One of the more interesting challenges of writing in a “limited” style (i.e., not omniscient third-person) is getting into the minds of your characters. I don’t mind. In fact, I like it. I feel like it lets me try out new ways of thinking, of seeing the world. And nowhere is this more true than when I’m writing children.
This isn’t a purely theoretical exercise, either. My short story “Either Side of Night” is entirely written from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy caught up in events largely beyond his comprehension. A novel I’m writing features multiple POVs, and all of them are children when the story starts.
Of course, I’m not the only one. Plenty of authors write narrative through a child’s eyes, and some of the greatest fictional characters are young. Look, for instance, at Harry Potter, or half the cast of A Song of Ice and Fire. (Going strictly by the American standard of “under 18”, the kids narrating A Game of Thrones outnumber the adults!) I’m sure you can find plenty of others, and not just restricted to the young adult and teen fiction sections.
Eyes of a Child
Why, you may ask, should you bother writing from a child’s perspective? Well, disregarding the obvious answer of “it’s what the story needs”, I can think of a few reasons.
First, children can be more ignorant of the inner workings of the setting. To them, especially to the younger ones, everything in the world is mysterious or unknown. That’s exactly how a reader starts out, too. Your readers don’t know who the political factions are, or what the different schools of magic teach, or which of the gods is really an ascended human from a bygone era. By writing from a child POV, you can introduce a reader to the more complex parts naturally; they follow the same path as the character.
This works even better if you’re doing something training-based, like a magic school (Harry Potter), an apprenticeship travelogue (the first parts of Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man), or something of that nature. As the child advances in knowledge, so does the reader, and there’s no sense in them complaining about disbelief. Sure, it can be a slow reveal, but if that’s what you want, then it might be just what you need.
Second, children are innocent. This can be used by a writer in a couple of ways. It’s great for setting up good-versus-evil plot points, for example, because most kids won’t be able to discern the subtle shades of gray. And destroying innocence can be a powerful dramatic tool, as any fan of Arya Stark knows all too well. But children as characters can also keep things “light”. In escapist fantasy (as opposed to the gritty and grimdark types that are all too common these days), the child can be a kind of touchstone.
Finally, the third reason ties into both of the last two. Since children are less concerned with “adult” matters, as well as simply knowing less about them in general, that’s that much you don’t have to write about when they’re the center of attention. Kids aren’t going to be cynical and jaded. They won’t care about romantic and sexual relationships. They don’t have major responsibilities. Even the language you use for their narration can be simplified, especially if the child POV is only one of many.
Raising a child
The limitations, of course, are evident. Children don’t normally have the same opportunity for adventure. Their lack of responsibility is countered by a lack of ability, whether natural (kids aren’t as strong as adults) or social (kids can’t vote, drive, etc.), and this can hinder a story.
One easy way to circumvent some of those restrictions is to make the child “attached” to an adult in some way. Obviously, one possibility is traveling with their parents. Babysitters, master craftsmen, robot nannies, and royal servants all work just as well. No matter how you do it, since the adult and child are together, they’ll experience most of the same things. And then you have a quick and dirty way to increase dramatic tension by separating them.
At the other end of the spectrum are the children who are alone. Typically, these tend to be older, usually teenagers. That’s because they’re close enough to adulthood to interact with “grownups” on a more even footing, but they still haven’t lost all of their childlike nature. Runaways, orphans, and incoming students all fit this mold, and their stories will likely involve lots of social conflict, issues of acceptance, and such.
Speaking of conflict, the kinds children can be involved in are often entirely different from those of their elders…at least to start. There’s nothing stopping an adolescent from being the Chosen One; that’s basically Harry Potter. But you can’t jump right into the deep end there. Let kids be kids for a while, so that when they can’t, it’ll pack that much more of a punch. And always be aware of both the limits of youth, and its capacity for exceeding them.
Writing children can be tiring, and it may seem unrewarding. But it can also be loads of fun. Even if you’re creating something entirely serious, a well-placed child’s point of view can add a bit of levity, a dash of lighthearted escapism, or just a change of pace. Or it can be a heartbreaking look into a shattered world full of broken dreams. Your choice.
We connect with children on a biological level. It’s innate to empathize. That’s why their stories can be so powerful, so emotionally moving. Whether you’re writing light or dark, it’s something to think about.