Editing

Acting My Age

For today’s topic, I wanted to discuss the “voice” of a protagonist.  In other words, how to make sure the main character (MC) sounds realistic/appropriate considering the age, gender, and background of the character. No one wants to be accused of the dreaded “purple prose”–descriptions that seem to come from the author’s thoughts rather than the character’s.   

This ties in with last week’s topic, in which I worried about my prologue.  I mentioned before how several of my test-readers believed my MC sounded too old for her age; which is why I wrote a prologue explaining that she retells the story several years later. Well, after the discussion about prologues… I’m convinced that I need to get rid of my prologue.  It’s boring and confusing and not resolved at the end of the book–all strikes against me. And without that prologue, now I need to make sure my MC sounds her age.

What better way to improve my own writing than to read the masterpieces of others??  Since my story is told from the first person perspective of a twelve-year-old, I’ve been reading similar examples (not all of them recently, but over the past year).  Of the books I’ve read, I thought author Sharon Creech did the best job of capturing the young POV.  In Walk Two Moons, the thirteen-year-old protag had me laughing and crying.  Creech also did a fabulous job in Heartbeat; although I don’t own that one and now I can’t remember how old the protag was… maybe twelve?  I just know that I never once thought, “This character sounds too old for her age.”

Another example of a wonderfully written POV is seen in Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock.  The MC of this book is sixteen–perhaps an easier age to write than twelve–but she’s a jock instead of a good student.  I love the way Murdock writes the story in such a way to make this believable; making it sound slightly awkward and not quite grammatically correct, never using big fancy words.  I have a lot of respect for that type of writing, because I could probably never do it.  Syd calls me the Grammar Nazi because I can’t stand improper word usage, LOL (at least in my own writing.  It didn’t bother me when I was reading Murdock).

One last example (I could ramble on endlessly, of course):  the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.  Remember in my review last week, I said I’d explain what my book had in common with the Percy books?  Well, both are written in first person of course, and Percy is twelve in the first book (just like my MC).  I also strive for sarcasm and humor in my story, as does Riordan.  And, like my MC, I think sometimes Percy sounds a bit old for his age.

Now, you all know how much I love the Percy books.  I can easily get caught up in the story, all that great humor and action, and not even notice that Percy might occasionally use a word I don’t even know (granted, they’re words describing Greek culture, which I suppose Percy would know more about than I would.  But still, it’s a little embarrassing).  It’s only when my annoying writer persona sharpens its focus that I notice these little slips in POV.  Maybe it’s not even my writer persona… I think it’s more of my adult persona.  

Think about this for a moment.  My adult test-readers all thought my MC sounded too old.  My teenaged test-readers thought she sounded just fine.  You’d think it would be the other way around!  So are kids too embarrassed to admit when they don’t know something… or are kids smarter than we give them credit for??  Any good writer knows that kids don’t want to be talked down to.  If you try to “dumb down” the story, they will notice, and they won’t appreciate it!

Here’s an example from my teenaged years.  I was in high school (sophomore or junior, I can’t remember), when the TV show Dawson’s Creek aired.  I was addicted to that show for the first couple seasons, LOL, probably because I’ve always been interested in the girl-boy dynamic and whether or not they stay friends or become a couple.  But as you might recall, the show got ripped apart by a lot of critics.  The biggest complaint seemed to be that the teenaged characters were too verbose; the dialogue just wasn’t realistic considering their ages.  And as I watched the show, I wasn’t oblivious to the criticism–I just didn’t care.  I was enjoying the story… and maybe I was even wishing I could talk like that.  I always tried to sound smarter than I actually was, LOL.  It was the adult critics who had problems with the show, not the teenaged viewers.

Getting back to books.  It’s one thing if a story is told in present tense.  Then you have to think, “The MC is describing this at the age of twelve,” or whatever the age may be.  But if a story is told in past tense… who knows how old the narrator is now??  So yes, the dialogue and the actions still need to be appropriate for the age group.  But thoughts??  Technically, no.  I mean, it can’t be so left field that the reader is pulled out of the story, and it can’t be so complicated that your target audience isn’t following.  But I believe thoughts can sound older than words.  Think of all the times you’ve known something in your head, but you’ve had trouble putting it into words.  There’s a big difference between recognizing and describing.  

