Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Writing male characters if you're female

Firstly, let me direct you to a recent post by agent Mary Kole on reactions. She says that reactions are the MOST important part of interiority--they tell the reader how they are supposed to react to a situation, and pull them into what the character is experiencing. I love this advice, because it's something concrete. You can go through your manuscript and make sure you have the appropriate reactions for each significant exchange or event, and noticeably strengthen your book. I love love love this post, and have notes all over my draft to revise for this specificially.

Secondly, I'm finally starting to look at some of the material from this summer's Writeoncon.com. They always have such good information! I liked this video by author Jessica Martinez, which is supposed to be about writing sexual tension in dialogue, but which is really more about paying attention to the subtext of a conversation and also about writing believable male characters if you're female. She points out that sometimes female writers create male characters who behave like they wish they behaved, when no real guy would actually talk like that. They are not going to sit down and just share all their feeeeeeeelings. Her advice: if you can't honestly see your spouse/brother/significant other saying this, it's a good clue a character guy shouldn't be saying it, either. So my additional thoughts on male characters are these:* guys don't play a lot of mental emotional gymnastics. They aren't going to overanalyze the intricacies of what someone said and what they may have been saying underneath, etc. Yes, guys can read (or send messages) between the lines, but most guys I know are not going to spend hours trying to go over conversations to pick out emotional messages about relationships. Also, face is kind of important to guys, you know? As in, they want to be seen as cool and competent. Girls might bond over sharing mistakes and embarrassing moments, but I think guys would rather keep their private humiliations to themselves. Of course all guys are individual, but when writing them, especially middle grade and adolescent ones, they are going to be a mix of clueless, trying not to look clueless, and occasionally, almost accidentally, dead center on target when it comes to doing the right thing or being there for someone emotionally. I've read some rather fancifully fictional guys, but I've also read some really excellent ones that are funny, vulnerable, endearing, but still "real." Some great examples, IMO, are Bobby from Andrew Clements' Things Not Seen (because of his excitement and work into solving his invisibility problem), Ledger Kale in Ingrid Law's Scumble (he is trying soooo hard not to be a failure, but he holds some of it inside, too, you know? He still wants to keep face.) Jeffrey in the Penderwicks series feels like a real boy--he does have deep thoughts (about music, about his father, even wondering about getting married someday), but he doesn't sit on the couch all day, eating cookie dough over it, either. Percy Jackson (and Harry and Ron, for that matter) is a great example, because he's awkward and sometimes insensitive (but not intentionally!), and good-hearted as he tiptoes over the minefield that is understanding girls.

Any other well-written guy characters you want to mention? Any other elements of capturing the essence of a real male adolescent on the page?

*Source of my observations: my husband, three sons, their friends, the teens and kids I've worked with at school and church, and observing the bus line that forms outside my living room window.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Voice, character growth, and Daddy Long Legs

I just finished reading Daddy Long Legs, by Jean Webster, published in 1912, to my girls. The story: Jerusha "Judy" Abbott is an orphan. A trustee of the John Grier Hall finds her snarky high school essay on trustee visiting day at the home amusing, and on a whim, decides to send her to college. He's done it a few times before for boys, but never girls. His conditions: she will write a monthly letter, letting him know how things are going and what she's learning. He will pay for college and send her money, but will never reveal his name or anything about him. She is to call him Mr. Smith. All Judy knows is that he's rich, he apparently dislikes girls, and he is tall (she saw his shadow around the corner as he left that day). So she calls him Daddy Long Legs, and writes funny letters about what she's learning, the extent to which she tries to hide her true origins (because in 1912, the girls who are in college are definitely not people who came out of foundling homes!), and her hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Her attempt to conceal her orphanage past among some rather wealthy friends eventually gets her into trouble, though, as you can imagine.The voice in the story is simply lovely--funny, wise and naive at the same time, and sometimes heartbreaking, too.

There's a recent musical based on the book that uses many lines from the book, but also shows the other side of the stamp, ie what "Mr. Smith" Daddy Long Legs is thinking as he reads these letters, and what happens to him. Umm...if you're planning to read the book first, don't listen to the music until you're done, because there are spoilers. But two things really stuck out to me after listening to the music, things that are just very well done, and useful to study for writing.

Firstly, the voice. There's this great song called "Like Other Girls," where Judy says she just wants to be like other girls (ie without these weird gaps of knowledge and social errors, and without the fears she brought with her from the orphanage). So she sings things like, "I just want to be like other girls--bake lemon pies, cure diseases, win the Nobel Prize--like other girls." Um. Maybe her peers want to bake lemon pies and wear pretty shoes, but I'm pretty sure that not all of them want to win the Nobel Prize. There's just this lovely sense in the whole song that even in all her wanting, she still doesn't really understand what it means to be like other girls. It's this funny mix of her individual perceptions of the world against what the viewer knows is the real reality that gives her such a lovely voice and personality. So think about that with your characters. We all see part of the mysterious elephant, and believe that is the total reality. What part does your character see? How does s/he describe it? That's a part of that character's voice.

Secondly, character development. Early in the show, Daddy Long Legs sings about charity. He's rich through no effort of his own, but since he's come into this amazing wealth, he doesn't think he should keep it. He's very happy to share it with the less fortunate. And there's really nothing wrong with that. He's not "bad." He doesn't love wealth more than anything--he has a basic virtue, and it's charity. But he really only has a theoretical understanding of charity. But the letters--they force him out of being a casual observer. He who doesn't like people is forced to get to know them--and realize that he was lonely before, and now he's starting to get filled. Later in the musical, he realizes that his anonymity has created enormous obstacles to his own happiness, and extricating himself from the situation he's created is going to require other people's forgiveness. And now--he realizes that charity isn't just thoughtless passing around of money, but something you give to someone that they cannot do for themselves. And he realizes that he needs the charity that is forgiveness, too. It's a lovely, lovely example of character growth. You don't have to have your character be horrible at the beginning to grow. You can have them basically good, but untested, naive, with basic but rather shallowly understood good intentions. And then they live it, and understand what they once gave lip service to in a very real way.