Friday, September 3, 2010

Young Characters Are People Too

I was lurking in a discussion of characterization when the mostly baby-boomer discussers were talking about how it's difficult to create young protagonists if you didn't have examples right there with you, and even those with children that age had some trouble making the characterization work. I just happened to have read this article by an acting coach about why the Bobby Jindal speech (after Obama's first State of the Union message) was panned by so many.

The coach said that he could tell that Jindal was concentrating on the "how"-- "how do I show sincerity?" rather than the "why"-- "why do I believe this?"

The coach remarked, "In life we have thoughts and feelings and then we find the words to express those thoughts and feelings. It is a straight line. In acting as in public speaking, we start with the words. What should the great actor and the great orator do? They should find the thoughts and feelings that make them need to say these words. In short they should find The Why.

"What is a common mistake? It is focusing on The How. The actor or orator in this case is thinking about How to make the speech effective. If you supply the Why, The How takes care of itself. What Jindal did is focus on How he wanted to come across. In acting I call this a General Attitudinal Choice. He thought of the effect he wanted to have on the audience. He wanted to come across as likable and friendly. He wanted the audience to think that he is a good guy, so he adopted a general demeanor of kind and empathetic. This is why he came off as condescending. No matter what he talked about the the pose was the same. He was trying to project his idea of a warm and friendly guy. Therefore he came off as patronizing."

Well, really, when I read that, I thought it connected. :) Let me first talk about the problem. The problem is that if we the author don't "feel" this character within us, we might not be able to make that character plausible. And it's probably harder to easily feel a character who is of another generation. We know we can't just think of ourselves at that age, because the world has changed (hurray!). You probably don't want the 2010 heroine bopping to Beatles' hits (though, you know, my sons that age love the Beatles and Stones and Hendrix and all 60s music, go figure... I had a student last semester who wore a Beatles' t-shirt, and told me that he knew all their songs-- I said, "Because your mom played them when you were young?" He gave me a puzzled look and said, "My mom played Bon Jovi songs, not the Beatles." Who knows, as another 60s icon sang, where the time goes?). But it's not enough to know the latest musical trends and the clothing fashions. Those are just labels (and they'll probably change before the book comes out-- don't want to refer to the Jonas Brothers when you know in a year they'll be in the "where are they now" category).

It doesn't help that our major media portrayal of young people is on TV shows, which usually show them as whiny narcissists. This has been jumped on by a older member of the generation, who wrote a book called Generation Me, which purports to examine the culture of youth (only affluent white youth, from what I can tell-- not the students I teach at a community college, for sure) and dismisses them as, natch, whiny narcissists. Well, let's ask "why?" Why does she diss her own generation? I need only point out that she's on the older edge of the generation (as are most of those TV writers), and have you ever known a big sister to speak with unqualified admiration about her younger siblings? (As an older sister to 6 siblings, I admit this reluctantly.)

I can summarize the conventional wisdom on these kids who are of the same generation of many of our characters (somehow, let's face it, it's easier to do an action-adventure novel or a romance with, uh, young and fit characters :)-- but heck, you watch the same TV shows that I do.

What I know is that we want to create real people in our characters, no matter what their age, but we don't want to do this by pretending that the time period and culture don't matter (that is, we don't want to make them just like us, only 25 in 2010). And they won't seem real if we create them with labels-- she likes the Jonas Brothers (because she's actually 12 :), he owns a Mac Airbook-- and make that the only individual and generational thing about them. The reader is going to read that and sense "inauthenticity/insincerity" even if you meant for the best.

Instead of labels-- the "how"-- let's try going inside.

Well, first let me give my own sociological impressions of this generation, based on a smallish sample-- my kids, their friends, and hundreds of students (mostly working class or poor, but also some middle class, and some upper-middle-- I've taught at three universities).

They are actually whiny. :) I mean, I'll agree with that. Well, let's come up with a nicer way to say that. They have no trouble, in the main, voicing their discontent and hoping if not expecting that someone will fix it. If they don't like their grade, many of them will tell the professor that and beg or demand a better one. (There is some justification for that-- what used to be just a "major," and so just a choice, is now a "school" with competitive admission, so that B in English might mean she can't get into nursing school, believe it or not-- and if you wonder why there's a nursing shortage, you might ask why anyone would assume that nursing students should get an A in English, like an English major....)

But they are far more kind, loving, compassionate, and open than the immediately previous generation X (the one that drove so many of us out of college teaching...). They are much more peaceful and ready to find common ground than baby boomers. They have little fear of emotion-- this is especially striking in the young men, who seem less fettered by the rather toxic male culture of the baby boom and the even more toxic male culture of the ones that came to age during and right after WWII. (I am generalizing, which is part of my point-- we can't help but generalize, but what the whole generation seems like might mean nothing about an individual.) Competitiveness is no longer the defining trait in male-to-male relationships. (The postwar men were poisoned by this, I say as a woman observer. Fathers were even competitive with their sons... ever see The Great Santini? I knew lots of fathers like that.) Now notice that one significant difference with the new generation is they have grown up with women in positions of power. Many had single mothers (and you want to see a 25-year-old man cry, get him to talk about his single mom-- "She's my hero!" is what they often say), and many have had women bosses from their first jobs. They have also had girls-as-friends and are likely to be comfortable with that.