Here’s the point I’m trying to make:  I need to make sure my dialogue sounds appropriate.  When I edit, I will change a few words and concepts to make it sound better.  I might even change my characters from twelve to thirteen.  But I’m not going to have a prologue, and I’m not going to even hint that the story is being told fourteen years after the fact.  I have to trust that my YA audience will be okay with it.

Discussion time!  First of all, I welcome any suggestions or recs of YA books with great, first person perspectives.  I’d especially like to read a twelve or thirteen-year-old protag with a funny or unique “voice.”  Secondly, as a reader, what POV blunders do you see that pull you out of a story and make you say “Purple prose!” or “Not realistic!”  And third, if you’re a writer, how do you make sure your characters sound appropriate?

Thanks for the comments, and come back to share your good news on Friday!

Advertisements

15 thoughts on “Acting My Age

  1. So are kids too embarrassed to admit when they don’t know something… or are kids smarter than we give them credit for??

    Yes. There’s also a wonderful (or not) thing called perspective that tends to change as one grows older, experiences new things, etc, etc. I don’t think my critical reading skills really kicked in until I was 17, 18, 19… I mean, there were always certain types of stories I was drawn to more than others, but a lot of stuff – like tone, voice, subtext – went right over my head, unless it was truly egregious, and articulating why something worked or didn’t (vs simply liking/disliking a story) wasn’t ever something I was good at.

    If you try to “dumb down” the story, they will notice, and they won’t appreciate it!

    ITA. But there’s a difference between dumbing down a story and writing a story with a young protagonist’s ‘voice’ — that’s the opposite of dumbing down, I think, when one is working on that sort of detail.

    making it sound slightly awkward and not quite grammatically correct, never using big fancy words

    Stylized speech is something that seems quite difficult to do because it has to sound natural without using slang that’s going to be dated in a few years.

    I’m a little confused, though. If the MC is in her 20s? and telling the story about her childhood, why wouldn’t she sound older?

    Recs – The Keeping Days (series) by Norma Johnston. Sadly out of print. Tish, the narrator, is 14 when the series starts, so a bit older than yours. Here’s a write up of the first book with an excerpt towards the end. Tish has a vocabulary and in some ways maybe sounds older than her years, but it works for her character. In some ways, she is mature for her age and in other ways she really, really isn’t — which is why I like her so much, and totally over-identified with her when I was younger.

    Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series. I can’t recall off-hand how old Christopher Chant is, but he can’t be more than 14. Awesome series. I’d recommend nearly anything by Jones (well, I’m working through her backlist myself, but I like everything of hers I’ve read so far). They might be in third person,t hough.

    Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley. Probably her youngest protagonist, at least at the start of the book (Jake is 14), and the only one from a male first-person perspective. And with quite a distinct “voice” too; it’s a stream-of-consciousness style that’s a bit of a departure from McKinley’s other works.

    Most of the YA stuff I read tends to be about older teens…but Katherine Paterson, Madeleine L’Engle, Gordon Korman, Avi, Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague, etc), LM Montgomery, etc have books with younger protags.

    Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka. (Trilogy) It’s told in 3rd person, though, and I don’t understand why it’s not marketed for adults as much as it is for kids.

    I’m 1/4 through Sundancer by Shelley Peterson right now. It’s told from the POV of a 13 year old autistic girl. I’m not sure how correct it is, but it has the feel of seeing things slightly left of centre, and not just because the protag can talk to animals (or thinks she can anyway).

    Secondly, as a reader, what POV blunders do you see that pull you out of a story and make you say “Purple prose!” or “Not realistic!”

    POV slips isn’t usually something I notice. Unless it stands out in some way (like Nora Roberts’ tendency to ‘head-hop’), but even then, sometimes it doesn’t bother me that much.

    Purple prose or lack of verisimilitude/accuracy*, on the other hand, usually pulls me out of the story more. I don’t mind a bit of purple (eg, Stephenie Meyer’s writing — it doesn’t bother me hugely on a technical level; I wouldn’t call it good, but her amount of purple is okay with me (except the sparkling, but that just adds to the crack)), but too much will likely result in an unread book (eg, some (old-school) romance novels).

    No one wants to be accused of the dreaded “purple prose”–descriptions that seem to come from the author’s thoughts rather than the character’s.

    Not just that — it also tends to be over the top, likely Mary Sue inducing and abusive of adjectives and adverbs and ridiculous euphemisms/metaphors.

