Here I am into Day Six of being den mother to my grandsons, ages eight and almost six ... and anyone with young children or grandchildren will start nodding at this point, and are probably poised to send a comment of sympathy or at least an expression of understanding. It is an experience beyond compare. I raised three sons, although quite a few years have passed since then, and I do get glimmers of memory of those days slipping through from time to time. Then I will think, "Yes, I've been here before!" I have even been Grandma-in-Charge in this household before, but not for several years, and these boys have changed a lot in the intervening years.
It takes me a few days to pick up on the current rhythms of a child's life. Of course, the basic needs don't change much, so the old habits of supervising eating, getting ready for school, brushing teeth before bedtime, etc. soon fall into place. But the environment and the culture in which they are growing up is different in so many ways from when I was a young mother. The electronic world they live in is one example -- they nonchalantly whiz through electronic games, spending hours on end. This can be baffling to a grandmother, even one who texts and blogs! They come to my aid when I hit the wrong button on the TV remote, and helping them with their hockey equipments is an eye-opener for this former hockey mom.
For a writer, associating for even a brief time with a couple of children, sharing their thoughts and activities, and what's more important, being responsible for their well-being during that time ... well, the story ideas can start to simmer. Now before I am accused, I will assure you that I am not using my current situation as a laboratory where I observe my grandsons in order to write believable child characters. Furthermore, because I have always suspected it would be hard to capture the essence of a child in a story, I would be reluctant to attempt it.
However, I admit that I began to think this week about what would be involved. When I read stories where a child is an important character, I often wonder how the author is able to portray that child with so much authenticity. Some romance lines deal with family life with one or more children playing key roles in the stories. I have read stories where children have been given well-rounded and unique personalities. In others, the author has simply used children as devices within the plot to bring the hero and heroine together, where in so doing the children must deal with a difficult or traumatic situation such as grief, separation anxiety, or illness. Often we do not feel a satisfactory connection with the child as an individual. I enjoy the stories where child characters are created with such sensitivity and charm that they may upstage the adults in the story, much as child actors often do in the movies.
Of course, some novels are written completely in the child's point of view, such as the 14 year-old girl in The Lovely Bones by Alice Seebold, who takes the reader through the events following her murder as the first person narrator of the story. Another fascinating novel for its portrayal of a young girl, whose misunderstanding of events she witnesses leads to a terrible conclusion, is Atonement by Ian MacEwan.
Whether a child plays a major or minor role in the story, or the story is told from the child's perspective, how does the writer bring that character to life in a credible fashion? I brought the December 2009 issue of The Writer along with me (I hadn't had time to read it yet), and how serendipitous that I had just begun to think about child characters when I noticed that it contains a brief article, "Through a Child's Eyes," by Betty Wilson Beamguard.
Beamguard discloses seven tips for writers to consider when attempting to write from a child's viewpoint:
Use your own memories of childhood or spend time with children. This is a basic research requirement. Know how children of the age of your character speak and act. Recall the fears, joys, and longings of your childhood.
Children usually notice simple things. An event doesn't have to be earth-shattering to impress, delight, or frighten a child. Adults tend to forget that children respond to basic human emotions of kindness and love more quickly than their older counterparts.
Children are vulnerable to misunderstanding situations they do not understand. Issues of trust are huge with children who have not been treated justly, yet they expect to be able to trust an older person. They also have a capacity to imagine consequences that would not occur to an adult. Sometimes this is a protective mechanism , not easily detected.
Don't be afraid to use the language of childhood. Dialogue must be authentic, and must reflect opinions that could be held by a child of the age of your character. Spend time with children to hear their unique voices and modes of expression.
Fears, obsessions, and worries prey on children. The monster under the bed or in the closet is very real to a child, as are fears of the dark, of heights, of being deserted, and so on. These can result in behaviours that lead children into desperate situations.
Children can be unbelievably tolerant and forgiving. Amongst themselves, children can resolve differences more quickly than adults, and show incredible resilience. Observe children playing a game that they have made up themselves. The rules are usually fair, and transgressions forgiven with a minimum of negotiation.
Children are not perfect. Very seldom in real life do we find a child who is "a little darling" through and through. Nor are they totally brats. However, they sometimes lash out when they have been treated poorly. They must be portrayed realistically to be believable.
These are the observations of one person, to which I have tried to add some of my own thoughts. It only scratches the surface of what should be considered when developing child characters for your stories. What do you think are the most important things to keep in mind when writing the child's point of view, or giving a child a role in your story? Do you avoid writing stories with child characters? What are some of your favourite child characters?