Voice: Writing From the Child's Perspective


Lately, I’ve received several questions related to ‘voice’ in our writing.

We’ve already discussed some aspects of voice, namely the active (I did) versus the passive (It was done), but there is so much more to this subject. So much, that I’ve decided to dedicate more than one article to the art of voice, and today I’ll concentrate on the aspect of this issue I’ve struggled with over the past two years – the voice of the child, further: the changing voice of the growing child.

Embrace your inner child -- no, this not a new-age, feel-good article but a skill required to successfully deliver a story from a child's perspective.

The child that was still lives in you, as does your knowledge of your own children and every child you've ever come to know. You must dig deep and find those youthful voices that live within you, if you want to truthfully write in the voice of a child. And you must also understand the limitations of each age, and find a way to work with them, around them or through them -- but never ignore them.

I'm going to use my own writing as an example -- forgive me for my self-promotion. I do have my reasons. I wish you good reading and good writing.


My Example

In my novel, This Bird Flew Away, we meet our heroine, Bria Jean, at the age of “almost ten.” She introduces herself:

“According to Auntie Peg, if you couldn’t hear my voice then I must have my nose in a book. That’s exactly how Jack found me, curled up in a chair with “Nancy’s Mysterious Letter” in the basement of his father’s house. I was trying to be invisible. After such a difficult day, I felt far too prickly to be nice to him, even though I’d eagerly awaited his arrival since morning.”

In the space of four sentences, we’ve learned a great deal:

  • She is a bookish girl, preferring to lose herself between the covers of a good read.
  • Auntie Peg is someone important in her life.
  • She, like many young girls, reads Nancy Drew.
  • She is hiding.
  • She’s having a bad day.
  • She has warm feelings for her friend, Jack.

But indirectly, we’ve learned even more:

  • She is articulate, like many children who read.
  • She is honest.
  • She is aware of her inner feelings.
  • She is not in control of these feelings.
  • Her feelings are contradictory.

And lastly:

  • We know there is something happening; there is a story here.

We know all this without being told, having learned it from four sentences narrated by a young girl. From this point on, I was restricted to the voice and perceptions of young Bria, “almost ten.” Think about this – writing from this point of view does impose certain challenges. Ten-year-old children don’t do a lot of introspection; their internal dialogue normally consists of reaction rather than pro-action.

And in my experience, very little happens inside those young minds that does not find its way out of their mouths, and that was my solution. Let Bria’s conversation tell us the story and keep her internal world limited to immediate reactions.

“Of course, and my name is Bria, Bria Jean -- not Carrot Top.” Did he think me such a featherbrain as to forget him in only three years?


No he wasn’t, not one bit. His eyes crinkled up as if he secretly laughed at me inside.Was he? The thought filled me with a flash of rage. “How would you like it if I called you Big Nose?”

“You can if you wish, sticks and stones and all.” He shrugged as though my spiteful words couldn’t pierce his skin.

This opening chapter is therefore dependent on dialogue, as befits her age and intellectual development.

A Changing Voice for a Changing Child

Three chapters later, she is now twelve, well “almost thirteen.” Her voice must also change.

Pubescent girls are secretive by nature – ask any mother. Gone is the outgoing, open little girl and now we have a child who spends much time alone, writes dreadful poetry, plays with her face, keeps a journal of angst, is riddled with insecurities and awed at the changes of her body. This brings on bouts of intense drama; nothing is calm, quiet and normal. It is all grist for extreme reactions – particularly for those girls in unhappy situations.

This chapter opens with Bria writing in her journal:

September 16, 1969

God! I hate it here. You wouldn’t believe the tension. Jess the Mess! What a piece of work. She’s a slapper, a raging tyrant, a petulant brat, self-important, self-righteous, lying, unhappy sour bitch! She’s nuts, wacko and mean and her kids are even worse. Anne, older and lots bigger than me, is sneaky as a snake. If I don’t do exactly what she wants, she slaps my face …”

I don’t know about you, but this transports me back, not only to the dramas with my own daughters or my foster daughters but to my own youth, remembered all too well.

Right away, we know:

  • She is angry.
  • She sees the adults around her through that anger.
  • She is unhappy.
  • She feels alone, needing to share her feeling with a journal.
  • Her situation has deteriorated.

And lastly,

  • Something has happened; something is going to happen – there is a story here.

Gone are some of the restriction of the younger voice of Bria, but we must keep true to that adolescent voice. She is not an adult, does not have the logic skills of an adult, cannot see the world through adult eyes which accept mitigation and motivation. Hers is a self-centered world; like all adolescents, she views all around her through the filter of her own needs and emotions, unable to see those of anyone else.

