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Writing in the voice of a child

We explore how to write in the voice of a child, with examples and some exercises to help you get into the perspective of a child

A friend recently told me of her difficulty in writing her memoir from a child’s point of view. She’s finding it really difficult to do so. That’s understandable in a memoir, I feel, as you are looking back with an adult’s eyes but trying to process the world through a child’s. But it’s not impossible. Whether you are writing a memoir or a fiction in the form of a novel, novella or short story, there are many ways to write from the perspective of a child.

With this post we are concentrating on writing adult fiction, only (not the writing of children’s literature or YA novels).

Let’s look at some considerations when writing from a child’s perspective.

The developmental stages

Firstly, it’s important to understand the developmental stage of your child protagonist. You need to know what children are capable of understanding at what stages. For example, a child of three is focused on themselves, a child of five years and upwards is more aware of others’ needs, and more capable of seeing how their actions might affect others.

Ask questions such as: what language skills does your narrator have? What typical behaviors are present? Are they emotionally mature? What are their cognitive abilities? Don’t make the mistake of ‘simplifying’ their speech unnecessarily. Children are mimics and can come up with the most ‘adult’ sounding sentences. I once heard a four-year-old child say to another adult: ‘You broke my heart’, for example. Consider their cognitive abilities: can they read time at five years old, or recognize the difference between a square and a triangle?

There are various and endless ways to research. Observation is one of the best: if you have children of the age group you’re wanting to write about, half of your research is already done. If not, observe friends’ children or family members. See about volunteering at a children’s home, for instance, or volunteering at a place where children go: horse riding lessons, or at one of those places where children go to learn to paint, a church or other faith-based community, for example.

Paige Duke writes that proximity is key, and that while research is important:

There’s intuitive knowledge – that particular type of knowing that you can’t put your finger on. It’s this type of understanding that yields the deeper insights into character and situation. It produces surprising intuitions about the direction of your story and the actions of your characters. Personal experience is a form of research, and it leaves you with authorial intuition.

Watch children at play, listen to them talking, see how they interact with each other and with adults. Are you able to record them talking?

Researching can take many forms. Read psychology textbooks that first year university students are required to read. These often precisely set out the various developmental stages that children go through, and are invaluable. Consider visiting a child psychologist for more insights (you may have to pay for their time). And, of course, read children’s books for more insight. Similarly, watch children’s programs on TV. What themes are being written about or portrayed on TV? What is important to children of that age group? Reread books you read as a child, perhaps that will remind you what you felt as a child, and you can use that in your story, too. How do children talk in these books and on TV? Listen hard and take some careful notes.

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From a child’s point of view

Remember that children are unlikely grasp abstract concepts or adult terms (depending on the age, of course). When I was five, my mother had some friends over for supper and said that they were ‘square’. I had no idea what she was talking about. To my child’s point of view, square was well, something square, a box, and the concept of ‘square’ people ie people who might be considered straight-laced or conservative was just beyond me. Consider how confused I was by the use of this term, and see how you can incorporate these concepts when writing from a child’s perspective.

Another memory serves to highlight the innocence of children or their lack of awareness as to how the world works. I was sitting waiting for a cartoon program to come on the TV. There was some delay with the broadcast, and so I turned to my mother and asked: ‘Are they still drawing the cartoons?’

Another way of getting into the head of a child is to imagine going to a country where they not only don’t speak your language, but use another alphabet. There’s no surer way of feeling like a child again. If you have a rudimentary understanding of the language, you’re probably pecking out a few sentences as a child might.

You won’t be able to read the subway signs, and might have to count a certain amount of stops from when you need to get off. You’re feeling your way in a city as a child might in an adult world. You need to use different ways of navigating the world, you can’t rely on all the things we know as an adult.

As an illustration of this, I was in Japan with a group of journalists on a press trip. On the last day, another journalist and I were going out to explore and were booking tickets on the subway. Although we had pressed English on the ticket machine, he’d somehow got us back to Japanese. So, booking my own ticket I remembered what he had pressed, and just followed that. I had to find another way of ‘reading’ the machine.

Take all of these encounters, and add that sense of bewilderment and figuring things out when looking at the world from a child’s perspective. Take it further: imagine landing on another planet  Incorporate innocent observations, imaginative interpretations of events. Even imagine landing on another planet and things would be totally bewildering .

Drill deep down and really focus on what is important to a child: getting a bicycle for a birthday, and how that object is longed for and dreamed about. While we may want things as adults, we are more resigned to the fact that debts must be paid before the longed-for object is within reach and we put it out of mind. With a child it can be all abiding focus.

