one would hope). Children’s stories are unrealistic for this reason, and often they leave stories unfinished.

Limit understanding of time

After reading B&P again I found that probably the most important element of the child’s voice is their engagement with and understanding and expression of tense and time. A good example to draw upon here comes from page 50: my mum had a mum when I was little. Children don’t really understand time or how to talk about it. Notice that the quote offered does not talk about or refer to time but simply the child struggles with tense in a sort of unrecognised way which at the same time manages to transmit the child’s intended meaning. The phrasing and conceptualisation is awkward but acceptable. It is not ridiculous, but it is not correct. But remember too that time has little meaning for children unless it is structured as part of their life such as it is at school. It is simply that children do not need to know about time particularly and are only just learning how to talk about it. One might hark back to school language lessons: it’s all about tense – time and how to talk about it. How to refer to things. Children are just getting their heads around the concept.

Distort internal logic

I find that non-linearity helps to represent the child’s point of view and interpretation of events. B&P is an extreme example of such a portrayal, perhaps, and for reasons of its chopping between child and adult perspectives required a more experimental approach to form. However, I do not suggest that all narratives involving a child must be highly experimental and non-linear in form. Instead, one could carry the idea of non-linearity into even occasional dialogue spoken by a child character. Retain the idea that their way of expression or understanding of situations may be non-linear. They may leave sentences unfinished, stories may have anarchic timelines which follow the instantiations of the child’s memory and thought process. I feel that the effect of voice in B&P depends quite largely on non-linearity, both stark and also subtle. Nonlinearity suits particularly traumatic narratives and narratives about remembering childhood in which the child voice is used.

What does the child understand?

Nonlinearity infects the way that children express their ideas and memories. The not being able to make sense of things, the confusion, the unanswered questions – questions that the child is too young perhaps to even conceptualise or feel allowed to ask. A lot of childhood is not knowing. We need to ask: what does the child know? Could a child make sense of the action it is involved in?

In B&P there is a part (7-9) where a limo drives onto a playground to pick Catherine up for her father’s wake. Obviously, these circumstances are tragic from an adult perspective. But, Catherine doesn’t know what a limo is. Catherine doesn’t know where she is going or understand what is going on. The limo is a 'big car' and it drives onto the playground which in her mind has never happened before because 'cars aren’t allowed on the playground'. Catherine does not understand yet the concepts of 'limo'; 'funeral'; 'wake'. Most prominently she clearly has no understanding of the concept of 'death'.

This scene from Catherine’s perspective illuminates the sometimes tragically jarring misunderstandings of a child based on a very limited understanding of the world. The child has not yet had the experiences which could inform their engagement with most events. Everything is novel to a child, most basically because they have not experienced it yet. Catherine thinks that the big special car is for a special party thrown especially in her honour. Instead, we as adult reader know that she is going to her father’s wake.

At the beginning of the book a more subtle adaptation of this theme comes in the passage called 'CHLOE' (1). Catherine compares her own having no dad to Claire’s having 'two”' wondering how much each of them 'deserve' a dad – as if it works that way. Throughout the book there are various instances of unfinished thoughts or missing explanations for what is meant in expression: 'I wonder if.' (3). Missing information is key to the child’s narrative. The child’s narrative is only a partial-narrative. In fact, all of our narratives are partial but the partiality of the child’s voice is much more marked. Try to leave gaps. Try to restrain from gap-filling.

Imagine the possibilities

Another effect of the child’s limited perspective is transformative. For a child, the mundanity of the car wash (72-73) or going to the toilet (24-27) becomes an elaborate scene of horror. The child’s perspective of the world and their feelings are magnified. Their generic repertoires are less developed, which both limits their experience but also intensifies their experience. The child voice must be exaggerative not because children are wont to lie but because to them things are exaggerated. Depending on the age of the child, when it engages in any action it is likely to be doing so for the first time. They have not yet learned how to manage in a large variety of situations. Their engagement with such context will form the very way that they think and act in the world. The child’s way of seeing events in the world shows us that narrow, generic thinking can be very limiting indeed. The child’s world is often a scary, overwhelming, and confusing place in which they are able to exert little control. But, what the child’s voice also embodies is generic potential. The child, unfurnished with specific experience, is free to fill their genres creatively in their imagination. We see this capacity in its finest form during play.

Exaggerate experience

Children exaggerate often. Memory generally tends to weigh heavy on one side of the scale of value anyway but also children seem to perceive in an exaggerated way because their generic repertoires are underdeveloped. Children say things such as 'you are ruining my life' often, much to the dismay of parents across the globe. (Technically, you are ruining their life but their concept of life and their levels of consciousness are immature). Children exaggerate about everything. 'It was always winter' (80-81), Catherine says in B&P. As we grow older, we learn about life’s variety; we learn to have wider spectrums for value other than 'all good' versus 'all bad'.  But children engage regularly in 'splitting' or 'black-and-white thinking' – idealisation and condemnation in extremity. People are all-good, superhuman in their goodness, or they are the most terrible and worst ever. There is no grey, no in-between. As we get older we tend to get better at recognising that humans are multifaceted and that there is lots of grey. Thus, the child’s voice is often very matter-of-fact: 'I wanted to eat one but Pat said no' (3); and furthermore, it generates often overly-honest and 'unfiltered', so-to-speak, descriptions of people and events: 'big and fat' (29); 'And I wish they were all dead' (27).

Magic becomes reality

Exaggeration can instead take the form of highly creative magical fantasies. In B&P there are several scenes based on such imaginative work: JAMES (5-6); 'PICKHERNOSEHONTAS' (31-33); 'HEATHER' (56-57); 'SWISHY WASHY' (72-73); 'MONSTERS' (87-88); 'YOU SILLY GIRL' (95-97); 'BRICK' (107). In fact, there is sort of fantasy weaved throughout even 'everyday' stories. A writer need not deal with fantasy so explicitly as in B&P. Again, as with nonlinearity, fantasy can inform dialogue or narrative. What might the child be up to when they are interrupted by a rude adult speaking to them? What magical world has popped like a bubble plummeting them back into the boring living room? Perhaps the child was nursing several sick babies in their role as 'head nurse' when the main character wants to tell them to get their shoes and get ready to leave the house. Perhaps instead a child-spy was busy plotting their course of action when mum shouts 'tea is ready'. Children create magical renderings of mundane events. Fantasy is very much involved with the ways in which kids think and cope with life. They have little power over the events in their little world and so they can seize control imaginatively. Fantasies can be a means of asserting control, even if it is only in imaginary scenarios.

What can a child's voice add to your writing?

Once we have become acquainted with the child genre, perhaps using the general approach and specific prompts outlined above as inspiration, the benefits of putting the work in to achieve the child’s voice are plentiful. Capturing the child’s essence strikes a resonant chord with readers – everyone has been a child. Furthermore, portraying the child’s perspective is portraying one which often is unheard. Another pleasing quality which emerges from the child’s voice is humour. It is funny because kids are funny no matter how sad the story. The mixture of sadness and humour in B&P is what creates those 'oof' moments. Practically, the child’s voice offers a distance from the material at hand. One must translate the story through the genre of 'child', and a certain objectivity is gained. It’s actually a very freeing exercise, and authenticity will come when you draw from the child 'within', while at the same time situating yourself in a perspective which is 'without' adult skills of rationality, reasoning, and all types of information which we learn over time and add to our generic repertoire to aide our social experience.

I explain my theory of social consciousness in a nearly-complete book, Apropos of Everything, which I am looking to publish in the near future.

Bernard And Pat by Blair James is published by Corsair.


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