Miss Coalbins called her and told her. Boy, did I get into trouble. First, a couple of hard slaps and then, she sat in a chair with this ridiculous pained expression. I mean honest, her bottom lip quivered. She said, “I demand an apology.” Of course, I had to give one. I like my face up here on my head.

These chapters make great use of Bria’s narrative voice, letting us in on her personal world. She trusts us, the reader and shares her secrets with us, but keeps them closely guarded from those around her. We have become her BFF.

Writing the Teen Voice

Compare this to the “almost sixteen” aged Bria, whose voice has grown considerably, but whose inner dialogue still lacks the maturity of an adult. She is sixteen, believes herself all grown up though it is quickly apparent to the reader she is not.

“Well maybe you do lie to me, and maybe you don’t. You tell lot’s of lies, Ted Lassiter, so why would I be the exception?”

Ted pulled at his blond hair, something he always did when he thought. Lucky for his hairline, he didn’t think too often. For once, he beat me to the last word.

“Seems to me, you proved my point. Hearing someone tell a whole lot of lies does make them hard to believe, but I can promise you one thing: I don’t lie to my friends – don’t think that’s something you can say.”

Chagrin at not having a witty comeback and humiliation at finding myself bested by the slow-witted Ted struck me speechless. Not even Jack could leave me wordless like he did that night.

Typical of teen-aged children, Bria is quick to under-estimate the intelligence of those around her, believing the world to be what she thinks it is. Is there any greater know-it-all than a teenage girl? All you parents are nodding your heads, especially if your teenager is a touch on the ‘experienced’ side.

Which brings me to an important point: not all children grow equally. I’ve met nineteen-year-old persons who seem twelve and vice verso. Children forced to fend for themselves become street-wise, worldly, able to ape the mannerisms of adulthood – but they are not adults. Their brains do not function as an adult’s, no matter what their experiences. We must strive to keep true to that reality.

Nothing deters me more than reading a story where young people are given the voice, the inner dialogue and intellectual capabilities of an adult. This never rings true. The voice is hollow, unreal and difficult to accept and engage.

My granddaughter, Paige to whom Bria and I owe a great deal. She helped me find the teenage voice for my heroine. Thanks, darling.
My granddaughter, Paige to whom Bria and I owe a great deal. She helped me find the teenage voice for my heroine. Thanks, darling.

Another truth: the developing mind in the teen-age years changes rapidly. There can be a world of difference between sixteen and seventeen, and again at eighteen. Sometimes six months can bring in sweeping change.

This is Bria’s voice a year later. Here Bria is meeting her dear friend Jack’s girlfriend for the first time – one of my favorite scenes, I must admit. Leslie speaks first.

“So you’re Jack’s little Bria? How happy to meet you. Jack speaks of you all the time.” Her voice spoke to a child of ten. Her eyes measured my womanhood.

I returned the examination: good legs, nice cheekbones, professional makeup job, expertly dyed blond hair and boobs a Jersey cow would be proud to own. Even I recognized the clothes as couturier. What did she want with Jack? “Hello, how are you?”

Bria’s voice has grown considerably, but she is still only seventeen. We find she can hold her own against this adult rival for Jack’s affections, but her internal world is still immature. We readers are privileged to share her inner dialogue – Jack and Leslie are not. They will see a girl older than her years; we see the child.

I owe much of the success of Bria’s teenage voice to my beloved granddaughter, who stayed with me during the time I was writing these scenes – she was “almost seventeen,” then. I must take this opportunity to say, “Thank you, Paige for all the time you spent reading my early drafts, discussing what Bria’s emotions might be and reminding me of the difficulty of not being a child, nor yet a woman. Thank you from my heart.”

There it is – my example of the difficulties and challenges in writing from the child’s perspective. Did I have any motive beyond promoting my own book, you ask. I do, though of course I want to promote my book (available January 27, 2011 by the way.) In order to give a good example, I needed a work I know inside and out – my own.

Now on to the meat.

An Essay on the Child's Voice

As an adult, how can you write in the voice of a child?

You must be able to tap into your own past, your own childhood and once again be the person you used to be. You must actively engage with children at every given opportunity, and remind yourself of the special attributes of that unique time of growth, wonder and curiosity.

But this is not enough.

Age and the distance of time can rob us of perspective. I often sit with proud grandparents who watch their beloved second generation and say such things as “Isn’t he advanced for three or four? What a smart little whippersnapper he is.”

