As a rule I like kid narrators. I read a lot of them. An embarrassingly high percentage of the books I read are YA and most young adult novels feature a first-person narrator between the ages of 14 and 17.
This week, I met sixteen-year-old Jacob whom I accompanied on a quest to solve the mystery of his grandfather’s death in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. There’s a swell review of it at Write, Aubrey, Write.
On the whole I enjoyed meeting Jacob and going along on his very unusual adventure. Jacob (ala author Ransom Riggs) had a decent sense of humor and a knack for describing stuff. The middle of the book was slow, but the novel ended fine, and I’d probably read the sequel that’s in the works.
As a writer, I find first-person makes it easy to create quirky, idiosyncratic (sometimes unreliable) narrators who effortlessly spill their tangled emotions and half-baked life theories onto the page. It’s a fun way to write. Once the voice comes alive, the characters almost write themselves.
But I’ve had two major problems with these first-person kid narrators as of late:
- If the kid’s peculiar to the point of annoying, it’s a huge drag to read the book, even if the story’s good.
- It’s easy to write fun scenes when the narrative voice is strong, but sometimes it’s incredibly, extremely hard to make plot happen.
The first issue is one I’ve experienced more as a reader than a writer, because when you’re writing an annoying character, you can usually do something about it. As a reader, you’re stuck with what you’re given.
That’s how I’m feeling right now about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. The kid is SO INCREDIBLY EXTREMELY annoying. Also he’s inconsistent. Like at nine years old he knows about everything contained in an encyclopedia, but doesn’t know that New York has boroughs? The kid (Oskar) lives in NYC?!
The story’s okay so far (I’m only a quarter of the way through the book), but I just don’t buy this narrator. I’m totally conscious that I’m reading fiction. Oskar is ridiculous and irritating, which bums me out because so many
book club people read this book. Now they’re saying, “I never want to read another kid narrator again.”
That sucks because I’m writing kid narrators.
ASIDE: re: other meant-for-adults fictional kid narrators, I think Emma Donoghue’s Room was better.
The second problem I’ve experienced with kid narrators is on the writing side of things. It’s when I totally get immersed in my made-up person and have all these funny little adventures with them that never really go anywhere. (I REALLY hope that’s not going to happen in Foer’s book or I’ll be incredibly extremely pissed.)
See, good scenes are fun, but a bunch of loosely connected escapades with a cool person doesn’t a story equal.
Here are some of what I like about writing young narrators:
- Fun. Being young is fun.
- It’s universal. Everyone’s been young and can identify on some level with youthful experiences.
- Chemistry. All those hormones and emotions ramp up the tension.
- Blind spots. When a reader knows more than the character, it can be funny and adds more good tension.
- Discovery. I love discovering new things. That’s what growing up is all about and it makes for good stories.
- Beauty. There is something innately beautiful–even magical–about youth.
- Easy reads. First person narrators are easy to read. You jump right in, feel instantly intimate, and are ready to go for a ride with your new best friend.
- Anything can happen. That may be true, too, as an adult, but it seems MORE true as a kid.
I hope there are plenty of others out there who share my love of young narrators.
Even though I don’t like Foer’s Oskar, I’m not going to stop writing my own character, Mary. She’s incredibly cool.
And I wanna introduce those book clubbers to her. Eventually.
I know they’d like hanging out with her WAY better than Oskar. I mean, sure, Mary’s peculiar, but in an extremely good way.