Try to describe objects from a child’s point of view, as though you have never seen them, and don’t know what they do. This might be a hard one, you might have to get imaginative, such as Googling strange musical instruments, ignore the text, and imagine what sounds might come from it, or how it would be played. This all puts you in a curious state of mind, one that is exploring, instead of knowing.


This is when it’s going to be useful to record a child or a group of children. Notice how, when asked a question that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, children of a certain age will answer like that, without elaborating. Notice how children often run on breathlessly in speech, telling you all about how Jane did this and Beth did that, and teacher Ms Something did that … and you don’t even know these people! Children are forever telling stories of what happened.

Children also use simpler language than adults, although they do sometimes come up with gems, such as that mentioned earlier, ‘You broke my heart.’ Similarly, they use simple language construction (again, this is age-dependent). They are clear and precise in their speech, direct to a point that would be considered rude in an adult. Use contractions and use slang, all age groups have their own form of slang, and it’s worth doing some research to get it right, and authentic. Children often break out into song, how can this be used in a story?

Again, consider your own study of a foreign language and how, until you are more advanced and more fluent in the language, you use the present tense and you are limited as to what you can say, although you might be able to understand far more, fluency in speech takes some catching up. This is often how young children speak.

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Show don’t tell

Instead of explaining things directly, show them through the child’s observations, actions and reactions. Show the bewilderment a child can feel, not understanding something, as with my experience with the ‘square’ people my mother had invited for supper. Another example of a child’s bewilderment also comes from my own childhood. When Jimmy Carter failed to win the 1980 US elections, my mother and grandfather were speaking about it. I didn’t why they were unhappy, or even who Carter really was. It was all a big mystery

Get down the age of your protagonist, try to remember being a child and how your world was ‘small’ and limited. 

Use sensory details to evoke the child’s sensory experience of the world around them. How long an hour can feel. Impulse control is often lacking. It’s urgent that you have this ice-cream now, and of the end of the world feeling if your ice cream falls out of the cone, it’s a tragedy. Remember tasting something for the first time. Go to a restaurant that serves food from a part of the world that is new and strange to you and evoke the sensations of trying something for the first time. Try a new drink.

Go into a toy shop, go to a children’s theatre show, have new experiences, note how the details are bright and vivid, as they are in a child’s world when they are experiencing something for the first time.

Character is important

As with any adult character, you will need to create and develop a believable, three-dimensional character. They need to have some backstory, even if you don’t reveal it all that much in your story. Give them odd quirks, or identifying features. Looking at Anne of Green Gables by LM Mongomery, Anne’s distinctive red hair is part of her character, and is prominent in the book as is her exuberant nature. We learn about her history, as an orphan, and she is, altogether, a memorable character.

Give your child protagonist goals and conflicts, as you would any main adult character. Read our complete guide to writing character.

Examples of writing from a child’s perspective

This comes from Room by Emma Donoghue. This is narrated by five-year-old Jack who lives with his Ma. The novel opens as Jack turns five. Jack lives with his Ma in Room. Room has a single locked door and a skylight, and it measures ten feet by ten feet. Jack loves watching TV but he knows that nothing he sees on the screen is truly real – only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits there is another world outside.

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. “Was I minus numbers?”

“Hmm?” Ma does a big stretch.

“Up in Heaven. Was I minus one, minus two, minus three –?”

“Nah, the numbers didn’t start till you zoomed down.”

“Through Skylight. You were all sad till I happened in your tummy.”

You said it.” Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.

I shut my eyes just in time, then open one a crack, then both.

“I cried till I didn’t have any tears left,” she tells me. “I just lay here counting the seconds.”

“How many seconds?” I ask her.

“Millions and millions of them.”

“No, but how many exactly?”

“I lost count,” says Ma.

“Then you wished and wished on your egg till you got fat.”

She grins. “I could feel you kicking.”

“What was I kicking?”

“Me, of course.”

I always laugh at that bit.

“From the inside, boom boom.” Ma lifts her sleep T-shirt and makes her tummy jump. “I thought, Jack’s on his way. First thing in the morning, you slid out onto the rug with your eyes wide open.”

I look down at Rug with her red and brown and black all zigging around each other. There’s the stain I spilled by mistake getting born. “You cutted the cord and I was free,” I tell Ma. “Then I turned into a boy.”

“Actually, you were a boy already.” She gets out of Bed and goes to Thermostat to hot the air.

This next comes from Lord of the Flies by William Golding. This is about a group of British boys who are stranded on an uninhabited island and their disastrous attempts to govern themselves.

Ralph did not take the hint so the fat boy was forced to continue.

            “I don’t care what they call me,” he said confidentially, “so long as they don’t call me what they used to call me at school.”

            Ralph was faintly interested.

            “What was that?”

