Tuesday 1 October 2013

Point of view - a prose workshop

No course on writing prose would be complete without a mention of "point-of-view" (PoV). There isn't much new to say on the issue (other than it's often called "Perspective" nowadays), but being reminded of the possibilities does no harm - it's easy to slip into habits. Writers probably don't try out different PoVs enough, or try different combinations. So first we'll run through the basic options, broaden them out, then look in depth at a particular first-person situation.

1st person

Example: "I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull" (1719)

As you can see from the example, it's been around a long while. Henry James in his preface to "The Ambassadors" wrote "the first person, in the long piece, is a form doomed to looseness" but in 2002 David Lodge believed that "a majority of literary novels published in the last couple of decades have been written in the first person" ("Consciousness and the Novel", p.86). There's a sense of directness. However, from inside one person you see only the outsides of others so the view may be subjective, untrustworthy. Note that

  • The person needn't be the main protagonist - in "The Great Gatsby" for example, the narrator's a minor character, and in the Sherlock stories Dr Watson's usually the narrator.
  • The narrator may not be very self-revealing. Jeanette Winterson, writing about her "Written on the Body" novel said "the narrator has no name, is assigned no gender, is age unspecified, and highly unreliable. I wanted to see how much information I could leave out - especially the kind of character information that is routine - and still hold a story together". At the other extreme there's stream-of-consciousness.
  • The narrative voice may be very different to the 1st person's voice in dialogue. "Strangely Comforting", a short story by Sadie McKenzie, has a narrator who thinks like this - "Then our eyes meet and my words snag. Vulnerability crouching behind the feral aggression. Me and Kayleigh, united by fierceness masking our fear" but talks like this - "I could be some crazy bitch, just outta pen. I could've just chipped from Holloway. Watch me follow you home an' torch your yard ... Maybe I'll get my brother an' his bredrin to gang you. You up for that?"
  • The first-person PoV can be used in the plural - e.g. "The Virgin Suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides

2nd person

Unusual. It's used in "Bright Lights, Big City" by Jay McInerny ("You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy"). It might sound tedious after a while, though Sarah Hall used it well for "Bees" (a short story in the excellent "The Beautiful Indifference" collection). In Vendela Vida’s novel "The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty" it's used to depict a malleable self.

If you want to know more, read

3rd person

Example: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

A wide range. There's often an attempt to sound objective. It can be

  • from a particular character's viewpoint ("privileged" "limited") in which case it becomes rather like a first person piece.
  • from a few characters' viewpoints - "Third person dual",etc
  • omniscient, with the hidden narrator able to see inside the characters
  • omnipresent but not omniscient - objective, like a passive camera.

The following table covers most of the alternatives mentioned above


How many of the boxes in that table correspond to viable combinations? What features doesn't this table cover? To help answer those questions, let's try an exercise.

Exercise 1: What's the PoV?

PoV isn't always as simple as the above options might make you think. Look at the extracts below. Describe the narrators, how much they know, and their relationship to "you" or the reader. Try to place the extract in the right box of the table above.

