Friday, March 14, 2008

Character ages

One of the things that pulls me out of a book faster than anything is when a character does not act his or her age. I admit I don't notice so much when a character acts a little older than stated, but it really bothers me when the author states that a character is say, 14, but actually he acts like a nine- or ten-year-old. I've read a number of books like this. Nearly all of them feature male main characters. I don't know it's the inability to get a male MC right, or unfamiliarity with children in that age range, or the author being afraid to write anything involving hormones, or what. But it destroys my ability to suspend disbelief when I read this.

I have a ten-year-old son. I also do volunteer work with youth ages 12-18. And there is a huge difference in the way a ten-year-old and a twelve-year-old think, act, and react. In fact, I think the switch from 11 to 12 is a very dynamic time, especially for boys. And it's not just because suddenly they're getting hormones. (Although it IS highly unrealistic to expect to write a book about teens and with no romantic interest whatsoever.) There is a lot more to growing up than gaining another year and another inch. So these are some things that I've observed that set the two age groups apart. Feel free to correct or add to as you wish. Yes, these are generalities. Yes, every kid is different. Maybe your kid isn't like this. But these are general things to keep in mind while creating your fictional characters.

1. Both MG and YA aged kids want approval from the adults around them. However, the things they want approval for are different, or at least, to different degrees. The younger child (age 9-11) wants approval because s/he's met the requirements the adult has set, or is successfully following the rules. They're great kids in school because they follow the program. A teen, on the other hand, wants approval for his/her independent ideas. "I am not you," is the teen's message. "I can think independently." A teen might rebel from the establishment to assert his/her own right to make decisions. Alternately, a teen might choose to follow all the rules. BUT--it will be a considered, independent choice, NOT because someone else says so. A teen wants approval and recognition that his or her choices are valid.

2. Breaking rules--I think the younger group wants to avoid shame and getting in trouble. Teens do, too, but they have a growing ability to sense how their actions affect others. A great fictional example of this is Harry Potter's changing psychology as he matures. In the first book he just wants to avoid detention. Even if he chooses to do things that he knows will earn him an evening with Snape, he sees that as "the worst." In Chamber of Secrets, he still wants to avoid trouble, but when he hears that Mr. Weasley is in trouble because his enchanted car got discovered, he feels guilty because his actions have harmed someone else. And he feels it without someone coming to him to rub it in his face. That's the difference between a middle grader and a teen. Another good example in fiction is Nick Mann's Control-Shift (also called Operating Codes), where the main character is torn between different ideologies regarding defense weapons, and loyalty to the people he loves. He can see how his choices can affect others. He can see past the immediate hand slap.

3. Hormones. Not every YA book is going to have romance, or needs it. But 9-10-year-old boys mostly don't even notice girls. Or if they do, they're too terrified to admit it. If you give me a book with teens and they are supposedly operating in the real world but have this complete blindness to the opposite sex, I'm just not going to believe it. Probably most of these feelings are unreturned, or returned by the "wrong" person. But they are there! I shouldn't have to say that boys and girls view romance and their part in it differently. If you are unsure, follow some of them around at the mall sometime. Sit in the food court and listen. Volunteer to chaperone a school or church event. Take notes when they aren't looking. Watch how they interact.

I do think these things are important. Maybe not every book needs all of them (Control-Shift is very convincing without any romantic elements at all--and, it's very focused one one--or two--specific problems.) But you've got to get into the psychology of the characters or they won't carry enough weight to make them real.