Posted: June 25, 2019
Editor's Clinic: Problem Child
Child narrators can be a problem.
Children don’t yet have the experience or self-awareness to understand what’s going on around them. So if you write intimately from their point of view, using only language and concepts that they would have available to them, it’s sometimes hard to convey what’s really happening. Granted, you can describe events in enough detail so that your readers may understand things that the child narrator might not. There are times that approach can come in handy – if, say, you want to filter harsh realities through an innocent consciousness. But it’s tricky to do this without having your child pay more attention than is plausible. We tend not to pay a lot of attention to events that are going over our heads.
Children aren’t fully aware of what’s going on inside of them, either. If the child’s state of mind is important to the story, you can sometimes use a more sophisticated language than your child narrator has available to them to capture exactly how they feel. This approach works best if you keep the narrative voice consistent — if you use the more sophisticated voice from the beginning of the story and stick with it throughout. This gives your readers a chance to adjust to what you’re doing. But, again, working in a narrative voice that’s separate from your character’s voice requires considerable skill.
Splitting the difference between these two approaches, as this morning’s sample does – writing most of the narrative in the child’s voice, but slipping into a more mature language from time to time — almost never works. Readers adjust to a child’s view of the world, and suddenly that view turns more adult. The shifts jar readers, who aren’t confident they can settle into the child’s view of the world.
So I’ve edited this to keep Malcom’s voice more solidly his own. I’ve tended toward shorter paragraphs and kept the language simple. And the power of the piece comes through. Even though Malcom isn’t aware of the dynamic between his older sister and his mother, readers can see it. And Malcom’s situation is certainly dramatic. Even more so since he doesn’t understand what’s going on.
Twitch Chapter One, Surrey, England, 1833
The others were right. It was
– the devil made him blink and scrunch his face. A and it was getting worse.
He glanced at his brothers, Gilbert, four, and Franklin, three. They
se normal boys slept in a heap next to him in a chamber so small the bed and wardrobe took up nearly all the space. They were lucky. They didn’t have devil hands pushing them out of shape.
When the devil finally left his face alone, Malcolm yawned, lay back and closed his eyes.[Paragraph added] Suddenly, he
He threw off the blanket, leapt off the bed, and stood looking out the window, trying to think about anything rather than the devil waking up inside of him. The pigs slept quietly in their pen across the yard. The hens roosting in the scattered hay near the bard door gave off an occasional soft cluck. No one passed on the road that ran just beyond the barn. Everything outside was quiet.
wondering if people lived on the stars. No one told him. All he knew was that he had a mother, father, three brothers, and a sister and they all lived in a house with trees and hills surrounding it in a place called Surrey. Pigs lived in a pen and chickens in the yard. Horses pulled wagons along a dusty lane that passed by the house. 
[Paragraph added] Just then, the devil’s fingers twisted and wriggled his face again.
Franklin started whimpering. “Mother. Please come Mother
,.” Franklin squeaked. He started whimpering.
Malcolm turned. His
’s brothers were on the far side of the bed with the blanket drawn around them. They flinched when he looked at them.
“Mother, Devil-Face is doing it again!” Gilbert
bellowed, soothing Franklin by put ting his arm around Franklin’s his shoulders to soothe him and pushing out his chest at Malcolm.
[Paragraph added] Gilbert and Franklin pointed
After more shouts, Mother tottered in with a candle that lit illuminated her scowling face, wispy grey hair escaping her a floppy nightcap. “What’s this about? What’s amiss?” and with her baggy eyes glinting.
“Waking me up in the middle of the night, are you?“
You’re doing it on purpose, you brat, just when I’m about to have a baby!” Mother swatted him on the back of the head, seized his arm and dragged him out to the common room. “You’re doing it on purpose, you brat, just when I’m about to have a baby!” There hHis sister Lydia was waiting waited, holding blankets. She had long dark hair and wore a woman’s black nightgown that hung loosely from her shoulders. In the candlelight, her green eyes sparkled like a cat’s. She winked at Malcolm and he felt a little better.