Oh, and the young straight men have mostly all had openly gay friends, and they just don't seem to have as much of an issue with that.

For young women... well, this is the first generation of girls who grew up mostly all playing competitive sports. (Thank you, Title 9!) That, I think, is significant in a lot of ways. Sports changes the girls, but the girls change the sport too. :) Something I notice that is a direct result of girl-sports is that our definition of beauty is changing. "Toned arms" doesn't mean just smooth and straight, but also the curve of strong biceps. (There's a whole website devoted to Michelle Obama's upper arms, which I'd think was sexist, but then I remember the website devoted to Pierce Brosnan's forearms, and ....) And there's a wonderful new attitude that you can be a tough athlete and then that evening be a girly-girl in a sexy short dress. These young women athletes don't feel they have to be tough all the way through all the time-- they know they can just play tough. The Williams sisters are as tough as any man, but did you see Venus playing the match in dangly earrings and a necklace?

But there is a sort of disquieting requirement felt by a lot of girls that you have to be beautiful, or -- beauty being notoriously in the eye of the beholder and thus available to anyone who is loved :)-- "hot"-- sexy, I guess. It's sort of baffling to us older folk, who think youth is sexy-- "Why worry? You're 23. By definition, you're sexy!" But that is no doubt exacerbated by the weird fixation the media has with presenting sex-workers as exemplars of what Men Really Want in a Woman. "Porn-worthy," not a term I'd consider a compliment.

This generation of women has also grown up with a sense of possibility that is not limited by their gender (though the whole generation has a much more intense sense of the limitations of the economy and planetary future than I think we baby boomers ever did).

So, to connect this to characterization, let's take for example a young woman character. I see two things that will factor in to your characterization, as much actually about building her world as building her, but factors you might keep in mind:

1) The universal qualities of youth-- young people are usually more resilient, less thoughtful, more creative (if you haven't written great poetry, played great heavy metal, or come up with a new mathematical theorem by 30, you might as well forget it-- these are "youth-intensive" fields). They are more active, quicker thinking but not deeper thinking. They are usually far more dependent on friendships-- their friendships are more intense. They are probably more into entertainment, especially music. They are sociobiologically programmed to be keeping an eye out for potential mates even if they aren't actively seeking. This doesn't necessarily say much about her as a person, but before you have your recent college graduate decide to forego clubbing for a night vegging out on the couch, ask yourself if that's more like YOU (or me, at least) than like a young person.

2) The qualities of the generation she's in-- that's fairly easy to do with a contemporary book, and not actually that hard for a historical either... just respect the reality of their culture and life. A heroine in Kentucky in the years immediately after the US Civil War is not going to have the same worries and values as one in London in the roaring 60s or in Chicago right now.

You don't get off the hook by setting the book in the future or on another planet. All that means is you have to figure out how her generation has been molded by the events of her childhood and youth and the culture around her. You have to make it up too. :) But you're already world-building-- extrapolate from what you have.

Keep in mind that she's got a lifetime, albeit short, of accumulated generational experience, and it's not just This Moment that counts. For example, most of us go on loving the music we loved when we were 15. We of course pick up some other favorite songs, and might even acquire new passions. But what's popular right this moment is probably not what she's listening to during the dark night of the soul... she's listening to the songs that made her cry back when music alone could make her cry. So if she's 22 today, she probably still has favorite Dave Matthews songs, and John Mayer songs, and maybe (though she might not admit it) Britney Spears songs, but she probably doesn't pay any attention to the Jonas Brothers. If someone says, "Quick, name an animated film," she'll blurt, "The Little Mermaid," not Fantastic Mr. Fox.

But generation is more than pop culture, isn't it? (I'm asking you. I'm a baby boomer. Our generation was pretty much just pop culture. :) What else influenced this generation? Well, we know THIS generation had 9/11 in the middle of their teen years and grew up with the Web and Internet and came of age to get their own My Space page and Facebook accounts, and are adept at texting... what the heck does that MEAN? Does it mean they are better or worse at personal relationships? Do they trust too easily or not at all? Do they understand or misunderstand literature from the 18th Century? :)


So when you've thought about what the background for this person might be, what the universal qualities of youth are and the particular qualities of this generation, then what? Background is not destiny. And I think to some extent, that's where characterization begins, not ends. If my heroine is merely a person of her time and age, then she's more generic than any real person would be. She's "how," not "why."