  1. Now Alan is putting a dish in the oven. 'Forty-five minutes,' he says, looking at his watch. He takes off his apron, hangs it on the back of the door, and heads for the living room. 'Seven-fifteen, the highlights. You two stay and natter. It'll be ready at eight.'
    'Highlights?' says Agnieszka, puzzled, wondering why Alan wants to watch a programme about hairdressing.
    'The cricket,' says Alan, turning on the TV. 'First day. India all out for only 198 and we're already 64 for 1. That's a lot of wickets for the first day. England are doing pretty well.' He's almost rubbing his hands. I can smell the garlic.
  2. The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelt of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn't eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen's telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbours' closeboard fencing.
    'Harold!' called Maureen above the vacuum cleaner. 'Post!'
    He thought he might like to go out, but the only thing to do was mow the lawn and he had done that yesterday
    Upstairs Maureen shut the door of David's room quietly and stood a moment breathing him in. She pulled open his blue curtains that she closed every night, and checked there was no dust where the hem of the net drapes met the windowsill. She polished the silver frame of his Cambridge portrait, and the black and white baby photograph beside it. She kept the room clean because she was waiting for David to come back, and she never knew when that would be. A part of her was always waiting. Men had no idea what it was like to be a mother.
  3. For some probably economic reason it was usually a woman who was chosen for this particular duty, and Grady gave as his motive in selecting Tess that she was one of those who best combined strength with quickness in untying, and both with staying power, and this may have been true
  4. Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn't. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
    When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, "But I thought he was a boy?"
  5. Let's go to Rupi's brothers now
    They've been patient for so long, hidden behind the mouth of the underpass. The ferns are cool against their backs. Their soiled clothes blend so well against the wall. They are almost as invisible as we are.
    Now, this is what they've waited for.
    This is the moment I wanted you to see. I hope that you too have a taste for the unusual. For the brutal.
    If you look now, out of the corner of your eye, maybe you'll see the rest of us, sitting on the canal edge, perched upon the roofs, laid out along the top of the walls
  6. No. I don't care what your agenda is. I'm Miguel. I'm telling you about Pepito. I will have to tell you because he can't, not now, and I think he is important, in his way. So just for a few minutes, still the buzzing, OK?
    Pepito's island? Oh, it is beautiful. We always knew that.
  7. Strange to say, I expected more from literature than from real, naked life. Jan Bronski, whom I had often enough seen kneading my mother's flesh, was able to teach me next to nothing. Although I knew that this tangle, consisting by turns of Mama and Jan or Matzerath and Mama, this knot which sighed, exerted itself, moaned with fatigue, and at last fell stickily apart, meant love, Oskar was still unwilling to believe that love was love; love itself made him cast about for some other love, and yet time and time again he came back to tangled love, which he hated until the day when in love he practiced it; then he was obliged to defend it in his own eyes as the only possible love.
1. 1st person but omniscient too? 2. 3rd person, dual-privileged. Foreshadowing - the narrator knows the plot. 3. The narrator doesn't know everything. 4. The narrator's in complete control, claiming even to know about the reader. 5. Narrator and reader are participants. 6. Narrator hears readers' questions. 7. Changes PoV.

I hope that these real-life examples ("24 for 3" (Jennie Walker), "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" (Rachel Joyce), "The World of Pooh" (AA Milne), "Dead Fish" (Adam Marek), "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" (Thomas Hardy), "The Carob Tree" (Vanessa Gebbie), "The Tin Drum", (Gunter Grass)) show that the simple 1st- 2nd- 3rd- person description of PoV needs to be elaborated upon, which is what I'm going to do next.

Extra characters

Whenever there's an attempt at communicating there's a sender and a receiver even if they're only implied


  • I mentioned earlier that the "I" needn't be the central character. If the narrator's a character who experiences the events of the story, they're called an "internal narrator", but they might not be in the story at all. They might be the author, or an unnamed character, or a storyteller. Here are some examples -
    • "Are you sitting comfortably? Now I'll begin". (BBC)
    • "I should point out I found out about all of this at a much later date. I'm not part of the story yet" (Jim Murdoch)
    • "Now befaw we go too fah down dis road let's you and me get a few tings straight: I'm yer narratah ... whad I say goes" (Jim Murdoch)
    Sometimes the author butts in (for example, hundreds of pages into Zadie Smith's "NW", there's a surprize "Reader: keep up!"). An anonymous, unreliable narrator is used in a chapter of Ulysses.

Tense complicates matters. In a first person story, the main character may also be the narrator, but if it's told in the past tense it might be as if they're 2 different characters. For example, in "A Summer Bird-cage" by Margaret Drabble

  • The narrator makes brief appearances early on, saying things like "I still remember the way she said that".
  • Chapter 5 begins "I now find myself compelled to relate a piece of information which I decided to withhold, on the grounds that it was irrelevant, but I realize increasingly that nothing is irrelevant." On the next page it says "It is only now, at the time of writing (or rather, indeed, rewriting) that it occurs to me ...".
  • On p.207 the narrator arrives and stays - "As I sit here, typing this last page".

In total the narrator addresses the reader for about a page, but that's enough to add another layer to the novel. And what about this? 1st or 3rd? "In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing." (1605)


The "you" might be one of the characters in the story (especially in epistolary pieces) or it might be the common reader, or it might be more specialised. Italo Calvino in "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" plays with the options. Even if there's not an explicit "you", there are assumptions about the reader. The "implied addressee" might be an assumed child (in children's literature), a literary reader, etc.

