Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Erik: Writing a Young Narrator

I often get asked by people who have read my novel, “how did you make the main character sound so much like a twelve-year old?” One, I listened to the twelve and thirteen year olds that I was teaching in New York City. And two, I studied several novels where the main character was not only a teen, but also the narrator (I’ll explain more of that later).

Samuel Francis Gerard, the main character in my novel The Book of Samuel, was a young white boy growing up in Denver, Colorado in the 1980’s. I was teaching predominantly Dominican-Americans in New York from 2001-2007. The Sugar Hill Gang was popular back in the 1980’s while most of my students in New York listened to Jay-Z and Fat Joe. I clearly remember the day in 1987 when Ice-T came out with his album Rhyme Pays, an album we had memorized by the end of the week. However, to my students, Ice-T was just the old guy on Law and Order. They couldn’t believe he had ever put lyrics to a beat. Therefore, I obviously couldn’t rely on the slang and pop references my students made.

I could however, observe my students. Boys are boys are boys and my Dominican students related to the world much in the same way me and my friends did. For instance, anything they didn’t understand was stupid. Anything that required serious contemplation was boring (except girls). When someone of authority, usually me, demanded something viewed as unpleasant, by them, I was forced to field a dozen questions that began with “Why,” often the exact same question multiple times. Rules themselves never made any sense, even if they benefited them. Absolutely anything that went against the rules was fun. Anyone who followed the rules was a traitor. The manner and tone in which insults were exchanged were often the same, although the references were different. When the more creative insults dried up, they usually resorted to a back and forth volley of: “You’re stupid,” “No, You’re stupid,” No, you’re stupid” or something similarly banal. As a boy, your masculinity was challenged by whom you were compared to (Julio Iglesias in my generation, Enrique Iglesias in theirs). Celebrities, athletes, and bands were either the best or the worst, never in between, and your position on their relevance could either admit you to the club or turn you into an outcast (Menudo in my case, Aventura in theirs). Potato chips, bags of candy, and McDonalds easily crossed the generation gap. So did video games, but the actual games themselves (Donkey Kong in my case, Halo in theirs) had changed dramatically, although the boys still huddled in groups for entire weekends, playing against one another, eyes bloodshot and wide on Monday morning.

So I really focused on the framework in which teens communicated with one another and less on what was actually being said. Once I had written the situation, i.e. boys getting ready to fight, boys talking about sexy movie stars, I could cut out the modern language and replace it with how I used to speak when I was a budding teen (which was roughly the same time The Book of Samuel takes place). Their “slicing cheddar” was replaced with mine, “forking out cash,” their “getting sticky” with mine, “getting some.” The word “snitch,” like Coca-Cola, crossed the generation gaps.

The second thing I did, to make Samuel sound believable, was read books written from the point of view of young boys and try and understand the mechanics behind the writing. Here is Dave Egger's opening paragraph to The Wild Things:

“Matching Stumpy pant for pant, Max chases his cloud-white dog through the upstairs hallway, down the wooden stairs, and into the cold open foyer. Max and Stumpy did this often, running and wrestling through the house, though Max’s mother and sister, the two other occupants of the home, didn’t appreciate the volume and violence of the game.”

The narrator sympathizes and even recognizes the child’s view (“pant for pant”), but uses the language of adults (“occupants of the home” and “volume and violence”). Eggers somewhat original point of view matched with a simple, fluctuating language gives the reader a far different experience than say Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, where the main character’s actions are explained by an adult narrator, but the voice is all a young boy. For example the famous chapter where Tom Sawyer gets the boy Ben to paint his aunt’s fence.

“Why ain’t that work?”
Tom resumed his whitewashing and answered carelessly: “Well maybe it is and maybe it ain’t. All I know is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”
“Oh, come now, you don’t mean to let on you like it?”
The brush continued to move.
“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence everyday?”
That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticized the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed.

