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Is it ok to use first person when the one speaking in the narration is a child?

I guess it doesn't matter too much when the narration is about things that the child hears from other people or he is describing literally what he sees. The problem comes when he is interpreting what he sees, or what he hears. In those cases one might be tempted to write simplified descriptions, according to the level of comprehension that the child might have, but that's a delicate balance, because the reader can get tired quickly of those narrations where things might appear over simplified.

Also, if the first person narrative should be avoided in this case, what could be used instead if the target audience is young adults, and we follow the story since the protagonist was a child?

  • depends on your story. What is the purpose of having the child narrate? If the story is told through his eyes, he may very well not understand things going on around him or over simplify complicated situations. What is the overall goal/feel of the story? If the story is simply about a child, then we don't need to know the deeper inner thoughts of him to follow him around. However, if it is important for us to know what is going on in his head and see things from his POV then first person should be okay. – ggiaquin16 Sep 13 '17 at 23:41
  • @ggiaquin The protagonist passes through a series of situations where he masters what is considered by other people to be handicaps, converting those traits into desirable assets, but also a burden for those who have them. Think Neo as if he was a young adult and Morpheus took him under his wing as a child. – rraallvv Sep 13 '17 at 23:59
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    Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird? It does exactly what you describe. – user16226 Sep 14 '17 at 0:52
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    Yes, it's okay. Emma Donoghue's Room is another example. NYT Best Seller, Man Booker winner, made into a good movie a couple years ago. – Ken Mohnkern Sep 14 '17 at 13:24
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    You should also look into some of the Animorphs books. While the principle cast are High School age, one recurring character (Ax) is an alien and his books often feature segments of him describing every day things. While not a child, the lack of familiarity with human cultural norms, Ax could be a good look into this. (Also check out the Andalite Chronicles, which features Ax's older brother's first encounter with humans...). – hszmv Sep 21 '17 at 14:48
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The point of view, thoughts, worldview, understanding etc. of a first person narrator should usually conform to that person's personality, maturity, culture, interests etc. That is the reason why you choose a first person narrator: to portrait that person's perception and experience. If you want a neutral voice or a voice with a personality different from the protagonist, chose a third person narration.

So if your narrator is a child, the story must be narrated as if by a child.

Note that I excluded language in my list above. While there have been attempts to reproduce the linguistic idiosyncracies or thought processes of certain kinds of people (e.g. the "idiot" at the beginning of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury), the common approach is to use standard language even in first person narration. So a child narrator may use adult grammar and orthography, but a child shouldn't use words, ideas, or display an understanding beyond his or her age.

If, on the other hand, you use a third person narrator to tell the story of a child, you can tell that story from an adult (or any other) perspective and need not conform to age or personality of your protagonist.


Besides who your narrator is, it is also important to consider when he narrates the story.

When your first person narrator narrates past events, then of course the narrator may be older at the time of the narration than he was at the time of the events he narrates, and may display an understanding he did not have back then.

For example, when I tell someone of something I experienced as a child, I am not (when I tell it) a child and will tell the story like an adult would. I don't relapse into my child-self, just because I recount a childhood experience.

Examples.

The child narrates his story:

I go to the wall and press where I'm not supposed to.

The adult narrates the story:

My parents had told me to leave the light switch alone, but I went and turned the light on anyway.

So make sure you have a clear understanding of who your narrator is and whether he or she is identical to the protagonist, not only in person but also in time.


Things get more complicated when you consider grammatical tense. An adult narrator may narrate past events in present tense:

I'm five years old when I go do Disneyworld for the first time.

Grammatical tense (in fiction) is a narrative device and does not (necessarily) indicate a temporal distance. So do not get confused by grammatical tense.

  • "So if your narrator is a child, the story must be narrated as if by a child." Sorry, but I can't agree with this. Narrative point of view is a literary device used to achieve certain effects, and it does not have to obey the rules of ordinary logic (in fact, it seldom does). If a novel is written from a child's POV we have to start from the fact that no child could ever sustain a narrative of that length. The ability to tell stories coherently requires a level of patience and self-awareness that is simply absent in children. All stories are told as if by an adult, even if in a child's mouth. – user16226 Sep 15 '17 at 11:52
  • @MarkBaker A narration from the point of view of a child does not have to represent exactly what a child would utter if they were asked to describe what they are going through. You can easily use far more sophisticated narration that shows what they think and how they feel, even it requires expressing advanced concepts. If a child's friend is attempting to bring democracy to Cuba so their parents allow them to go to a rock band, do they not realize that it is a quixotic undertaking, despite never having heard of Don Quixote? – forest Jun 2 '18 at 20:34
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Many stories told from first person perspective are also told in the past tense. This implies that the narrator is telling a story they experienced in the past.

That means you can have an adult narrator telling a story they experienced in their childhood. In that case your narrator would be as eloquent as you would expect from any adult person. But remember that the character they talk about is still a child. There will be situations they didn't understand back then but understand now. The narrator might point that out:

Whenever Mr. Smith came to visit, my mother told me to go to my room and play by myself. I could hear the weird noises they were making in the bedroom. One time I asked my mother what they were doing in there. She told me they were playing a game for adults and that she would tell me more about that game when I got older. I was too young back then to realize they were having an affair.

But you can of course also have a narrator who is still a child. In that case you would tell the story using the language a child would use. This narrative style can indeed be a bit taxing for an adult reader (although I am not claiming it's an impossible feat to pull this off well), but it can be appropriate if you are writing a story for children. It keeps the language age-appropriate and makes it easier for the audience to self-identify with the protagonist.

  • This reminds me of Forrest Gump, which is narrated by an adult with a child-like understanding of the world. He never accuses the principle of having an affair, because he never grasps the concept... but the viewer does see what's going on and can be amused by it. If the narrator is narrating as a child and is never seen as older in the story, the final sentance is not needed. If he is an adult, it need not be included... half the fun of this POV is describing adult things in such a way that the reader gets it even when the narrator doesn't. – hszmv Sep 21 '17 at 14:56
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    We can infer as readers that Mr. Smith doesn't live there and that by being dismissed by his mother implies it's something not suitable for the child to know about. "Adult Games" or "I'll tell you when you're older" are well known parent speak for the naughty thing taking place. An adult reader wouldn't need the final sentence (especially if we establish that the mother has a spouse. The mom could try and keep dad out of the loop. And when the kid asks "Does Daddy not like to play those games," it adds more humor to the mother's response.) – hszmv Sep 21 '17 at 15:04
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This can be done effectively, but you'll be setting yourself a difficult challenge. Any first-person narrative requires the author to provide that person a believable, consistent voice and perspective, while still meeting the novel's larger aims. The more distant the person is from yourself, the harder it is likely to be to convincingly animate their viewpoint.

However, great art is all about overcoming challenges. There's no shortage of books that have won great acclaim for a convincingly limited first-person narrator. Just be aware that perspective, and its limits, is likely to become one of the main things your book is "about."

A good compromise might be a limited third-person narration, with the child being the point of view, but not the narrator. That gives you the general feel of the child's POV, but a little extra freedom to include details and interpretation that might be beyond the child's comprehension. It also emancipates both you and the reader from the child's voice, which could become difficult to maintain without becoming annoying.

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