Some years ago I read the following article on CNN and bookmarked it because I found it so intriguing:
My favorite line from the article, written by Elizabeth Landau: “Neuroscientists confirm that teenagers do have brains.” Lol—that’s good to know! I know a few parents of teens who have wondered about this from time to time. And even though this article is about how teen brains are more wired for risk than adult brains, and how teen emotion will often win out over logical thinking, I think it’s a good reminder to middle-grade writers, too, that kids think very differently than adults.
One of the great challenges of being a middle-grade writer is getting into the mind of adolescent characters. Adult writers are writing for other adults, but writers of middle-grade are writing for a target audience to which we don’t personally belong. It’s a unique challenge—we have to constantly ask ourselves how a tween would react to a certain situation, how he/she would act when faced with this set of circumstances, what he/she would say to a parent, teacher, or friend during this conversation.
I’m someone who tends to be pretty practically-minded, so this article was a good reminder that some of my tween characters might need to react a little more emotionally to a situation than I might. It also made me think about risks, and about how some of my tween characters would likely be a lot more comfortable taking risks than I do.
A relative of mine likes to tell the story of the time he encountered a small brown bear rooting through a dumpster when his family was camping in a national park. (This was before the days of bear-proof dumpsters.) He was about 12 years old. Now if I was by myself on the outskirts of a campground at twilight and encountered a bear, even a small one, digging through a garbage bin, I would have been out of there faster than you could say, “bear bait.” Instead, his 12-year-old self thought it would be cool to try to get as close to the bear as possible for a good look. So he inched forward and forward, little by little, watching and taking note of the bear’s clumpy brown fur and how its enormous head and tiny ears bobbed up and down as it prodded through garbage with its snout. Only when the bear finally lifted its head, narrowed its beady black eyes, and growled did he decide that maybe it was a good idea to leave, after all.
Personally, I inch away from wild animals with teeth, not toward them, lol. I guess I really do think differently than a 12-year-old. But such things are a good reminder to me that my middle-grade protagonists are not necessarily going to think like me, that they are probably going to be more emotional and less introspective and probably more comfortable with risk than I would be in their situations. Luckily for us, while taking risks might not always be the best course of action in real life, it makes for great storytelling.
What do you do to get into the heads of your middle-grade characters?photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via photopin cc
Dawn, well I've spent A LOT of time around 5th graders in the past 25 years! Even though I'm retiring from teaching at the end of this month, I still have plenty of tween stories in my head.ReplyDelete
(Like the kid who came to school without pants one day. He forgot to put them on and made it all the way to homeroom in a long t-shirt before he realized ...)
Good material, indeed, Dianne! That pants situation would be perfect in a humorous middle-grade read. Oh, the mortification!!Delete
Being in a middle school nd working with students every day to find out what they want to read is really interesting! I ask a lot of students to tell me what they mean by "nothing happens" in a book, and they all have slightly different parameters. I'll keep in mind that they DO have brains the next time they do something outrageous and unfathomable.ReplyDelete
You do seem to hear "nothing happens" as a common tween criticism of books. It must be really interesting to get their personal takes on such an opinion.Delete
I do a lot of thinking back to when I was around that age, especially around ten. Looking for emotional memories, things that were important to me and that I wanted more than anything in the world. And being around the younger end of the middle grade in a k-3 school helps. I see what I remember. Also--read lots of great middle grade that truly captures the middle grade voice.ReplyDelete
Yes, great point, Deb--memories are really, really useful when writing for this age range. When I think back to what was important to me as a middle-grader, it's so funny how much my priorities in life have changed. It really is so important to get into the heads of your characters :)Delete
It does help that I am around teens, tweens, and pre-tweens (my own kids and their pals) all day long. Goodness knows what I'll do when they grow up...ReplyDelete
Watch a lot of tween/teen television shows instead?Delete
This is a tough one. And what makes it even harder is that not only are MG character not like adults, they also aren't always the same as EACH OTHER!ReplyDelete
Nor should they be, lol!Delete
Like Dianne, I've spent a lot of time in classrooms with the age group I write for, plus with my kids and their friends, so that makes it a lot easier to get inside their heads. Once they've grown up, I suppose I'll be lurking around tween hangouts with Michael G-G? :)ReplyDelete
Yes, that real-life exposure is so valuable! Thankfully, I'm sure Michael will welcome the company if we all decide to join him.Delete
I remember to be guided by the character not by what I would do myself. In my MG Monster City my main character has a crush on a girl who makes all his sense go out the window when she passes by. I've never been that infatuated (or been a boy) but I know how to create a character that way and at his young age.ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing, Sheena-kay! You bring up a good point: writing outside your gender adds another challenge on top of writing outside your age range. Being guided by the character is definitely good advice for tackling such situations.Delete
For what it's worth, Dawn, I wouldn't have had THAT different a reaction as a kid, but of course there are daredevils among us, and trust me, some people NEVER outgrow it! (LOL)ReplyDelete
Since I write about animals I wouldn't normally get that close to in person, it's part wish fulfillment on my part, but I've always been fascinated by human and nonhuman relations, in all their forms, but the reason I write fiction is because I don't want to be confined to iron clad facts the way you need for nonfiction.
You could argue many nonhuman creatures would feel similarly about us.
Yes, there's truth to the risk averse thing, but don't forget that not all kids and teens are "Fearless" about everything.
I've read many stories where kids may push the limits in sports or academics for example, but would still be wary around
Teens who are confident amongst others their age or younger, but are more reserved around most adults, including but not limited to their parents and teachers, especially if they're personalities are most opposite to him or her. Extroverts vs. Introvert. Or the reverse...
Despite one's capacity for bravado and the like, we all have fears at one time or another. But our fears will change or lessen with time.
When I was a kid I had BAD experiences with cats and didn't like them in real life, but I always found them fascinating as characters on television and later in books.
Now I've learned to love cats in real life time, and I now know that not all cats are demonic, just like dogs it's how the owner treats them that can make the difference. (That said, there are cats who have issues that aren't solely the owner's fault...)
Very true, Taurean--fears and comfort with risk-taking are going to vary from person to person (character to character), and someone quite comfortable with physical risk might find themselves quite terrified in a social situation, for example. Thank you for the useful reminder that we as writers should be thinking about such nuances as we shape our characters.Delete
Reading other MG books helps. And spying...I mean, eavesdropping....Oops! I should say, research! That's what you call it!ReplyDelete
Yes, Andrea, we'll definitely call it research ;)Delete
EDIT: "I've read many stories where kids may push the limits in sports or academics for example, but would still be wary around animals they don't know, be they bears or dogs."ReplyDelete
I think this is a difficult balance to find, because as a MG author I try and find the authentic voice of the character and also recognize that book-characters (like film or TV characters) are larger than life. When I read, I want my characters to be heroic (even if flawed) and courageous and all the rest. I don't want to read about them binge-watching TV, for instance, even if that is authentic - haha! Maybe it's because I write fantasy novels, but I like a bit of the outrageous and unrealistic in my characters, too. :)ReplyDelete