When you include a child in your novel …
When you include a child in your novel write his or her voice as carefully as you do your adults’ dialogue.
I’ve often been irritated by a novel that includes a child who speaks with vocabulary or phrases that are just not true of the age given. Even if the child is precocious their voice will differ in terminology, pace and focus. For instance, one novel had the nine-year old, anxious to be off and out, say “Time’s getting on, Mum. You need to get your skates on.” Just, no. Far too old and hardly current. More likely, “Mum, come ON.” or “Mum, we’ll be late,” or just “MUM!” as the child flaps at the front door. Very small children tug at the adult’s clothing, make frustrated noises/whine. Have a look and listen to get the child’s voice right.
For any character to have realistic dialogue the writer has to hear the character speaking in his or her head. Either there’s a direct memory of this kind of character or researching and listening to such a voice. If this isn’t possible, best not to write that character speaking. For instance, if there’s no chance of my meeting a newly arrived Japanese visitor with poor grasp of English, I’m not going to risk imagining errors he might make or bowdlerise the words I have him say. No. Best to keep the Japanese man silent. That seems to be stating the obvious and few would take on a character for their novels who is completely outside their experience.
Yet, some writers seem to think that children are fair game. Their dialogue is sketchily written. True, some writers make their children such geniuses that adult speech can be accepted. (Even Sullivan’s All the Light We Cannot See has its two child characters possessed of exceptional ability). It’s my belief that such children are over-represented in fiction. Let’s face it, we prefer kids not to quite match our own intelligence, so writing this dialogue needs to be as believable and convincing as that for the adult characters. Surprise, surprise, every child is different and their dialogue needs to indicate that difference or personality, or else it’s best left out.
For instance, in Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng manages to give really distinct voices to each of her young characters. Four are from the same family and are quite close in age but we can tell from the dialogue which is speaking because Ng has imbued each with clear personalities.
In A Relative Invasion I set out to make my boy characters different – that’s the point of their rivalry. I’m encouraged by the men who have emailed or reviewed and identified with the often beleaguered Billy. Psychological bullying is endemic, sadly. It means that Billy, well-meaning, has a different voice from the manipulative and knowing Kenneth. Similarly aged boys, if they both speak in “standard kidspeak” the novel just would not work
There was an interesting article in The Guardian by WB Gooderham some while ago categorizing novels with children into three types: accurately portrayed; go-betweens and untethered from social norms. Well worth reading.
If child characters are to figure in novels, it’s wise to remember that children judge adults as much as adults judge them. (Look well at the girl above). And that they remember detail, often of a different kind from that catching adult attention. Children regard, think, judge and do have a voice. What they say may well hit the point. Beware!