Of course, I agree, but with the added advantage of having worked with children most of my adult life, I think to myself, “No, he looks pretty normal for that age. You’ve simply forgotten what three or four was like.”

The same distance of years that makes us suddenly think the cops little more than kids, see thirty-year-old adults as barely out of their teens, and so quick to dismiss the wisdom of the young also skews our view of age-appropriate child behavior, intellect and vocabulary.

And we don’t have to be in our dotage for this to happen.

Even adults in their twenties and thirties, busy as they are with careers and building a life, soon forget the ‘personhood’ of the child and what they are capable of – unless they have children and are reliving those moments with them.

Authors So Often Short-Change the Child's Voice

Common belief states children are inarticulate; children have no understanding of their emotions; children don’t understand the world around them. Writers who believe this and write accordingly tend to be condescending, or precious, or preachy, or worse – their children sound like intellectual adults, without respect for the limitations of the age. Or worse yet – their children are hollow, void, stick characters from a morality play and infantile rather than just plain kids.

Here’s an example: did Timmy from the Lassie books act like a real boy, think like a real boy or speak like a real boy – not one I’ve ever met. He came across two dimensional, one of those child characters written by an adult to instruct children how they should be. Even as a child myself, I dismissed him, knew such a child didn’t exist, and if he had, I wouldn’t have liked him – too prissy, obedient, polite. If it hadn’t been for the dog, I never would have sat still for the stories.

Here’s an example of a great child’s voice: Harper Lee’s Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Lee presented a real little girl, one all women could relate to and a beautiful portrait of childhood. (That’s my role model, by the way – my goal.)

Writing from the viewpoint of the child does not give us the right to make of our characters what we wish children were – but to consider them as they are.

Kids go about the business of being kids no matter what goes on in their lives. There’s this wonderful resilience kids have… They stay innocent and keep reinventing themselves despite all the appalling crap. I find the ideal of childhood innocence played against the cruelty of the world very inspiring.

Even in the most despicable of circumstances, they maintain that wonder and magic in their views of life and the world. They are all philosophers, processing everything around them and always ready to ask, “Why?”

They are painfully honest. Up to about age ten or eleven, what goes on in their minds is exactly what comes out – nothing is filtered for politeness, nothing censored for political correctness, and there is never any chance a child says one thing but thinks another. This is a powerful tool for a writer – a complete lack of subtlety, or deviance.

Those qualities in adults that attract, impress or disgust children are so far removed from what other adults see, it is a whole new way to see the world. Writing from the viewpoint of the child allows us to describe our world from a fresh perspective, and possibly, quite possibly shed some of society’s preconceptions along the way. The false belief that children are inarticulate and incomprehensive of the world should be the first to go.

They do speak their minds (sometimes embarrassingly so) and do understand their environment, but from the viewpoint of a child. (Who is to say one person’s perceptions are more true than anothers; perhaps the children have it right and the adults see things falsely.)

When This Bird Flew Away went out to the advance readers, in total more than one hundred, I noticed those who considered the dialogue of the young Bria as too mature for her years were those, I learned upon questioning, had little day-to-day contact with children, or none. When asked which passages disturbed them, they found it difficult to accept a bookish girl of ten would know such words as ‘precious,’ or that a twelve-old-child would have the phrase ‘raging tyrant’ in her vocabulary, or would express her anger so articulately.

Other readers, those with children now or recently at home found no discrepancies of language or thought patterns.

They, like me had daily reminders of how very succinct and eloquent our children can be.

Children Echo and Mirror What They Are Given

My neighbor, Maggie, age ten and a book-lover like me, one day came for a chat. With a big sigh and rolled eyes, she announced her brothers were “decidedly idiots – as one would expect of boys.” Another day she invited herself in to my lanai, waiting for Mother's retribution for some minor crime, as yet unreported. “I thought I’d best come and visit you one last time,” she announced. “Because when my Mom hears of this, I’m going to my room and I ain’t never getting out of there. I’ll be an old crone the next time you see me.”

My youngest grandson, Elian, went through a phase at age three where the word “actually” was used in every sentence – and correctly.

While taking a stroll in a Vancouver Island winter some years ago, my niece said to me. “Auntie, my hands are virtual blocks of ice – just thought you’d want to know.” She was six.

When Paige was four, I repainted my living room. She stood in the middle, one hand on her hip and surveyed my work. “Well isn’t this simply charming,” she said, leaving me struggling to keep a straight face.

My younger granddaughter, Lauren, now six, told me on the phone all about her ballet class’s invitation to join the Calgary Stampeders’ (football) cheerleaders at half-time. She chanted the cheer for me, then added, “… and with a good shake of the pom-poms, we did our finale. It was exhilarating.”

