Thursday, 19 September 2013

How Much is Too Much? - Child Characters in Historical Fiction

This opinion is an extremely personal one, since I know that the opinions on child characters in adult historical fiction are as broad and as varied as the shifting sands of the wondrous Thar Desert. So if your opinions are vastly different to mine please share, or at least, don't be offended, I respect that everyone has unique takes on what they like or dislike in books and what they notice or do not notice in books.

Child characters. How much time is too much time for an author to spend on them? How much of a book should childhood take up? I have always had a personal opinion that a character's childhood should not take up more than approximately a third of a book. It doesn't matter if it is a trilogy or a series or a one off. To me, if it is adult fiction, an author needs to not wallow too long in the childhood. Use a critical eye. Is every scene really that important in developing who a character will become when grown up? Or are you enjoying reliving childhood on your pages and forgetting the adult who will come to read it?
It is, after all, much easier to write like a child about a child than it is to write like an adult about a child.

Only grown ups have swords!
I have an exception to my 'third of a book' rule. If an adult is narrating I find it all right to hang about in the childhood of characters for longer. Example; the Saxon books by Bernard Cornwell, or the book I am reading now, The Ill-Made Knight by Christian Cameron.
In these examples the narrator is an old man and he is telling the story of his youth. When this is done well, the reader feels the adult in the story. Feels the story is an adults version of events. The subject matter does not feel as juvenile with this technique and us, the readers, do not feel like we are being forced to get inside a teen boy or teen girl's head. Goodness, I did not like teenagers when I was one. I certainly do not enjoy them in my books...for too long that is. Note: third of a book. I have my tolerances.

Take out the 'old man narrating' device and there is the danger that the author is writing a child's story, a Young Adult book. The author may not like that kind of feedback, but it is a very real danger and there should be some understanding when an adult says “it read like a Young Adult book”.
This is not always meant as an insult, although I am sure some mean it to be. When it is not an insult but an observation, it is due to a book actually reading like it was written for late teen to early twenties, or the adult reader who likes to sometimes read with their inner child and chooses Young Adult books to explore that sensation.

Strangely, I find majority of authors write in a simplistic and juvenile way when they are writing
child characters. This is the only way they know how to attach a sense of child to the story of childhood. Only it comes off as childishness instead. Some kids playing with wooden swords should not read like Elmo is telling us about pool noodle fight night at Sesame Street.

Oh, and before I go on, I would like to add that including some graphic violence or a sex scene into a childhood story does not help to attach an adult feel to the story. It is the voice being used that attaches an adult feel and not the events being told on the page.

I do not read Young Adult books. I have nothing against them, there are some wonderful young adult books in the world that delight a plethora of readers. Readers through a full spectrum of ages and occupations.
I, however, have no interest in them. I will never like reading for long periods about teens or children. I want to read about adults doing adult things. I guess it is because I want to picture myself in these books sometimes, as I devine the wonders of escapism. I guess also, that it is because I am an adult who left her childhood behind her.

I am not alone. I know that. While there are many people who like a book that is dominated by the childhood of an adult character there are just as many who do not like it and I think an author needs to work out how to make both sides happy. Writing is a profession after all and the readers are your customers. A writer needs to understand the intricacies of blending childhood and adulthood in one book, even if that book is the first in a trilogy or series.

Find a way to plant your literary feet on both sides of the issue. Create childhoods that read in a mature, adult way and then know when to get out of them, or you may as well be writing a book for teenagers.

- MM


  1. I see you were inspired. :)

    I like it. Pretty much expresses everything we've spent the last few years talking about.

    1. Well hello there, Eosos Ray ;)
      yeah, our conversation got me thinking and then I wanted to put all my thoughts together in one place.
      I realised that's what blogs are for! :D

  2. Hi Terri

    Some good ideas there and something to think about as an aspiring writer. Ive written a book that is the first in the series of a family saga so the younger characters of the family have their stories but mainly their importance is based on the fact that they are potential adult characters for the following books in the series so their child hood roles in the saga are important but i do not think i have dwelt too long on them. Thanks for your thoughts on this and i look forward to reading more thoughts about this from others/

    1. As long as it is written in a grown up way. :) Otherwise the first one can put off adult fiction readers and they won't go on with the series. And those who liked the first book for the young adult feel may not enjoy the follow on books.
      Not saying your books are like that, of course, just saying there are authors who write in a simpler juvenile way when writing children parts. When they do that in a series it is writing two completely different styles of book. Book one a young adult book, and the rest adult fiction.
      By doing that, an author can split their potential readership. If the rest of the series is very much adult fiction, then the first book in a series should not read like young adult fiction.
      An author needs to be careful they aren't getting too childish with their book one childhood. otherwise they narrow the books mass appeal.
      In my opinion. And only in relation to hist fic, since that is the fiction genre I read mostly. :)

  3. I absolutely agree. My children are not the main characters of the book - there are plenty of adult characters in the book who are. they are secondary to the story. Do you think that it helps to write in the third person also?

    PS i must admit this is a very thought provoking topic, I'm really glad you've brought it up

    1. I don't think so. Some of the greatest books and series' are first person and start with the main character as a child.
      I tend to wonder if an author wrote a rough book two (but not publish it) then goes back and writes book one for publishing, whether that might help some authors stay in an adult frame of mind.
      Instead of kicking off in a child's mind and losing a sense of the adult mind in the book.
      But then I am no author....just a reader (who does sometimes write for fun, but not for public consumption), so I can only pass opinion from a reader's perspective. :)