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!