"You" might be addressed to you, the reader (a bit like Miranda Hart in her sit-com). Here's an example -

As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner. I suppose they thought I was just the build for it because I was long and skinny for my age ... You might think it a bit rare, having long-distance cross-country runners in Borstal but you're wrong, and I'll tell you why" ("The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner", Sillitoe, p.7)

Sometimes narrators act as if they're being asked questions by someone who's never identified - as in the Gebbie example earlier.

Involvement with the story

Sometimes readers find it difficult to identify with any specific character when the viewpoint's omniscient. If readers aren't directly addressed they might be tempted to identify with one of the characters, but who? The only one we can see inside of? The only morally sound character? What PoV maximizes immersion? Such questions can be answered experimentally, a fertile area of research. Using EEG and fMRI researchers have measured effects. Sometimes they use erotica, but we'll gloss over that. I think that the conclusion is that there might be an initial effect when using the 2nd person which is why PR people often use it - "1 in 4 people who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day die of cancer" is less effective than "Hey, do you smoke more than 20 a day? Come on, be honest. If your answer's yes you've a 1 on 4 chance of dying of cancer". Readers soon get used to this trick though. Other factors matter at least as much.

Mixing things up

Different sections of a story can have different points-of-view. It's not uncommon to have "I" being a different person in alternate sections or chapters (see for example "The Book of Human Skin" by Michelle Lovric, "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn, or part of Sartre's trilogy).

Or the 3rd-person narrative may take on a flavour of the voice and opinions of the character concerned, in free indirect style. Here are examples of speech modes from Wikipedia

  • Direct speech - He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. "And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?" he asked.
  • Reported speech - He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.
  • Free indirect speech - He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

Here's another example of Free indirect speech, adapted from one by Emma Darwin - Emily was one of those people who hates confronting liars. She put down her coffee. What a bastard he was! He was obviously lying. She picked up her coffee again and said how sweet it was of John to be so helpful. Note the transition from narrator voice to the character's voice and back again. As Emma Darwin says, it helps turn tell into show. Jane Austen uses it.

From 3rd person the voice can switch from one limited viewpoint to another. Or there can be long monologues or flashbacks (whodunits, with long witness-PoV sections, have put this device into the mainstream). Harry Potter novels dip into various minds in limited third person sections, I think. The narrative can zoom in ever further, giving us a character's interior monologue and physical perceptions as they occur.

Near the start of "Moon Tiger" by Penelope Lively (Penguin, 1988) we read that "The voice of history, of course, is composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard. Some louder than others, naturally ... So, since my story is also theirs, they too must speak - Mother, Gordon, Jasper ... Except that of course I have the last word. The historian's privilege". The PoV-switching continues throughout the book. Sometimes a paragraph is followed by a paragraph describing the same events from a different viewpoint. The viewpoint may differ slightly (both 3rd person privileged, but from 2 people's viewpoints) or the viewpoints might be 1st and 3rd person.

And over there if I am not mistaken is this chap who might wangle me a ride up to the front if I play it right
She smiles - the glossy lipsticked smile of the times. She approaches his table - a neat figure in white linen, bright coppery hair, high-heeled red sandals, bare sunburned legs - and he rises, pulls out a chair, clicks his fingers at the suffragi.
And looks appreciatively at the legs, the hair, the outfit which is not the get-up of the average woman press correspondent.

At least it is to be assumed that that is what he was doing since he tried later to get me into bed (p.69)

In "Zennor in Darkness" by Helen Dunmore is an example of a novel where point-of-view is fluid, changing from person to person rapidly, and varying in the depth of stream-of-consciousness.

  • On p.179 there's this paragraph that begins with Clare's PoV, 3rd-person privileged, then becomes 1st person - " Clare turns her face into the pillow and grips it. Hannah hinted at something in Sam's letter; something which had happened to Sam, and changed him. There must be things I don't know and can't begin to imagine "
  • Chapter 22 begins with Clare's PoV, 3rd person, when she was 5. After a few pages it becomes omniscient for a page. Then there's "Nan sews. Her thoughts are like stitches, each one tiny and precise and not much in itself, but making up the strong seam" followed by Nan's introspection, then "Fifteen years later Nan sews and thinks of Clare", the introspection continuing. Then suddenly we seeing things from Clare's 20 year-old 1st person PoV.

