Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gray Matter

Adolescence is a time when what should be and what is come crashing together in a world flooded with swirling hormones and shifting perceptions. That is the challenge of writing books for teenagers. As I look at my characters, I am constantly asking questions like:

  • What does she expect?
  • Why does she expect that?
  • Is it fair?
  • What does that mean?
  • How does she rationalize that?
  • How does it affect her?
  • How does it affect other characters?
  • Why is it different?
  • How would she change it?
  • What difference can she make?
  • Where is the justice?
  • Why is it important?

If the answers are too easy, then I'm not sure I'm doing it right.

I finally figured out that the hardest part of being a teenager for me was the barrage of grayness that came the minute my hormones were launched. No longer were the big questions a simple matter of a black or white answer. Suddenly my moral and social landscape had gone all gray.

In my battle for self-discovery, I was an unarmed civilian stumbling through a dusty minefield of choices. There was no map to me. No schematic with neat little dots marking where all the bombs were buried so I could navigate my way safely to adulthood, which to most teenagers means freedom.

(Who am I kidding? After the hormones kick in, there is no safety, ever. Of course, I didn't realize that until I reached about...40.)

As I read some tween and MG novels to my 11-year-old daughter, I see her perception struggling to hold on to the black and white. Allie Finkle isn't always right, but my daughter is outraged when other characters are so clearly wrong. Her sense of justice is still holding out for the clear answer. But I see the color wheels turning and those answers are a little bit harder to find.

My almost-15-year-old son, on the other hand, crossed that valley quite a while ago. He is painting his social consciousness with a much more nuanced brush and is cautiously stepping into the arena of boy-girl relationships. He has no map. Just a vague destination. But he marches onward with amazing determination. He is one of those rare kids who has decided very early that he and no one else is going to choose who he is.

As I revise my latest WIP, I need to remember to pay attention to the gray matter, to leave some things unanswered, to let my characters choose badly sometimes. Adolescence is not devoid of conviction or even lacking in direction (for some, anyway). Teenagers are not the clueless wanderers so many stereotypes try to portray.  They are just our most human.


  1. My current MC makes very bad choices for equally bad reasons - but they are all very teenage reasons. It's truly amazing any of us emerge sound at the end of adolescence.

  2. You got me thinking how adults who never out-grow the 'black & white' thinking are developmentally stuck.

  3. I agree. During my teen years so many things I'd felt strongly convicted in often blurred into shades of gray.


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