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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Characters should act their age

A while back I read (well, skimmed) Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies. Two things stood out to me. 1) My book wasn't really YA and I was screwed (a story for another post) and 2) Making your character act, think, and talk like the age they're supposed to be is a skill that's not limited to YA writing.

A novel that is truly Young Adult should have three components.

1) A main character that is 18 or under.
2) Voice consistent with the way teens speak and think
3) Themes consistent with the adolescent experience

It got me thinking, using these three components, you could write books targeted toward any age group; thirty somethings, empty-nesters, etc. The key is ensuring that your character is acting age-appropriate, not only in voice, but in the way they think about things, what they worry about, etc.

Writing to an age is especially tough if you're not currently in the age group you're writing in. I don't like to make it easy for myself. My debut novel is New Adult and written from the perspective of a 18 year old male. My WIP is written from the perspective of a 43 year old male. I'm a thirty year old woman. So, writing to ages (and gender) that are not mine has been a constant concern.

Last December, I entered a really cool blog hop on Brenda Drake Writes..., The Can We Guess Your Character's Age Contest. The basic concept was to post the first 250 words of your MS, remove any obvious age descriptions, and have people guess the age. It was such a creative idea and it helped a lot. In my first version, some people were guessing too high. I made a few changes to my final entry and actually ended up getting an honorable mention. It made me think about all the little things that impact how old someone sounds. Here are some great tips on defining character's age from the judge Gabriela Lessa:

Can We Guess Your Character's Age and Why Does That Matter?
Interview and tips on voice from judge, Gabriela Lessa for Can We Guess Your Characters Age? Contest

Here are my suggestions for fine-tuning your character's age:

1) Play the blog hop game. Have someone read a portion of your MS and guess the character's age. Make sure they explain why they guessed how they did. If you're writing YA, they shouldn't be more than a year  off. For adult, just make sure they're in the right life stage.

2) Write (or at least imagine) some deleted scenes with your character at different ages. I have a lot of fun with this one. If your character is twenty, come up with a scene for how they were when they were 14 or even 17 (remember in the YA spectrum, just a few years makes a difference). How were they different? What personality traits shine through regardless? Then, head to the future. What will they be like at 40? Understanding your character at different points in their life not only makes them more complex, it helps you to understand which of the characters traits are age based and which are more permanent.

3) To fine tune this even more, put your character at different ages in the exact same situation. How do they act differently? How is their dialog different?

4) Create a test scene where your character interacts with himself at a different age, like in The Time Traveler's Wife. How do the two characters perceive each other?

5) Having a character who is "mature for their age" is no excuse for incorrect guessing. If your character is a mature 14 year old, they should sound like a mature 14 year old, not a thirty year old. Think about mature young characters like Lisa Simpson and Hermione Granger. Smart and mature yes, but their inexperience and youth shine through.

6) As important as age is, don't forget that it's a secondary characteristic. There is no use in trying to create a generic 17 year old girl. Create the character first and then make sure they are behaving as they would at that age.

7) Do some research. Pay attention to how people in your age group talk and behave. Interact with a specimen if you can, eavesdrop, or at least read or watch other fictional takes of the age group. Pay attention not only to how they behave but how they are different. Two seventeen year old girls can be extremely different. How can you tell that they are both seventeen? How are they different now than they might be in ten years?

8) If you have been the age of your character, think back to that time in your life. Maybe even interview your old self. How were you different? How where you the same?

So, shall we play? I included some snippets with characters of different ages from my own work. Neither of the gentlemen I mentioned above appear in these scenes. Can you guess their ages? If you want to play too, feel free to post your own segment in comments.

1) Patrick stood on the edge of the family room and watched his “brother” peruse their bookshelf. The family room had been hijacked. Xavier's presence there made it impossible to pass into that particular section of carpet. But not for Emmy. She blew past Patrick like a stiff wind of cherry vanilla body lotion. She came from behind Xavier and grabbed his arm. He jumped and pulled away but she wasn’t thwarted. She grabbed his arm again and pulled him away from the bookshelf. Patrick almost told her to lay off…because she should…but he let it go to make sure it was clear what side he was on.