In "In a strange room", Damon Galgut switches from 3rd to 1st person within a paragraph, the same person being the subject - e.g.

The figure is a man about his own age, dressed entirely in black. Black pants and shirt, black boots. Even his rucksack is black. What the first man is wearing I don't know, I forget (p.3)

According to one reviewer it shows that "The narrator is both involved and distant". See Francine Prose's "Reading like a writer" for other examples.

Julian Barnes' novel "The Only Story" starts in the 1st person then moves through the 2nd person to the 3rd, perhaps to suggest increasing distancing.

But what about "inconsistent PoV"? The change in PoV needn't be extreme to be distracting. What about these?

  • Frogs could be heard croaking as we neared the pond
  • When one feels tired, a cake will give you quick energy

Or suppose in a first person piece you read "She felt ashamed". You might say "hey, hold on, how does the narrator know this?", but even famous authors (Dickens etc) can be inconsistent. Gunter Grass in the example earlier changes PoV between one sentence and the next. Hemingway in his much praised "Hills Like White Elephants" twice breaks the "rule" of objectivity. If you can surprize readers with a plot-twist what's wrong with surprising them with a narrative switch?

Other media

  • Media Studies has taken over from Eng Lit in some places. The courses overlap when it comes to PoV. The default for film is "3rd person objective". Can you think of some interesting alternatives? There's split-screen (which I've tried in prose); subtitles used as in "Annie Hall" to show an alternative, simultaneous PoV; "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; voice-overs; jerky, hand-held scenes in "The Blair Witch Project". How about "What Maisie Knew" (2012)?
  • There are first-person shoot'em'up computer games too. Sometimes you can choose your viewpoint. Perhaps e-novels should let you do that too.
  • You can also get ideas from paintings - Cezanne's multiple viewpoints, Breugel's multiple-narrative street scenes


As you can see, things are getting complicated, which is why straightforward "PoV" is out of fashion. A 1st person and a 3rd person story may have more in common than two 3rd person stories have. As well as knowing who's doing the seeing we need to identify who's doing the narrating, where they are in relation to the story-space and how much they know about the characters and plot.

People have tried organising the possibilities into a diagram or table. It can help identify untapped possibilities, or show how certain stories resemble each other

Stanzel decided to consider 3 main aspects

  • MODE - narrator ... reflector (telling a story or manipulating?)
  • PERSPECTIVE - internal ... external ... authorial
  • PERSON - 1st person ... identity ... non-identity

If you had 2 of these you could construct a table - maybe with "1st", "2nd", "3rd" as column headings, and "internal", external" as the rows. It would be interesting to think of novels that would fit in the cells of the table. But what can you do with 3 factors? A 3D table? Stanzel decided to have each aspect as a diameter of a circle - "Stanzel's typological circle". People elaborated this until it became rather occult.

Genette sliced things up another way, using "focalisation" (omniscient; 1 person, "camera") and voice (1st person, etc) and considered these to be independent features. It seems fair enough to me. Let's see if some diagrams help

This is a standard "objective" scenario, like a film. There's an invented world within which the action unfolds, and a passive camera is there to record events, unable to see inside people, though close-ups are possible.
In this alternative there are dotted lines around the person to denote a see-through boundary; 3rd-person privileged. Other characters could be added - some with see-through boundaries, some with solid boundaries.
Let's move the camera to make it 1st-person. We'd better keep the person's boundary see-through
Now let's move it so that the narrator's outside the story, able to see the plot from various angles - the storytelling scenario. But there's still an assumption that the storyworld is stable, that a passive camera records the unfolding events.
But sometimes the narrator doesn't want us to believe in the storyworld - it's all a game inside the narrator's head - "The French Lieutenant's Woman" perhaps. The narrator will survive even if the story is abandoned, restarted, redrafted, etc.

How to choose a PoV

There are many factors to consider. For example

  • In what way is the PoV you're choosing going to limit you?
  • It's easier for readers to assume that the narrator is the author. If you're male and the main character's female, is 1st person too risky?