If I were to write these true anecdotes as dialogue, some of you would find the language age-inappropriate – it is and it isn’t, depending on the child’s reading habits, education level of the parents, opportunities for intellectual growth -- but still, I most likely wouldn’t use it. It would come across too cute and precious.

My point is, when writing from the point of view of the child, don’t short-change their abilities, their vocabulary, or their intellect. Make sure you have an understanding of the developmental level and mental acuity of the age of your character.

If you don’t know kids, befriend one.

You're in for a treat, and more material for your writing than you can possibly imagine.

More by this Author

Comments 26 comments

Jason R. Manning profile image

Jason R. Manning 6 years ago from Sacramento, California

Wow, that was very insightful, impressively helpful, and a restorative teaching moment. You couldn't have broken down the basics any easier or more palatable. Thank you for this great posting.

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thank you so much, Jason. I hope you'll read some of the other nine articles in my Good Writing Is... series. I haven't had a chance to link them all here, yet. My next task. Pleased to make your acquaintance. Lynda

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

This is a wonderful lesson. Thank you. It will help me a lot. You are such a great writer and above all a great teacher. Not many people can do this.

lorlie6 profile image

lorlie6 6 years ago from Bishop, Ca

I bookmarked this hub as soon as I began reading, Lynda, for the voice of a child is one I have been trying to 'achieve' as a writer for more than a year. I began writing of an 'almost 14' young girl full of sass and self, but wasn't too sure where she was going.

Thanks so much for this information! Your Paige sounds like a marvelous critic and granddaughter. What a character, even at 4.

I look forward to reading your book!

Thank you.

resspenser profile image

resspenser 6 years ago from South Carolina

Well, here's another excellent hub on writing.

Your point on what children are capable of and what us older folks remember is timely for me. My grand, Maddie, is 7 and has just started second grade. She had the word "tutoring" in her list of spelling words!

Seems a long way from what I remember: "See Dick run."

PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 6 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Adorable pictures to go along with wise words. I love what you said, "Kids go about the business of being kids no matter what goes on in their lives." I remember being astonished when I saw my sister's child (who had slashed her jugular vein on a glass storm door one day prior) sit joyfully playing with her dolls on the floor of her hospital room. Their amazing honesty and frankness is difficult to capture and you've done a great job explaining the pitfalls and successes. Another helpful article. Thanks!

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi Hello, thank you for your wonderful praises. As always, you are my great supporter and very much appreaciated.

Hi Lorlie, thanks for your comment. I must ask, and forgive me for playing teacher for a moment, but why are you writing without knowing where your character is going? This is a common problem for new writers, and one of the reasons so many works are left to gather dust in a closet, unfinished. You must see #4 and #5 & 6 in this series -- how to map out our plot so we do know where we're going.

Hi resspencer -- yes and thank you for enforcing this point. We do forget. (See Dick run was Grade 1 not 2) Glad to hear from you.

Hi Peg, Too bad we outgrow that honesty, isn't it? Thanks for your comment and glad you found the article helpful.

Thanks to all of you, Lynda.

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 6 years ago from South Africa

While reading this hub I felt an urge rise to dig out an unapproved manuscript and start the awful rewriting process. I was ‘identified’ as a writer of children books, but they did not tell me it is more difficult to write. So what’s wrong with my manuscripts? Not actually ‘voice’; I’m giving too much information... too many explanations. Children don’t care about the why’s and the therefore’s. A spider is a spider is a spider. So, info has to be given by a weird character... and only the most relevant info. I will, for sure, buy your book. And, as soon as time allows me, I’m going to plunge into your hubs and website. I’m not yet ready to become a professional writer of fiction again, though I know I want to get into this again. Perhaps next year. Lynda, I’m so glad I became your follower! I’m going to learn a lot from you!

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi Mattie, writing from the child's perspective is not the same as writing FOR children. Though at times when I see what is offered as children's books I wonder if those authors know any at all.

My book is written for mature girls and women, though much of the story is narrated by a child. I have two narrators, the growing Bria and her Aunt Mary, who becomes her foster mom. The other main character, Jack, we see only through the eyes of these two women.

No one is ready to be a 'professional' writer. We are just writers, and write. That's what you must do, just write. Figure out whether it's suitable for others later.

We write, write, write in the same way others breathe. Don't put off going back to it -- the longer we're away, the rustier we get.