“When is your birthday?” she asked him.

Emmy was used to getting her questions answered, but Patrick wasn’t sure if she would this time. Xavier looked at her like the sound her voice was no more than an annoying buzzing sound.

“October 17th,” he said finally.

“That was just a week ago,” Emmy said.

He stared at her without response.

“Happy Birthday, I guess,” Emmy said.

“Thanks,” he said. He looked at the bookshelf, then back and Emmy and Patrick in turn, to see if the exhausting one-question interrogation was over. He didn’t know Emmy.

2) Will Cole sat on the couch and put his head between his knees. He listened carefully for the sounds of the elevator so that he would have time to compose himself before the door opened. He figured all guys were scared to introduce their girlfriends to their mothers. But it was something else entirely when your mother was the President of the United States and your girlfriend was on the terrorism watch list.

He heard the sounds of the elevator moving closer and by the sound of the ding, Will was standing and posed with a smile. His girlfriend, Lena Lowell, along with several armed members of the Secret Service exited the elevator. Apparently, not phased by the small army around her, Lena approached Will and kissed him like they were meeting at a café for brunch.

“You look really pretty,” Will said.

“Is this outfit, okay?” She brushed invisible dust off the shoulder of a royal blue dress that was modest while still hugging her curves pleasantly.


Liz said...

I'm in trouble. I don't even know how to sound my own age.

Jessa Russo (Stadtler) said...

OOH! I want to do a blog hop like this!!!

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

This is very interesting!
Okay, I was guessing that Patrick was early twenties at the beginning of the excerpt, by the end I was second-guessing myself. Emmy seems younger, like a ten-year-old. Xavier seemed somewhere inbetween, like seventeen. Am I anywhere close?
One of the funny things about age is that most of the times I feel like I don't talk that differently than I did as a teen. (I'm thirty.) Then I hang out with teens (I coach high school speech) and realize that yeah, it's so much different! :)

Alicia C. said...

Ack., I'm screwed. Though...I'm aiming for books sort of like the Butcher series only steampunk. So what age group would THAT be? MINE! Everyone's! Can't we all just get along??

And I'm agreeing with Rachel Emmy seemed somewhere around 12-14 or so. Will and Lena are about 18 or 19 ? Maybe 20. Somewhere where introducing a significant other is important to your parent. This didn't happen to me till about um...25? So I could be way off here! :) (Late bloomer!)

Sharon Bayliss said...

Thanks for your comments! Alicia, you're pretty spot on. I was nervous about using the first excerpt because after I read it, I wasn't sure that it did a great job showcasing their ages, based on Rachel's guesses maybe I'm right. But 1 out of 2 isn't too bad. :)

Patrick 15
Xavier 15
Emmy 13
Will 18
Lena 18

Insomniac #4 said...

This is a very helpful post that I will have to refer back to after I finish my first draft. I definitely want my YA characters to sound smart, but not too smart. Remember how the Dawson's Creek kids sounded? That bugged the hell out of me because it seemed forced, like the writers forgot how teenagers actually spoke and made Dawson, Joey & co. sound like them--as adults. It's a thin line, and I'm nowhere near ready to navigate it.

Lexa Cain said...

Character voice is such a thorn in my side. Sometimes, I don't remember why I chose to write YA in the first place. Must be a sign of my addled, aging brain. (I'm 20 yrs older than you, but don't tell anyone, except for all the people now reading this post...) But I press on, doing revision after revision to get the voice right. I'd like to think it gets easier.

Patrick = 13
Xavier = 11
Emmy = 16
Will & Lena = 17
(That was fun! And I loved the excerpts!)

LD Masterson said...

Interesting. I have a terrible time with ages. I blame the family. My two sons are two years apart but travel in such complete diferent circles I could never assign age based on converations. Same with the grandkids. Two thirteen year olds that are nothing alike. I didn't do too badly with your snippets, though. I pegged the first one as mid-teens and the second one as early twenties.