    *Depending on how well I know and how much I care about the topic, whether it’s narrative voice or cars (don’t care that much) or horses.

  2. More recs (of the ‘I can’t believe I forgot!’ variety):

    Judy Blume.

    Holes by Louis Sachar — I haven’t read this, but my sister enjoyed it a lot. (and the movie was pretty good too.)

    Avi

    Cynthia Voigt — Dicey, one of the main characters/narrators, of the Tillerman cycle is 13 when the series starts.

    Frances Hodgson Burnett — A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, of course. Even if they’re told in third person.

    Karen Cushman — The Midwife’s Apprentice; Catherine, Called Birdy

    Kate Seredy – The Good Master, The Singing Tree

    Lynne Reid Banks

    Jean Little – Different Dragons, From Anna, etc.

    Kit Pearson

    Margaret Buffie

    The Outsiders – SE Hinton, A Northern Light – Jennifer Donnelly, The Body of Christopher Creed – Carol Plum-Ucci, The Only Alien on the Planet – Kristen D Randle. . . 15-16 year old protags, but good ‘voices’ (plus, now that I think about it, most of these, except Outsiders, have male-female platonic relationships). Sarah Dessen, too.

    Roald Dahl – I think he mostly (only?) wrote in 3rd person, but still, his stories are awesome.

  3. Hey there,
    You’re going to get sick of me, I just know it.
    The only suggestion I can come up with is “Bridge to Terebithia” and I can’t remember if it was first-person perspective or not. It’s been that long since I’ve read it. As you know, I kind of avoid that.
    A blunder might be something like, oh, I don’t know, using “unbeknownst” in a story. =)
    As far as making my characters sound appropriate – I try to have only adults, or as close to adult as possible.
    Once again I swoop in and prove to be no help whatsoever.

  4. Pat–you’re not trying to get on my nerves, are you?? 🙂 Cause if you are, you’ll have to try a lot harder. I can’t afford to get rid of any of my critique partners, LOL.

    Who on earth would use “unbeknownst”?? *nervous twitch* But I will certainly read back through my story and weed out any such words that might have crept in while I wasn’t looking. 🙂

  5. Handyhunter–sorry your comments didn’t show up sooner. WordPress got suspicious of you because of your links. 🙂 Don’t listen to them; I like your linkage. And you always blow me away with your list of recs! *frantically takes notes* You mentioned some books that I read when I was younger but had forgotten about: Cynthia Voigt, Judy Blume, Karen Cushman, Avi, Rahl. All very good authors. And of course I love Montgomery and L’Engle. I just read Hinton’s “Outsiders” a few months ago–very appropriate voice, which makes sense considering how young she was when she wrote it. *shakes head in awe* My nieces keep telling me to read Sarah Dessen and I keep forgetting to. So many great books, so little time. Thank you for all your terrific suggestions!

    I know what you mean about kids liking/disliking a book without saying exactly what influenced their opinions one way or another. And no doubt I was the same way at that age. I didn’t have a critical eye; I just knew if I liked something or not. And yes, there IS a difference between “dumbing down” and writing with a young voice. I don’t think plot should ever be dumbed down for younger readers; I mainly struggle with concerns like, “Would a twelve-year-old use this word in dialogue?” You asked about my MC—she is in her twenties when she’s telling the story, but the reader doesn’t know that. I think her narration CAN sound a bit older, but the DIALOGUE still needs to sound like a twelve-year-old’s. Obviously she was twelve when she said it, so that has to ring true… but her thoughts and descriptions are from a 25-year-old POV. Still, I’m afraid to get too “old” with the descriptions or I might pull the reader out of the story.

    LOL, I knew Meyer would come up in relation to purple prose! I almost mentioned her in the post, but the thing was rambly enough as it was. I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints about Meyer’s prose lately; and if I go back and reread it with a critical eye, I can see what those critics mean. How much it bothers me depends on how much I get caught up in the story. About the adjectives/adverbs/metaphors: it’s amazing how those things will crop up if you don’t pay attention! After I wrote the first draft of my novel, I started rereading it… and had to delete a ton of unnecessary stuff, especially adverbs. So I can see how those can catch a writer unaware. However, it ought to be something the author catches during edits, or that SOMEONE catches (CP, agent, editor, etc).

    Well, there are a million other things I’d like to say, but for time purposes, I better go for now. 🙂 Thanks again for your detailed comments!!