The good news is that it's never too late to change. And of course you can keep various versions on file. Alice Munro often revises her stories between their original publication in a periodical and the republication in a collection. For example, she frequently writes a story from both the third-person and first-person point of view before deciding which to use in the final version. Changing from 1st to 3rd person might not be a big deal. Changing from "objective" to "omniscient" is another matter.

Exercise 2 - choosing a PoV

You're settling in to your new student room. There's a knock at the door. Someone cute asks if you have any sugar. You offer them in for a tea. Narrate until the moment the tea is poured. Do it twice, from different perspectives. Pick the option most natural to you, then one that's challenging.

Special first-person PoVs

family.jpgI'd like now to focus on particular 1st person PoVs because they're increasingly popular. The narrator can be dead - there's "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak, where the narrator is Death, and "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold, where a young girl, having been killed, observes, from some after-life vantage point. Narrators can be mad, or animals (Ian McEwan had a pet ape as a narrator).

Or the main character can be a child. Writing from a child's point-of-view isn't easy. Done well though, it can be effective and affecting, so that's what I'm going to focus on.

family.jpgIn his film, "A story of children and film", Mark Cousins suggests that children's been dealt with in film more often than in novels. Maybe so, though novels are catching up - a judge of the 2013 Man Booker competition said there were a lot of child-PoV entries. Most stories of this type use a third-person-priviledged point-of-view, though a first-person treatment is possible. Some people (me included) rarely produce child-centred stories, which is odd - after all, we were all children once. Two story collections I've read have a fair proportion of child-centred stories, so I thought I'd bring the authors' views into the discussion. Some writers raid their own pasts

  • "The key, I think is memory: quite simply, remembering, never forgetting what it was like to be a child - ... when I was in my early twenties I made a conscious vow ... never to forget what it was like to be a child ... But I do also happen to have a very good memory: ... 'Leaf Memory' is based on a real-life memory of my own, aged two years and two months" - Elizabeth Baines

Exercise 3

Write 100 words about your earliest memory. Do it twice - first in a language closest to the way you thought at the time, then using your current powers of expression.

My memory's nowhere near that good. I'm a parent, which you'd have thought should be useful in this context, but childlessness may have advantages. Parents have less time to write, but that's not all - in "The Psychologist" March 2009 they reported on a survey that found that parents are no happier than childless couples. In fact, once the children leave home, parents are sadder. One begins to wonder what the point of children is.

  • "having no children myself means that I've never fully grown up. I'm at the age where many of my friends are wondering why hostile, sulky delinquents from outer space have occupied their teenage children's bodies. And what do I do? Easy, I side with the kids. ... Basically, I can't grasp the crisis from the parent's viewpoint, however hard I try" - Charles Lambert

Writing's hard enough as it is without burdening oneself with extra handicaps, so why should authors restrict themselves to a child's viewpoint and vocabulary? It's fair enough in children's fiction but what about fiction for adults? Let's look at each restriction in isolation

  • Viewpoint - Though children might not understand what's going on, and might be unable to be involved in the scene, they have certain advantages as observers - like cameras, they might see things from a new angle and might be ignored by the protagonists. The child might not understand what's going on, but readers are likely to. The difference between the character's and the reader's understanding can be exploited for laughs or for more serious effect. On the BBC's web-site they give the example of this - a child bursting into his parents' bedroom, upset to find them wrestling naked on the bed. Successful writers consciously exploit this irony
    • "children can have instinctual knowledge which we adults can lose, and these insights yet gaps can be the stuff of dramatic conflict and motor a story" - Elizabeth Baines
    • "one of the things I'm doing when I choose to use children as the channel through which the narrative is seen is what Henry James did with Maisie; I'm exploiting their clear-sightedness and innocence. Children see everything, but don't necessarily understand any of it. Whether they're protagonists or witnesses, they tend to be one step behind - or to one side of - the attentive adult reader, which sets up an interesting narrative gap through which the unsettling elements can squeeze." - Charles Lambert
  • Language - Children may not have a wide, intellectual vocabulary, but that needn't be such a restriction. They can be original in their use of words, less restricted by convention and social mores.