Thanks for this lovely comment. Lynda

lorlie6 profile image

lorlie6 6 years ago from Bishop, Ca

Thanks, Lynda, a bit of education couldn't hurt! Perhaps I came across her before she was ready to be revealed. Or, more likely, before I was ready to really explore her.

She is gathering dust, poor girl.

One day, perhaps...

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

I do hope so, lorlie. Our characters deserve life. Personally, the characters from the book described above are so real to me, I wouldn't be surprised if they started blogging and emailing on their own. Lynda

Betty Jo Petty profile image

Betty Jo Petty 6 years ago from Arkansas, U.S.A.

Thanks for finding me. I've just read this. Maybe someday you will read some of my writing, which has not been enough. (Not counting thousands of words written on paper and later thrown away).

I have written a bit more on another internet site besides HubPages. I started on here, and things happened along the way of life.

You are right when you said something like we can write. We can only try.

Thanks, Linda.

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hi Betty Jo, how nice to see you here. I will check out some of your work, and I hope you come back to us here. Thank you so much for commenting. Lynda

JannyC profile image

JannyC 6 years ago

Catching up on my favorite hubbers. I must go back and read rest of this series. Enjoyed this and learned a lot.

JannyC profile image

JannyC 6 years ago

Catching up on my favorite hubbers. I must go back and read rest of this series. Enjoyed this and learned a lot.

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Glad to see you. Glad to see you.

Happy you liked the article Janny. Thanks for your comment. Lynda

Ladybird33 profile image

Ladybird33 6 years ago from Georgia USA

Immartin, how are you? This is so helpful to me! Looking forward to coming back and reading more. You have educated me so much! I loved this, thank you.

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

How nice to see you, ladybird33. I just finished your article about little black dresses -- and not being a fashionista, you educated me too. Thanks for the comment, Lynda

Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 6 years ago from Sydney

Great Hub! A few weeks ago, I read a creative writing Hub which started in the voice of a young lad, making extensive use of boyish slang. A couple of paragraphs in, the writer used some quite sophisticated words and it really jarred - it destroyed the mood of the piece for me.

I suggested this to the writer but he couldn't see the problem - you explain it very well here, I wish I'd seen this Hub at the time!

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thank you Marissa. How nice to hear from you again. Lynda

Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

Immartin, what did you teach? I forgot. I am curious about this book, in what time period it takes place, etc., the use of your children's language is curious to me. Lots of children repeat what they hear around them, which seems the case in your grandchildren's stories!?! They say something they consider very grown up, even if they aren't totally clear what it means, haha.

I have struggled with writing stories for children, though I have a Masters in the subject. Kids of today are so different, with email and texting. Their language tends to be cryptic. I know it relates to location as well as point in time. I also understand that the issues are similar but today's context is so very different. Is this story about something near and dear to your heart? What does Bria want? Are you a redhead? I guess I will have to read more of your hubs in order to answer these questions. Meanwhile, thanks for your comment on my Judith hub.

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Hello Storytellerrs -- What did I teach? I am not a teacher. (Except I do teach writing.) When I speak of working with children, I was an outreach worker in child protection, a foster parent and a counselor. I've always been surrounded by children.

This is not a book for children, but a book written (at least in the early chapters) in a child's voice -- first person narrative. I should add there are two narrators, Bria who we meet at 9 and Mary, who becomes a mother figure.

Yes, as I state in my article, children do mirror what they receive, and children who are given the stimulation of articulate parents and good books will reflect that back. I'm not sure what you mean by my stories of children's language being curious to you -- some of these are from a few days ago, and some go back a decade maybe. I find kids may be cryptic (as you say) with each other, but my young friends speak to me in normal everyday language, and they range in age (in this Florida neighborhood) from 5 to 16. I particularly enjoy kids around 10-13 -- so much fun before the sulky teens set in. But I do enjoy teens as well. I use proper language with them and they do with me. I insist on it. The time period in my book begins in 1967 and goes on for twenty years.

I cannot tell you more of Bria's motivation because then I would tell you the book. Why don't you go to my website?

And no, I've never been a redhead -- though Bria is and some of my cousins are. I had pale, freckled skin like one, but with raven dark hair. I am Scottish/English.

Duchess OBlunt 6 years ago

Once again Lynda, thank you. I so love this series. I think I have missed #8 and don't have time today, but I will get back to it. Bookmarked as are all of the articles in this series.

You are a teacher. As least you are teaching me. And I am gratefully soaking it all up.

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author

Thank you, Duchess. Happy as always to hear from you. Glad to know this is of help to you. Lynda

KLeichester 5 years ago

Nice tips. Always helpful. Thanks.

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida Author


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