  6. I just read Hinton’s “Outsiders” a few months ago–very appropriate voice, which makes sense considering how young she was when she wrote it. *shakes head in awe*

    Yeah; she’s incredible. I wonder how much of it was her age when she was writing and how much of it was her being more mature for her age — because there are themes in “The Outsiders” that I don’t know if I’d expect a 16 year old to get, though obviously, Hinton did — but half the fun is in not knowing.

    I actually came to “The Outsiders” pretty late. I’d read Hinton’s “Taming the Star Runner” years before because there was a horse on the cover. I’d recommend that book too.

    I mainly struggle with concerns like, “Would a twelve-year-old use this word in dialogue?”

    That makes sense. I think another question to ask is also, “Would [character] use this word?” (almost regardless of age).

    You asked about my MC—she is in her twenties when she’s telling the story, but the reader doesn’t know that. I think her narration CAN sound a bit older, but the DIALOGUE still needs to sound like a twelve-year-old’s. Obviously she was twelve when she said it, so that has to ring true… but her thoughts and descriptions are from a 25-year-old POV.

    Cool. I don’t think I’ve seen that done before. I’m interested in seeing how it works.

    I knew Meyer would come up in relation to purple prose!

    Heh. Well, I figured she’d be a good example because we’ve both read her.

    I don’t know if this would be useful for you, but I figured I’d post it anyway. Building Scenes by Diana Gabaldon; she talks a bit about her writing in her blog. (also, oh, Ian.) And speaking about (over)use of adjectives, etc, Gabaldon uses a lot of them in her writing. . .but it doesn’t come out purplish to me, and I like the way she strings her words together (even if I don’t love everything she writes about).

  7. One more author, I promise (maybe): Jennifer Echols! She only has two books out so far (with two more due out next year), but they are awesome. And if you read both of them, you can see the difference in “voice” from the older, perhaps more serious/sarcastic narrator (16 or 17) in Major Crush to the slightly younger (14-15-ish) and a bit more zany narrator in The Boys Next Door (which I love for a variety of reasons, but mostly the sibling and friendship stuff; the blurb, title and cover image sort of makes it look more immature/simple than it is, I think). There are excerpts of her books up on her website, which might give you a feel for her writing. 🙂

  8. Thanks for the Gabaldon link–that was really interesting. I liked how she described getting into Claire’s head and setting the scene. And there IS something about the way Gabaldon strings words together… I don’t even know how to describe it. I’m not usually a fan of lots of description/adjectives, but Gabaldon manages to sucker me into reading countless paragraphs about plants. 🙂

    “Would character use this word?” Oh, that’s a really good reminder for me. It’s one of those things I know I should consider, but sometimes it just slips my mind. It’s exactly what Gabaldon was referring to in her blog, how Claire would say, “Spring had sprung” instead of “It was spring.”

    Cool. I don’t think I’ve seen that done before. I’m interested in seeing how it works.
    Man, now I’m nervous. LOL 🙂

    OH, Jennifer Echols! I was trying to track down her books last year, but the library never had them when I wanted them. They sound right up my alley. I have to read those!!

  9. Secondly, as a reader, what POV blunders do you see that pull you out of a story and make you say “Purple prose!” or “Not realistic!”
    I guess it was kind of the opposite of reading YA books and thinking ‘that’s too grown up’, but when I started reading the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris, something that really irritated me was how naive Sookie was. It just seemed like she was far too innocent and… unknowledgeable? for what her circumstances seemed to suggest. (I don’t know if you’ve read the books, so I won’t go into specific things.)

    And third, if you’re a writer, how do you make sure your characters sound appropriate?
    I don’t know if my character sounds appropriate or not. She’s meant to be 20/21, which is older than me. I don’t think there’s too much of a difference in POVs between late teens/early twenties, though. My MC sounds similar to the characters in other UF who are around her age, I think.

  10. Hey, Ailsa! Are you from the FrostFans site? 🙂

    I’ve read the Harper/Tolliver books by Harris, but not the Stackhouse books. I would definitely call that a POV blunder if the character seems more naive than circumstances suggest. A writer has to consider the character’s background and decide how he/she will react appropriately.

