I was recently editing a MG manuscript where the protag kids were about 12 or 13 years old and I realized there’s a distinction, in my opinion, between writing as if your characters are actual kids and writing your characters for kids. So actual 12 or 13 year olds are using some pretty colorful language (even including all the more nasty 4 letter words), experimenting with kissing and touching (I know! Shocking, right?!) and they are basically just walking bags of smelly, emotional hormones. Yes, 13 year olds are already hormonal! Often, middle grade stories, whose readers are between 8 and 12 years old, feature older kids. It’s natural, because kids want to read about older kids, they want to look up to your characters. But if you’re writing for a middle grade reader, I don’t think it’s appropriate to be talking about nascent BJs, embarrassing BO, or dropping F bombs, you know? (If you need somebody to explain what those initials mean, ask a 13 year old…) Ok, you can talk about body odor… Now, if you’re writing a YA manuscript and you have 12 or 13 year olds walking and talking like actual 12 or 13 year olds, I think it’s a whole different thing.
What do you think? How true to life do you think MG or YA characters should be? Where do your characters stand?
Let’s talk about “voice.” Way back in the Paleolithic era, when I was in graduate school, I had a professor whose area of research was the poet, H.D. Ok, it wasn’t the Paleolithic, it was the 80’s, and evidently it was hot to study H.D. back then because she was some big pre-feminist icon who hung out with Freud. Be that as it may, I learned nothing about H.D. or her poetry but I did learn the word “palimpsest.” Apparently H.D. wrote a poem using imagery of the palimpsest. (Or a collection of poems, or a whole book… I don’t know. See I really didn’t learn anything in graduate school!) “What, pray tell, is a palimpsest?!” you may ask. Well, a palimpsest is a page from a scroll or book made of parchment, where the writing has been removed in order to use the parchment again. (Recycling is not a new idea.) Parchment is made from animal skin and the original text was scraped and washed off using milk and oat bran. What makes it unusual and interesting is that over the course of time the original writing kind of resurfaces. Cool, right?
So now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Interesting, but why is she talking about this when she said we were going to be talking about voice?” Well, the palimpsest imagery can be pretty powerful when thinking about creating an authentic voice in fiction. The question becomes, “How much of the author‘s voice should surface through the voice of the created characters?” I’m currently reading a young adult manuscript and it’s so clear to me that the 7th graders who populate this story just would not say the things they are saying. Or thinking. Or even doing. The voice of the (probably middle aged) writer, who has written a great YA book, keeps materializing through her characters. Bits and pieces of someone who is not 13 years old keep shining through. The way a girl describes a boy’s body. The response to the self-righteousness of the bitchy step-mother. The understanding of why a bully bullies. All the author not the characters.
Of course some of the things we like about certain writers is their unique voice (think the inestimable talents of say, John Green, John Irving or Amy Tan). It’s a tricky dance. How much of ourselves can we allow to surface through our fictional characters? At a certain point, if too much of ourselves as people, our life experiences, our personalities, peek out of the characters, it becomes obvious. The character palimpsest can become unintelligible, indecipherable. Unless your character is a person just like you, they really need to speak for themselves. Our job as writers is to let our characters do that. In my (not so) humble opinion, that is what creates an authentic voice. Maybe I should go back and try to read H.D.
How much of yourself do you write into your characters? How do you think you are doing in maintaining an authentic voice in your writing?