            The fat boy glanced over his shoulder, then leaned toward Ralph.

            He whispered.

            “They used to call me ‘Piggy.’”

            Ralph shrieked with laughter. He jumped up. “Piggy! Piggy!”

“Ralph – please!”

            Piggy clasped his hands in apprehension.

            “I said I didn’t want –”

            “Piggy! Piggy!”

            Ralph danced out into the hot air of the beach and then returned as a fighter-plane, with wings swept back, and machine-gunned Piggy.


He dived in the sand at Piggy’s feet and lay there laughing.


            Piggy grinned reluctantly, pleased despite himself at even this much recognition.

            “So long as you don’t tell the others –”

            Ralph giggled into the sand. The expression of pain and concentration returned to Piggy’s face.

The last example comes from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne.

This is about a nine-year-old German boy named Bruno, whose father is the commandant of Auschwitz, and Bruno’s friendship with a Jewish detainee named Shmuel.

‘What is?’ he asked. ‘Am I being sent away?’

‘No, not just you,’ she said, looking as if she might smile for a moment but thinking better of it. ‘We all are. Your father and I, Gretel and you. All four of us.’

Bruno thought about this and frowned. He wasn’t particularly bothered if Gretel was being sent away because she was a Hopeless Case and caused nothing but trouble for him. But it seemed a little unfair that they all had to go with her.

‘But where?’ he asked. ‘Where are we going exactly? Why can’t we stay here?’

‘Your father’s job,’ explained Mother. ‘You know how important it is, don’t you?’

‘Yes, of course,’ said Bruno, nodding his head, because there were always so many visitors to the house – men in fantastic uniforms, women with typewriters that he had to keep his mucky hands off – and they were always very polite to Father and told each other that he was a man to watch and that the Fury had big things in mind for him.

‘Well, sometimes when someone is very important,’ continued Mother, ‘the man who employs him asks him to go somewhere else because there’s a very special job that needs doing there.’

‘What kind of job?’ asked Bruno, because if he was honest with himself – which he always tried to be – he wasn’t entirely sure what job Father did.

In school they had talked about their fathers one day and Karl had said that his father was a greengrocer, which Bruno knew to be true because he ran the greengrocer’s shop in the centre of town.

And Daniel had said that his father was a teacher, which Bruno knew to be true because he taught the big boys who it was always wise to steer clear of. And Martin had said that his father was a chef, which Bruno knew to be true because he sometimes collected Martin from school and when he did he always wore a white smock and a tartan apron, as if he’d just stepped out of his kitchen.

But when they asked Bruno what his father did he opened his mouth to tell them, then realized that he didn’t know himself. All he could say was that his father was a man to watch and that the Fury had big things in mind for him. Oh, and that he had a fantastic uniform too.

‘It’s a very important job,’ said Mother, hesitating for a moment. ‘A job that needs a very special man to do it. You can understand that, can’t you?’

‘And we all have to go too?’ asked Bruno.

‘Of course we do,’ said Mother. ‘You wouldn’t want Father to go to his new job on his own and be lonely there, would you?’

‘I suppose not,’ said Bruno.

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  • Write a diary entry: pretend you are a child writing in your diary at the end of the day. Write about your thoughts, feelings, and experiences from the day, focusing on the events that stand out for you.
  • Write a diary from the point of view of a child in an historical period, going on wagons across plains in the US for example.
  • Tell a story from  your childhood: Recall a memorable experience from your own childhood and retell it from the perspective of a child protagonist. Or tell it as yourself aged 5 or 10 or so. Focus on thoughts and feelings.
  • Create a dialogue between two children. Focus on capturing the natural rhythm, cadence, and phrasing of children’s speech patterns. Use contractions, slang, and informal language to make the dialogue authentic.
  • Describe a favorite toy or game from your childhood. If you have the toy, bring it out and describe it in detail. Describe it as though to a child. What does the toy feel like? Did you take it to sleep with you?
  • Describe your childhood bedroom (or house, school etc) as though you are still a child and describing it to a pen pal.
  • Invent a story from a child’s imagination: tap into your inner child and let your imagination run wild. Invent a fantastical story featuring magical creatures, imaginary friends, or daring adventures, other planets, a world underneath earth. Write a world you wish existed, perhaps the one you wanted to as a child. Write the story from the perspective of a child protagonist.

Read our complete guide to point of view for more tips on how to get into character. Our article on writing believable characters is also super useful.

Do you have a book you want to write from a child’s point of view? Join our six-month Group Coaching program, Join and write your book in a child’s point, with the help of an experienced coach and fellow group participants.

By Arja Salafranca

Arja Salafranca has published a collection of short stories, three collections of poetry and has edited anthologies of prose. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

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