    I think late teens/early twenties can sound similar… or different, depending on how life has been for that character. A person who is in college from ages 18-22 might not change much until after college is over. However, someone who’s been in the work force or gone through a traumatic experience might have matured a lot. It just depends on the situation. But most likely you’re close enough in age to your MC that you have a good handle on the “voice.” 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  11. I read (the first part of) the Sookie Stackhouse series a few years ago and I don’t recall Sookie’s ‘voice’ coming across like it was too naive/inexperienced. For me, it was more an overall weakness in the writing that didn’t explain why Sookie was so naive — I thought she was meant to sound like that at first. But it’s been a while since I’ve read the books, so I could be misremembering.

    (And now that I know Anna Paquin is playing her in the TV series, I’ve overlaid Sookie with Rogue (from the X-Men movies). . . Waiting for Wolverine to show up. Any day now.)

    …But this is mabye the same sort of thing as when readers complain about characters being OOC — to the author, they’re probably never OOC, and what the reader is actually saying is that the author hasn’t managed to convince the reader of the character’s actions/motivations, especially if they’re a departure from the character we knew before.

    Re late teens/early twenties/college years — there seems to be a bit of a gap in fiction around those years, except, interestingly enough, in some urban fantasy*. YA tends to focus on 18&under. Chicklit is over 25-ish. Women’s fiction is probably older than that. College years tend to be left out. High school/adolescence is sort of a universal experience, so I can see why it’d get written about. Falling in love, marriage, etc is another thing that’s common.

    *Is it because the protags ought to be of legal age before getting involved with the undead? Even Supernatural goes against the grain a bit and has slightly older than teen characters, of/around college age, as its main protags (well, Dean is supposed to be 26, but Sam is 22/23; I don’t think they’ve had a birthday in 3 seasons).

  12. I didn’t know Anna Paquin was playing Sookie! Not that I’ll get to see the show anyway (no cable)… unless the episodes will be available online? Anyway, it’s interesting to hear different opinions about the same book. 🙂 Happens often, of course. So you were okay with Sookie sounding naive; you just wanted there to be more explanation about why she was. And if there was a good reason, Ailsa probably would have been okay with that, too.

    Good point–how an author sees a character in the head isn’t always how the character comes across to the reader. I think many writers–myself included–tend to have some blind spots in regards to our characters/stories. We’re just too biased, too involved, to always be objective. I guess that’s why we need CPs, agents, and editors. 🙂

    I, too, have noticed a gap around the college years. You would think enough people go to college to make it a popular/appealing subject. Although, while I was IN college, I read less fiction than any other time in my life. I was always having to read nonfiction, textbooks, etc. So if college-aged people are too busy to read fiction, is that why the market isn’t targeting them more? *snort* I don’t know. But as far as protags getting involved with the undead… well, urban fantasy is showing up in YA more and more. I’m not sure of all the reasons behind the trends, but I enjoy trying to understand them. 🙂

  13. No idea if the show will be available online. I’m not even sure which network is producing it. I probably won’t be watching it either unless I hear through the f-list that it’s good.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong, necessarily, with being fond of one’s characters. It only becomes a problem when it’s impossible to see them somewhat objectively because one is so in love with them.

    ‘Course, conversely, there are writers who follow the school of thought that the more you love your character(s), the more you torture them. 😉

    Maybe publishers feel like there isn’t a big enough book buying audience for college stories. I don’t know. There are a lot of college-bound books, but not so many about college. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a college-based/set book. Although, Dean’s book is also about Tam Lin, the ballad; she’s just moved the setting to the ’70s, so maybe that has something to do with it too.

    I think fantasy, urban or not, allows certain things that might otherwise be taboo in ‘real life’ to be explored. And one of those things – whatever it says about our culture that it mostly happens in ‘fantasy – is kickass female characters…

    This just came up on my f-list: Kid writing thoughts, with a link to a how-to-write-kids discussion (or click here to go directly there). Thought you might be interested.

  14. I think “True Blood” is airing on HBO…or possibly Showtime?

    Well, in my case, being in love with my characters isn’t the reason I’m biased (I can’t even view the characters I hate with complete objectivity). For me it has more to do with my writing than the characters. Sometimes I can’t tell if the writing is good or not. I haven’t learned to step away from it yet, at least not completely.

    Kickass female characters being taboo in real life… ouch. I wish you weren’t right on the money with that statement…

    Thank you so much for the links! I can’t wait to read them… but for now I’m going to sleep. 🙂 Good night!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s