“Lydia,” Mother said, “you look like a fool wearing that ridiculous nightgown. You had a white one on when I went to bed
,.” Mother said.
“I have a right to wear the clothes Aunt Belinda left to me.”
“Oh, aye, it’s your right to go aroun dressed
, a twelve-year old girl who goes around wearing black like a widow. May your mother be informed of the dead gentleman’s name you married?”
“Mother, stop. You
wi‘ll wake Father and Nigel.”
Mother dropped Malcolm’s arm and
advanced to Lydia, gave herLydia a slap. “Don’t you tell me to stop. You watch out – nNext you wi‘ll be thinking you‘ are a witch like my sister who ought to‘ have been locked up in the madhouse. A hundred years ago they would have burned her.”
, realizing t This was all his fault ,. amazed at  But how could Lydia for not cry ing and just stick ing out her chin at Mother .?
“Stop making that evil face or I will give you a hiding
spanking you will never forget. A You are a five-year old runt like you that should never have been let near a mother’s teat. When we had cattle, we used to cull calves like you ,.” he said from his slit of a mouth. His breath was like rotting potatoes.
Malcolm’s face scrunched and his eyes blinked.
could he mean? Malcolm had seen kittens born, and did Mother have a hole like mother cat that he could be stuffed back into again? He heard a giggle – the little boys peeped out from their bedroom door, scarecrow faces. 
ha‘s less than a year to go and we need the coin money,” Mother said. cautioned Father who looked angry and defeated.
“Never fret,” Lydia said. “I will stay out here and keep him quiet
“What!” Mother said. “Fine. He’s yours, and
Only you would do something so ridiculous. You are welcome to him ,.” Mother said, She dragg inged away Father, who was having trouble with his balance, blowing . She blew out the candle on her way. Her voice came out of the darkness, “Be quiet, you two.”
After the bedroom doors closed, Lydia lit a candle with a spill from the fire. She spread one blanket on the floor, bunching it up at the end to make
so it could serve as a pillow. , and t Then she took Malcolm by the hand and told him to lie down. She cuddled next to him and pulled the other blanket over them.
will leave the candle lit until you are sleepy,” she said. What happened in there? You can tell me.”
But, if he told Lydia about the devil, would she hate
abandon him like just as everyone else did?
“You need not fear,” she said. “Let me guess
be afraid. I suppose y You dreamed you killed someone with an axe. That does not mean you did it, you know.”
“Not a dream . . .it was . . . the devil went in me
,.” Malcolm said in desperation. 
She sniggered. “I‘
have seen enough of you to believe there‘ is a spirit inside you, but I do not think it‘ is the devil. Even if it is, I can help you. So calm yourself Come on now.”
Could his sister really help him? Her face looked happy and beautiful now, not like the scowl she wore
unlike her expression while doing the chores, such as the weekly scrub-down of her three little brothers.
“He shakes my face from inside,” Malcom said. “I‘
am not the one doing it. It has to be the devil like Mother says.” He heard loud snoring from his parents’ bedroom.
Maybe it he just wants to get out?” She glanced at their parents’ bedchamber. A soft snoring came through the door. . . .“I know what we shall do, she whispered. “I will try you out as my apprentice and then you may be fixed. Do you agree?”
“Yes, please. What’s an apprentice
. . . but what is that?”
“An apprentice is someone who learns something from someone else. The teacher could be anybody, someone who makes horseshoes or wooden spoons.” She dropped her voice even further.
, o“Or even a witch or a magician.”
“Which are you?”
“Well, I don’t make horseshoes. Now, no more time for questions
now as we both need sleep.” Lydia put out the candle, lay down and kissed him. He turned on his side and snuggled back up to her, sensed her breathing and felt her warmth.
- 1. “To no purpose,” is far too advanced.
- 2. I’m tending toward both shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs. Children are less capable of a sustained, complex idea.
- 3. The speculation about aliens doesn’t seem right for a five-year-old from the early nineteenth century. I kept the focus on what’s in front of him.
- 4. Show him realizing it. Show him being amazed. This is what interior monologue is for.
- 5. His brothers are a distraction at this point.
- 6. His dialogue shows his desperation.