A funny thing happens when we start taking our writing seriously – we realize we aren’t very good.
But one solid way of improving the craft is to listen – and hear – the voices of our audience, who in turn are – most of the time – also our characters.
The #1 writing rule you will find is to “write what you know.” This is sometimes disputed, but overall, I hear and read that one the most. Unfortunately, I have no idea what being a 12 year old girl in 2016 looks like, feels like or sounds like, in a really authentic way. But sometimes, a 12 year old girl appears in your manuscript, and you need to speak for them through the character who has arrived.
The thing that most adults do best? They filter. They hear a kid say something and they add their own adulty filter, and that sucks.
Rather than looking for a way to infuse my own morals/beliefs/ideas/creativity onto my audience, I am letting them do some of the heavy lifting. I’m lucky – I’m a teacher. I hear and see a lot of kids every year. But teachers are really good at filtering, too. I’m learning that in both teaching and writing, it is best to observe like a scientist – without bias. At first, anyway.
Examples of weird/funny/awesome things I’ve heard kids say, that are begging to be written and turned into a characters voice:
“I can’t wait to grow up and have a boy propose to me. I’m planning my DREAM rejection. Like, maybe he is going to take me up Mountain Everest. And when we get to the top he gets down on one knee and asks me to marry him. ‘No.’ Then he’s like WHY DID I TAKE YOU UP HERE THEN?”
“I’m going to name my kid (says her own name). Like in the Gilmore Girls, when Lorelai names her daughter Lorelai. That’s awesome.”
“My hands are the same size as my moms, but they’re not as THICK.”
“When I get married, I’m having a SIXTEEN LAYER cake. You’ll need an elevator to get to the top of it!”
“Do hippies not like sugar? ‘Cuz I think my mom is hippie.”
These are real examples and they come from 10-12 year olds. They could easily be used to kick start a character or to write a picture book.
The challenge is to hear what the kid is saying, word for word, phrase for phrase, and to pick up on the specifics of the wording so that you can have a bit of a sense of who that kid is. It is being revealed to you through the things they say and the way they say it. Then, you can go off and filter it – respectfully – in order to build onto these words and turn them into your character’s own being.
I’m not saying to write your story/book based ENTIRELY on what a kid has said, but if you need to write a 12 year old girl’s perspective and you’re a 31 year old man? (Hello, that’s me.) It’s time to research, and to find a way of listening to kids without judging, filtering, embellishing or editing (until it’s time to write the actual story) – because a 31 year old man has no idea what the world is for a 12 year old girl, and has no idea how a 12 year old girl speaks and acts and inflects … until they have listened for a while, without conversing, and gotten a sense of the words that are unsaid.
This is the work of a writer. It is research, it is observation, it is acting and playing pretend. It’s fun, and it’s hard. Now go listen.