Thursday, July 19, 2018

Characterizing Parents in Children's & YA Lit

There's been enough talk about the over-used dead-or-missing parents trope in children's and YA lit, but something that needs to be considered if you're breaking the mold and KEEPING THAT FAMILY TOGETHER: appropriate characterization!

If your manuscript is set in "present day," more than the landscape, technology, culture and slang around your character should shift and change. Your characters' parents' generational traits should also shift!

Here's a breakdown of the most common parental-types I see (though of course, there are plenty of others, particularly with parents who weren't born and/or raised in the Western world):

Baby boomers
Born roughly: early-to-mid 1940s through 1964
As of 2018, this means your MC's parents would be 54-78
General characteristics: early boomers are experimental, into individualism, free spirited, and social cause oriented and tend to be Democrats; later boomers are less optimistic, have a distrust of government, and general cynicism and tend to be Republicans. Tend to have a belief that it is important for each generation to earn their own money.

Generation X
Born roughly: mid 1960's through early 1980's
As of 2018, this means your MC's parents would be 38-53
General characteristics: entrepreneurial spirit, balanced, active, and happy in mid-life, unfocused as twentysomethings, bleak, cynical, and disaffected as young adults,

Millennials (Gen Y)
Born roughly: early 1980's through mid 1990's
As of 2018, this means your MC's parents would be 23-37
General characteristics: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, achieving, a sense of entitlement and narcissism

I in no way want to imply by sharing these GENERAL characteristics above that you MUST write your characters to fit within the traits typical of their generation. However, it can be a useful starting point to think through how your MC's parents or grandparents act, what they're passionate about, how they raised their children AND, most importantly, that you aren't unintentionally assigning traits more common to another generation to your MC's parents/grandparents because that is what YOU know, even if that doesn't make sense for your book.

If your manuscript is set TODAY, think about how old your main character's parents are - what generation does that correlate to? The music they love, the way they act, the jobs they have, and experiences growing up that will have shaped how they raised your MC will vary depending on that. That, in turn, will have shaped your MC, too!

Other important things to consider (that is not an exhaustive list by any means):

  • The age your MC's parents started having children. This will ALSO determine how they are as parents. Did they start having children in their teens, early 20's, or later in life? This will also impact how the parents act, and interact, with your MC.
  • What immigrant generation (first, second?) your MC's parents are? If your MC's parents (or grandparents!) are instead emigrants?
  • The family dynamics of THEIR families - meaning, were they only children? One of six? Raised in foster care? Raised by a single mother?

I know guys. Characterization is complicated. And no, this doesn't mean that I comb through manuscripts looking to see if you've answered or addressed these questions through your MC's parents. (Or DO I?! No, I do not).

But I firmly believe that understanding the full dynamics of your characters, and writing them as real people, is worth it. Because at the end of the day, real characters are what agents, editors and readers are looking for!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

What is Authenticity in Voice?

Are you hearing from agents that they're not connecting to your characters? Perhaps you need to work on authenticity in your voice.

Anyone could write a book about my grandmother. And they could probably find out a heck of a lot more about her life than I know through research.

That doesn't mean they knew her.

That's not authenticity.

It is factual; it is not authentic.

Authenticity is heart. 

I've written before that voice is the aspect of the novel that lets the reader forget about the writer. It's what makes characters real. It has perspective, a unique way of thinking about and looking at things based on where he/she is from and the experiences he/she has had.

If you were to ask me to describe my grandma, I would smile and laugh a little as I reflect and begin to speak. Why? What prompts that emotional reaction? Authentically writing about my grandma is evoking in the reader that same reaction - allowing them to feel my perspective.

A writer's craft is in figuring out what tools to use and how to do this; showcasing memories? Using key words (for example, notice I immediately switched to "grandma" instead of "grandmother" when I started writing about her)?

My point of view is one of the more intimate; it is not the only point of view or the whole story or even perhaps the most accurate. But it is authentic because it is based on experience. It is perfectly possible to portray her in a different way based on a different authentic point of view because mine is not the only experience with her.

Heart comes from an original experience.

So here's the challenge: a writer, who has never met my grandma, needs to figure out first, what an authentic point of view would be, and second, how to accurately evoke the emotional response in the reader to convey that POV

The farther the writer's intimacy with that point of view, the harder it will be to accomplish.

And it's not just research that will do that.

It takes a lot more introspection and dissecting. It takes a full understanding of the limitations the writer may have to understand that point of view.

The problem I often see is that a lot of writers confuse this work (creating authenticity) with research, or presenting facts.

An exercise in authenticity:
  1. Tell me about your grandma.
  2. What emotional reaction did you have as you began to reflect and think about what to say? (This is your authentic point of view).
  3. How (and what) do you write to evoke that same emotional reaction in the reader as they are given the information? (This is writing an authentic point of view).

I hope that you find this exercise challenging; it should be! It is the effort any of your characters' voices should be given. Find the heart!