Young Adult & Children
Issue #1: 01/01/01
By Justin Stanchfield
©2001, Justin Stanchfield
many sure things in this world. Death, probably. Taxes most likely. Beyond
that, it's pretty much up for grabs. But,one thing I can say with
absolute certainty is that each and every one of us was, at some point,
born, and that one way or another we managed to grow up. Some of us grow
up faster, some of us slower. (I intend to grow up any day now. Really, I
do.) But all of us, every man, woman and child, can look back across that
gulf that separates our now from our then, and say, "Yeah, I've been
ability to look back, to draw on our own past, is one of the most powerful
weapons in any writer's arsenal. Especially if you want to write for kids.
It is the ultimate example of "write what you know," this ability to
mine our own childhoods for characters and stories. It is one of your
And it can
also be, if you're not careful, your worst enemy.
a very personal experience. We create imaginary worlds, trying all the
while to make every actor in our little dramas as real as we possibly can.
But even though our characters sometimes take center stage and seem to
act on their own volition, they are, in the end, extensions of our own
imaginations. It can't be helped. And while this makes for wonderful,
vivid characters, it also means our pasts have a tendency to intrude into
our stories. And when you're writing about people younger than yourself,
the temptation to simply recreate your own childhood can be incredibly
necessarily a bad thing. But it does create its own set of problems. Think
back on how difficult it was for you to understand grown-ups when you were
in grade school. Try to remember how far apart your opinions were from
your parents' when you were in your teens. The basic equipment doesn't
change much from generation to generation. Kids are still kids, but the
backdrop to their world and ours can be as different as night to day. Even
if you're just out of high school, or maybe haven't even graduated yet,
take a look at the where you were just a few years ago and see how much
things have changed since then. It can be a staggering revelation.
writers avoid the problem by setting their stories in different eras. This
is fine, as long as the writer creates a believable world for their
characters to play in. No matter how exotic the locale, it's not
enough to just plop a copy of yourself down on the page and pretend the
backdrop doesn't matter. A girl from eighth century France is going to
react differently than a twenty-third century teenager living on a colony
orbiting Neptune. And both will, without a doubt, see the world
differently than you did at their age. Wherever you set your story, let
your characters be consistent with the times, even if those times exist
nowhere but in your own imagination. The same advice applies if you are
writing about kids growing up in the 60's or 70's. Every generation faces
the same troubles in different ways. Don't cheat your readers by
pretending they didn't.
is such an integral part of what we do that most of us take it for
granted. Writers are, by nature, curious people. Okay, we're a bunch of
nosy busybodies. But beware the temptation to simply observe kids at play,
or eavesdrop at a mall, and put down verbatim what you heard on paper.
This can be a problem for two very important reasons, one subtle, one not.
Trying to create realistic characters by giving them borrowed lines is all
too often about as convincing as a middle-aged man in a convertible
struggling to keep his toupee from blowing off. If you're going to observe,
and by all means, do observe, look deep. Don't pay attention to what kids
say as much as how they treat each other. Think like a detective. Look for
the motives behind the actions. Listen to what kids say, not how they say
other reason to be wary of overheard expressions is that they so quickly
becomes dated. Slang is too mercurial for anyone to keep pace with. What
is current in one area probably is already passť in an other. And if
you're making up your own jargon, especially if your making up your own,
please don't substitute one word for another. "Icy, guy" for
"cool, dude" is nothing more than calling a rabbit a smeerp.
applies to fashion trends and music. I once dropped the name of a
number-one band into a story thinking it would add that little extra touch
of realism. It did. Unfortunately, by the time I managed to sell the story
a few months later, the band had not only fallen off the charts, they had
broken up, sued each other, and their lead singer had committed suicide.
And if the story had ever made it into print, (the magazine folded with
nary a peep) the reference to the band would have placed what was supposed
to have been a cutting edge, young adult techno- thriller, almost two
years in the past. Not a good place to be.
a poor writer to do?
like a kid. Look back at what you wanted when you were ten, or twelve, or
seventeen. What scared you? What embarrassed you? What was the one thing
you were just sure you couldn't live without. Earlier I said: don't just
mine your own experiences. Instead, mine your emotions. Try to see your
story through your character's eyes as you would have seen them at that
age. And remember one thing above all else. Adults may believe that their
actions as children were silly, but at the time the crisis were utterly vital. People have deep thoughts and
passions no matter what age they might be. All that changes is what we're
passionate about. Being stood up at a ninth grade dance is every bit as
traumatic to a fifteen- year-old as losing a job is to a forty- year-old.
Both situations are survivable, though at the time it doesn't seem like
it. And just because you may never have been swept up in a religious
fervor, or have been carried away in a surge of nationalism, don't pretend
that the people in your stories wouldn't have been. Those children who
marched off to die in the Crusades believed, to the very bottom of their
souls, in what they were doing.
Maybe what it comes down to is giving your characters a little growing room. Don't arbitrarily force them to behave one way just because that's how you did it when you were their age. After all, you didn't like to eat your Brussel sprouts. Why should they?
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