To get to "why," we have to consider how she reacted to those generational influences, and why? Why did one girl in the era of Britney decide to study opera? Why did one boy respond to 9/11 by signing up for the Marines, and his brother responded by joining an antiwar group? You don't have to put that into the story, of course. But if a heroine born in 1985 sings opera in the shower, you might think about what overrode the pop culture influences. This might be a clue that she didn’t grow up in the US, or she was home-schooled, or that she was raised by an aging-hippie grandmother who didn't have a TV.

That's what we owe all our characters, to understand the world they came from (and how it differs from the world we came from!), and how it shaped them, but also how they responded in their own way to the factors that influenced everyone in their generation. We have to find out the "why"—why they become the person they become.



Jessica Silva said...

Great post that really hit the mark for me right now. I love that you brought it up, thank you!

I also wonder, does this understanding also help YA authors write for the YA audience? Most YA authors tend to be far removed from that age, but a lot of authors (Stephanie Meyer, for instance) really seem to capture what's going on for her audience, and make their material relatable. Does this come from understanding her audience, as well as her characters?

Laura K. Curtis said...

This is the thing that makes me craziest about people who are writing secondary characters that are children. All too often, the children are just cutouts or mini-adults. Children are different from adults and different from each other. I've got two of them in my current WIP, and it's really difficult to allow them to be kids.

Edittorrent said...

Laura, yes, all those very articulate and wise 5-year-olds-- Groan. Not true to life. At 5, they're still thinking the world will come to an end if they don't get the McDonald happy meal prize this week.

Jessica, do you think the best YA novelists have an "inner teen" in their heads? That they can quickly access the intense emotions and fears of the teen years? I don't know. But I think that would help, like "method writing"?

elfarmy17 said...

Hello, adults. I am here to answer your questions about teenagers. (kidding)
Jessica, the only thing Stephenie Meyer really understands about teenage girls is we secretly want to be a Disney Princess at some place in our minds. I happen to know that IRL, I would hate it, but it's still there.
Laura, I WAS the articulate 5 year-old. Stuff like Happy Meals mattered, yes, but I was also writing short stories about rated M computer games that I enjoyed, learning astronomy with a rabid fascination, and...playing Pirates and Indians. A kid can be a mini-adult some of the time, but they're also kids. Like I would play Age of Empires (rated T for Teen), but I would create a horse and lead him around instead of crushing my enemies. You've got to incorporate the kid into the grownup.
This issue has never really occurred to me, since I'm a teen who writes for teens. I don't have to think about the characters- they're like people I know at school or whatever.

Edittorrent said...

elfarmy, so what happens when you have to write an adult character, like a parent? :)

What about -- speaking of Twilight-- vampires, who might look 18 but are 78. I am slowly working on a book where the characters aren't vampires, but they age very slowly, so they're 60 and look 28. I decided that you are pretty much the age people treat you, so in most ways, they're 28. But they have all this life experience. I don't know exactly how to do it. I decided to let them be whatever they are, and see if I need to tweak.

I did make them like Irish music, just because that's sort of timeless!

Jami Gold said...

Great post! I think this is related to the backstory post from August too. Figuring out a character's influences (generational or otherwise) creates a backstory that feeds into their current circumstances.

I freely admit that I have conversations with my characters in my head (no matter how crazy that sounds). And I use a method acting/writing technique to capture their essence. But I definitely don't have an "inner teen" in my head. :)

Does that mean I couldn't write a teen character? No. Because if the character speaks to me, I know what matters to them, and I don't need to worry about the bigger generational issues. They'd be an individual, not a generational stereotype. On the other hand, if they didn't speak to me, I wouldn't have a prayer. :)

As writers, we all write about things we don't have personal experience with. I have a character going through empty-nest-syndrome. Just because I haven't experienced that doesn't mean I can't write about her experience from her perspective.

I have noticed, however, that YA writers seem to have their own language, which also permeates much of Twitter. Like I wonder if they got awesomesauce from teens, or if they just make this stuff up and it becomes part of the YA landscape after the fact. :)

Edittorrent said...

Wouldn't it be cool, Jami, if you could invent a slang term that teens would take up?

Jami Gold said...


LOL! Yes, that would be cool!

Okay, here's my I-thought-about-this-for precisely-2-and-half-seconds attempt:


Brilliant, is it not? Inspired by Theresa and her complaints of some M planet being in retrograde and messing everything up. So, naturally, retrogradish means "messed up," as in: Dude, that's so retrogradish.

Everyone - pass it along. Thanks! ;)

Mina @cluttery said...

This was a great post.

I also usually hate the way writers write secondary young people--authors I love, and love how they write their main characters, but the secondary young people are just "off."

I have a secondary young person in my own work and I'm trying very hard and very carefully to do it better. I found a small cheat (I think!). I made my young character a bit of an oddball with her peers. I am still nervous it doesn't read how I intend, however.