Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cliché VS. Reality: Character Tropes and Life in the YA Novel

Writing characters that ring true in a YA novel is a daunting task considering the very real melodrama that is adolescence. The emotional and intellectual changes a teenager faces in that microscopic decade of development can seem like concentrated evil or helium-stuffed fluff to our grown-up, weathered hearts and minds, but they are very real and potent to the kid going through it. Like it or not, there are certain patterns that repeat themselves no matter what era we look at.

This question has been pounding my brain particularly hard ever since I began to consider my antagonist. Thinking about bullying and teasing and the typical kids my children have been facing at school everyday, I find that it is hard to put them on paper as they are without them bordering on cliché.  Then the issue becomes do I sacrifice authenticity for originality? If the mean girl really exists, shouldn't she be part of my novel? My main character is absolutely fodder for the vicious, self-absorbed teen.

The next problem is the back story. That is where these characters could leave the world of cliché and enter into something richer. Too much back story, however, can get in the way of my main character's story. I don't want to clutter my novel with a million digressions and explanations, but there should be some indication of how these characters are "real" and 3-dimensional rather than just cardboard cut-outs with an addendum. So where do I go?

I can't help but use a certain classmate of my child's as a map for one of these irritating characters. As I begin construction, I am reminded of the conversations that I've had with my girl, wiping away her tears as I explain why some kids are so mean. That need to find a reason haunts most of us. So I have decided to write a "needs" assessment of each character to help me keep them in perspective. Rather than go into a long story about their trouble childhoods, I'll just make a list of what each character truly needs. I can elaborate later, if need be. That doesn't exactly fix the problem, but it might help keep me on track.

But what of the tropes?

The mean girl who is pretty but lonely—come on...we all knew at least one. Wherever that insecurity comes from, it's real and that need to hold power over someone else is the best way to satisfy it. Of course, I have to ask, "why is she so insecure?"  The kid is not a cliché, but the answers to that question might be. That is where I will pick at the details until I have something real.

The friends who decide social elevation is better than victimization—right around 4th grade this shit hits the fan. Kids start to become aware of their appearance and their place in the pecking order. Nobody wants to be pecked in the head every day, so they jump in line and follow instructions from the power-hungry mean girl. These are the "paid assassins" that end up doing the mean girl's bidding. I am watching my own child deal with this. People she thought were friends are turning on her and doing mean things simply to avoid being picked on themselves. When you add in a kid who has some special need or difference, there is even great motivation for distance. Nobody wants to be connected to the "weird kid."

The clueless boy who follows along because he's hoping to score points or avoid being the victim—another wonderful bit of adolescence we can all relate to. Weak minds are everywhere and they probably find roots in childhood. These kids often don't even know what they are saying. Amongst the newly minted teenagers or tweens, they might cast aspersions such as "you have rabis!" while the full-fledged teenagers will embrace their new fascination with their changing bodies and rapidly evolving libidos and play the "slut/skank" card freely.

The lonely genius—nerd or not, smarts can be very isolating unless you have either charisma or a never-ending supply of self-confidence (without the arrogance). The creative minds tend to get the most play from the bullies. What is it about their particular talents that intimidate other kids? Why can't they have faith in their abilities? Like anyone else, they need to feel connected to other human beings, but somehow, they lack the subtlety or the common thinking skills that let them do that.

There are so many more, but these are some of the characters I have to deal with right now. They are all inspired by real-life kids not only from my own childhood, but from my kids' current experience. The bottom line is that adolescence is a crucible where the most complex emotions and intellectual awakenings are set on fire and concentrated into the most potent experience of our lives.

Yes, adulthood can be hard and the decisions we make have significant consequences. When you compare that to the far-reaching effects of the choices we make as teenagers, however, our grown-up lives seem easier somehow. Perhaps it's because we finally have power over our own bodies. Or maybe it's because we have real independence and our brains are finally capable of rational thought and maybe even real empathy. As teenagers, all of this chaos rushes in and consumes us for a few years, yet in this tiny, little window of time, we are expected to learn how to make the decisions that will define us for the next 70 years. How scary is that?

While it seems as though teenagers are constantly blowing things out of proportion or over-dramatizing the minutiae, I must return to the advice that Ghost Hunk always gives me, "Go big or stay home." That kind of sums up the life of a teenager in spades.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Identity Crisis #2

As I wait [impatiently/anxiously] for my agent to pass judgement over the latest revision of book #2, my newest project is struggling to be born. Like Yeats' "rough beast," this one seems both elusive and menacing, but inescapably exciting because is quite the departure from my previous work.

First, it is not historical. This one just needs to happen here and now. But does that mean that I am a fraud? My niche seems to be the historical ghosty fiction, but this particular project is screaming from a different place. Inspired by someone near and dear to me, it is also a rather bold experiment both for me and my potential readers. This MC is not your average clairvoyant. She has a few other exceptionalities that will remain a secret for now.

Second, it is far more character driven than anything I have written before. Of course, now I find myself wondering what the hell is the plot, but I'm pulling on my tall boots and wading in. I have to admit I'm a little scared. How much plotting do I really need to do before I jump in and just start writing? I made a royal mess of my first go round of the last novel, but I think I have ironed out some of its worst faults. But this new project has many, many layers. More complex characters. Delicate issues.

Third, I'm going to attempt a first-person narrative. There is really no other choice. We need to be inside the MC's head for this one and live inside her skin. Can I do it?

In light of all these innovations, I'm wondering if I am in the midst of another identity crisis. My confidence has been shaky many times...well, pretty much always. There is part of me who had sort of branded herself as the historical ghost fiction chick, but can I just be a writer? I'm still swinging the big ghost stick, but it has a very different place and purpose this time around. Is that wrong? Is it doable?

I guess the only way to find out is to take the leap. Let's hope my boots are tall enough and I don't spring a leak...and that this crazy beast won't jump up and bite me in the ass, either...

Monday, November 05, 2012


The last month and half has been full of writing and reading and family. I finished writing the novel, celebrated 2 birthdays, and discovered some scary and amazing things about my kids. Even with all of that, I managed to escape into a book every now and then. And oh, what a lovely book it is.

Full disclosure, I know the author. We've had some long discussions about this work and what led up to it, but I had not read a word of it until the ARC landed in my mailbox a few weeks ago. And here is my honest, un-biased impression:

Kimberly Sabatini’s TOUCHING THE SURFACE asks those hard questions that too often get handed pat answers when it comes to a YA audience. She explores the depths of human connection, of what it means to be adrift in our own suffering and where we go from there. The characters speak of typical teenage experience, but they show us so much more than that. They show us what is possible when we choose our response. They allow us to wallow in angst and disappointment until our own anger slaps us with the reality that even that is a choice. They will not leave us to drown there, however. Lyrical and haunting, TOUCHING THE SURFACE is a beautiful tale of redemption and love and connection. 

It's a short review, because you simply need to read the book. I don't want to give too much away, but if you ever wondered about heaven and hell and what lies between, you simply must read this beautiful novel. 

Congratulations, Kimberly Sabatini, on an amazing debut!