A way round both of these limitations is to use a fluid 3rd-person priviledged point-of-view, rather as in the Joyce example below. Alternatively, if it's written in the past tense, the narrator can gloss over these difficulties (the author can create an adult character who recalls an amazing amount about childhood), though it dilutes the effect.

Exercise 4: Guess the age!

How young can you go? "My Mother's Dream" (Alice Munro) is from the viewpoint of someone before their conception, then as a foetus, then a baby for most of the story, which is probably beyond the call of duty. Try guessing the age of the children in these extracts, and the supposed age of the narrator.

  • Maisie received in petrification the full force of her mother's huge and painted eyes - they were like Japanese lanterns swinging under festival arches
  • After a while of playing, Mary gets bored and speaks on the phone. She always twirls the cord around her finger and gets her whole body wrapped up in it. It’s silly. Sometimes I don’t think she’s really a grownup. Maybe she’s just playing dress-ups.
    Daddy walks in with a big smile on his face, and Mary skips up to him like a little girl and gives him a kiss on the cheek.
    “Did you go to see your mother today?” That’s Daddy speaking to Mary, not me. She nods and does doll’s eyes and hangs her head to the side making a stupid groaning sound. She sounds like my Ted in the mornings.
  • Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...

    His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

    He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

    O, the wild rose blossoms
    On the little green place.

    He sang that song. That was his song.

    O, the green wothe botheth.

    When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.
  • We were coming down our road. Kevin stopped at a gate and bashed it with his stick. It was Misses Quigley's gate; she was always looking out the window but she never did anything.
    - Quigley!
    - Quigley!
    - Quigley Quigley Quigley!
    Liam and Aidan turned down their cul-de-sac. We said nothing; they said nothing. Liam and Aidan had a dead mother. Missus O'Connell was her name.
    - It'd be brilliant wouldn't it? I said
  • The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light. He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of the reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of the players and his eyes were weak and watery.
  • MARCH 25, MORNING. A troubled night of dreams. Want to get them off my chest.
  • Saturday January 3rd
    I shall go mad through lack of sleep! My father has banned the dog from the house so it barked outside my window all night. Just my luck! My father shouted a swear-word at it. If he's not careful he will get done by the police for obscene language.
  • 'Is that your name?' I was bold enough to ask the Miss more prone to mirth.
    'Eleanor is what I was christened but people call me Ellie.'
    Idly, I said, 'That's not what my mother calls you.'
    'What does she call her?' enquired the one who was not Ellie.
    'Not just her, both of you.'
    What does she call us?'
    Her dress smelled of corridor.
    The sisters awaited an answer. Ellie, dried dribbles of Wall's ice-cream on her frock, seemed as eager to know as her sister.
    A curler in her hair, a clip between her teeth, my mother held her breath,
    'She calls you …' I paused to accord the phrase the respect with which I had always heard it uttered, 'She calls you "the Misses Linster".'
    Though obviously the cause of amusement, I wasn't sure what was funny.

The extracts are from "What Maisie Knew" (Henry James; the child's 7), "The Book" (Jessica Bell; the child's 5), "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (James Joyce), "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" (Roddy Doyle; the boy's 10), "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (James Joyce), "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (James Joyce), "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4" (Sue Townsend) and a story by Ian Madden; the child's 6 years old. Authors often seem to have over- or under-estimated the child, but kids have an irritating habit of not acting their age - one moment they talk like an adult, next moment they sulk like a baby. In any case, one shouldn't expect dialogue in literature to be like Real Life - it has to be artificial to some extent but how much? It can be difficult to convince the reader of the narrator's age.


Let's see how the experts do it

  • 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?"
  • A shadow made me start as my mother's face loomed towards me where I lay, eight months old, tongue-tied, spastic and flailing on my course rug, on the warm lawn, in the summer of 1947 - in an English country garden. My father was playing French cricket with Miranda and John, and I could hear a tennis ball
  • Early one morning as we were beginning our day’s play in the back yard, Jem and I heard something next door in Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch. We went to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy—Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting— instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke:
    “Hey yourself,” said Jem pleasantly.
    “I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said. “I can read.”
    “So what?” I said.
    “I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin‘ I can do it...”
    “How old are you,” asked Jem, “four-and-a-half?”
    “Goin‘ on seven.”
    “Shoot no wonder, then,” said Jem, jerking his thumb at me. “Scout yonder’s been readin‘ ever since she was born, and she ain’t even started to school yet. You look right puny for goin’ on seven.”
    “I’m little but I’m old,” he said.