The dialogues between the two boys is much different than the voice of the narrator. Ben says “aint” while the author uses “daintily.” Tom Sawyer says “oughtn’t” while the narrator uses “criticized the effect.” The humor here lays in Mark Twain’s back and forth of high-brow and low-brow, between the language of two boys and the narrator's more literary one. Now watch how different the language in Huckleberry Finn is:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.

As you can see, the main character is the narrator. His words are the way in which we see the world without adult interference. In fact, Mark Twain tries to dissociate himself from the authorial role so that we can be completely taken under the spell of Huck’s voice.

I read many other books while working on The Book of Samuel, including Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke HA HA HA and M.J. Hyland’s Carry Me Down, but I studied, really studied Huckleberry Finn. I admired how Mark Twain used only words that Huck himself would know, only easy if you are fully aware of your character.

While kids usually think what they are saying is interesting, adults can often find themselves nodding along to a story without paying attention, much like kids do when adults talk about opera or politics. It is indeed a challenge to write from the point-of-view of a young boy and still have the narrative be interesting to adults. Even teens can struggle to listen to a twelve-year old for 200 pages. But the trick I discovered with Huckleberry Finn was the humorous way in which the narrator describes the events happening. For example, Huck sneaks on a stranded steamer and discovers two men plotting to kill a third. It is not the situation that is funny, but how Huck takes a detour about whiskey:

But before they got in, I was up in the upper berth, cornered and sorry I come. Then they stood there, with their hands on the ledge of the berth, and talked. I couldn’t see them, but I could tell where they was, by the whiskey they’d been having. I was glad I didn’t drink whiskey; but it wouldn’t made much difference, anyway, because most of the time they couldn’t a treed me, because I didn’t breathe. I was too scared. And besides a body couldn’t breathe, and hear such talk.

Twain uses Huck’s own view on the world, his loose associations, to give strength to the narration. It is what Huck notices and how he notices that matters.

I found that, in my own book, it was not Samuel and his friends going to the store and getting ice-cream that was amusing. What was amusing was in the way they described the old women who served the ice-cream and the things they noticed in the store, not the colors or the smells, but that the magazine rack had a Soldier of Fortune, that the barstools made them feel like cowboys. As a teacher I couldn’t have spinach between my teeth or have my zipper down because within seconds my students would notice and make jokes. They were never impressed at how organized my desk was or my choice of posters upon the wall. They did notice however what shoes I wore or what brand of headphones I listened to. Their eyes for certain detail taught me that it is rarely what the twelve-year old says, but how what he or she experiences, the way in which they experience it, that gives believability to a young character.


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  2. Thanks for this great post! :) I write middle-grade fiction too, but even though I'm the age of my characters, sometimes I struggle with making my characters sound too mature. One or two mature 12-13 year olds per novel is all right, but I'm working on adding more variety with my characters.

    I think what some people forget when writing MG and YA is that it's not all about how the character speaks, but what they talk about, like you said in your post. I've read YA novels where the characters swear so much that it comes off as unbelievable, or where the writer focuses too much on pop culture references.

    I agree with you about listening to kids who are the age of your characters. I think all MG and YA writers (myself and other young writers included) could benefit from this. Listening to kids talk helps you realize how kids actually talk, not just how you want your characters to sound (like mature).

  3. I've written about a seventeen year-old. I was also a teacher and used the experience to add depth to my character. But through the time I was writing it, I realized that I started to use the word, "totally" a lot more in everyday conversation.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. An insightful post. Teaching gives writers an advantage. I keep pairs - or groups - of kids in mind when I'm writing: what would they do in this situation etc

  5. I must read Tom Sawyer again as a writer! What I find most challenging about writing in the voice of a 12-year-old, especially a boy, are the emotional reactions. They are not (usually) adept at describing feelings so showing it is critical. Also, how every word makes a difference and how a single word or metaphor that a child would never use can kill the voice. For example, I once had a kid say someone gave him the cold shoulder. That's not going to happen in real life.

  6. When you write that you studied the frameworks that the teens moved in instead of their words, are you saying that you were watching their physical reactions? Like setting the tv on mute while watching a show?

    Very interesting post. Now, I must go find your book. :)