Note that these extracts tell the reader the age of the child. Kids tell each other their ages, so it's not too artificial. It gets round one problem when writing such pieces.

Problems and criticisms

  • It's very tempting to slip out of character for a few paragraphs. A commonly used way to include an adult's viewpoint is for the child to be an uncomprehending messenger - e.g. to have the child find an adult's diary and read it (Paula Sharp calls that a hackneyed device though!). Here's Elizabeth Baines' approach
    • "The story 'Power' ... strictly, use[s] a child narrator, ie, the voice is that of the child as a child, and in this case in the present tense, as the story is happening. This is the most restrictive way of adopting a child's viewpoint, with least chance for authorial intervention. The main way I get round the restriction here is to splice the child's narrative with the mother's phone calls on which the child eavesdrops."
    • "In 'Star Things' ... the child is constantly and innocently quoting things her parents have said"
    She notes however that "the children's voices in these stories aren't entirely naturalistic, I do take linguistic licence, as they're not intended as straightforward dramatic monologues"
  • Even the best adult books with child narrators risk being treated as if they're children's books
  • One has to be rather careful about using material that can be traced back to a particular child - moreso than with consenting adults.

Special Needs

Authors have tried combining age limitations with other features - in particular, cleverness. In a sense, these writers are having it both ways; they can exploit the freedom and freshness of the child narrator without having to make too many compromises regarding vocabulary or intellect.

  • "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" (Mark Haddon) has a clever, autistic 15-year-old narrator
  • "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (Jonathan Safran Foer) is held together by Oskar, a precocious and obsessive nine-year-old polymath
  • "How the Light Gets In" (M.J. Hyland) has a highly intelligent, damaged 16-year-old
  • "Flowers for Algernon" (Daniel Keyes) doesn't have a child narrator, but the IQ and language of the narrator change in the course of the novel.

Exercise 5

Describe an adult situation from a child's PoV. The child can be special if you wish.


  • Try things out! Write multiple versions. Mix versions.
  • Don't be dogmatic.
  • Watch films and play computer games.

Discussion Points

  • Are child-narrator stories usually autobiographical?
  • What other devices do authors use to bring an adult perspective into child-narrator stories?
  • What 1st person child narrator novels/stories have you read? Did they work?

Authors quoted

The quotes are used (with the authors' permission) from Virtual Booktours that they made - Elizabeth Baines' "Around the Edges of the World" Tour and Charles Lambert's "Something Rich and Strange" Tour

  • Elizabeth Baines won 3rd prize in the Raymond Carver Short Story Competition 2008. Her book, "Balancing on the Edge of the World" (Salt) was shortlisted for the 2008 The Salt Frank O'Connor Prize.
  • Charles Lambert was an O.Henry Prize winner in 2007, along with William Trevor and Alice Munro. Books include "Little Monsters" (Picador) and "The Scent of Cinnamon" (Salt)


  • Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artists as a young man"
  • Hugo Hamilton's "The Speckled People" - people have said "The world here is viewed through the eyes of a child who does not judge, merely details and describes." .... "Though Hugo matures as the story unfolds, the simple, declarative sentences of a child's confused and partial understanding do not. (...) He has made an attempt on something impossible - to show from a child's point of view what a child can't see. To the degree that he succeeds, it's remarkable."
  • Paula Sharp's "Crows over a Wheatfield" - people have said that "the characters are so involving - not since 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or the opening chapters of 'Jane Eyre' has there been a more acute and astute child's view of the world".
  • Sue Townsend's "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4". Comedy.
  • Colum McCann's "Everything in this country must" - this collection's stories have 1st person narrators in their early teens.
  • Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" - has a 10 year old 1st person narrator
  • Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters was written for adults by a 9 year old
  • Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" - has a 6 year old narrator.
  • Emma Donoghue's "The Room" - has a 5 year old narrator.
  • Jessica Bell’s "The Book" - has a 5 year old narrator. See Jim Murdoch's blog for details.
  • "The Life of Pi"? "The Tin Drum"? "Empire of the Sun"?

See also

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