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Writing Workshop: Creating Authentic Young Voices

I was recently asked to go to the NHPR (New Hampshire Public Radio) studios to record a 10 Minutes Writer’s Workshop, which is released both on air and in podcast form. It’s a show I love and I feel honoured to be interviewed alongside greats like Jonathan Safron-Foer, Emma Donoghue, Colson Whitehead and Salman Rushdie!

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The focus of my workshop was writing authentic young voices in fiction, no doubt because every one of my novels, both adult and young adult, features a child or teenage narrator: telling stories  from their point of view is one of the things I love most about writing.

How young people view and experience the world, their energy, their passion, their quirkiness, the fact that they are constantly growing and learning and evolving, makes writing these characters a joy – but also a challenge.

It was such fun to talk about an aspect of writing I love with the wonderful Virginia Prescott.

In preparation for the interview, I thought about ten tips I would share from my experience of writing from the point of view of younger characters – here they are.

1. Experience, research and imagination

This is not so much a tip as an introduction to all my other points:

Writing is an alchemy of experience, research and imagination.

To write good characters, of whatever age, you need to bring together your own experiences (memories, relationships, encounters), your research (reading, interviews, observation) and your imagination (the craft of building characters). When these three work together well, your characters will come alive and win readers’ hearts.

2. Tap into your inner child – or teenager

This is where experience comes in. The advantage of writing from the point of view of a younger character – rather than, say, a character of a different gender, class or cultural background from your own – is that we’ve all been young. Some of us never really grew up. Others of us have our young selves surface at unexpected times. Most of us remember something of the experiences and feelings of growing up.

It’s worth spending some time writing down some particularly vivid memories from your younger years – and asking yourself why these are so vivid. Read old diaries. Look at photographs from your childhood: school photos, year books, family vacations, special occasions, group photos of relatives and friends. And visit some places that you associate with growing up. Your old school. A home you moved out of. Whenever I drive past the house where I grew up in Oxford, England, the emotions come rushing back and I feel like I’m ten years old again, standing under our mulberry tree with purple-stained fingers and mouth and a tupperware ready to collect some berries for my mother’s famous mulberry ice-cream. I also think of the day I left the house, after my parents divorce, and the big skip that sat next to that mulberry bush: my mother and I were moving to a house a quarter of the size and that meant, literally throwing away a huge part of our lives.

Above all, try to remember how it felt to be ‘you’ back then: these emotions will help you tap into the voices of your young characters.

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3. Eaves-drop & observe

This is my favourite hobby – much to the embarrassment and frustration of my dear husband, Hugh. Whenever we’re in a public place, my writer’s brain starts whirring, I zone out of what I’m meant to be doing (shopping, talking to my husband, drinking a coffee), and my imaginative antennae curl in the direction of interesting looking and sounding interactions.

I never steal observed characters, scenarios or conversations whole-sale but I store them up and they all go into my writing cauldron. Watching young people is particularly fun, often because they are a little louder than most of us, because they have less respect for social niceties, because they move in groups and so there’s real potential for observing relationships – and different levels of relationship within a group.

Depending on the age your’e focusing on, find a public place where you can watch your subject: sit in McDonalds; stand in the queue to a film at the cinema – even if you don’t end up going to see that film; hang out at the playground and sit on a swing with your notebook; go to a football match.

Of course, you have to be a bit careful not to be intrusive and not to seem like you’re stalking people, but done with tact and sensitivity, this kind of eaves-dropping can be wonderful research.

4. Strike up conversations – and ask lots of questions

This is where you leave eaves-dropping behind and take things one step further: engage your subject in conversation. I know this can be scary for some – I’m a natural extrovert – but trust me, most people will love talking to you, especially about themselves, and teenagers are much less scary than they look, especially when you talk to them on your own. You don’t need to tell them the you’re writing a novel and doing research (though you can, some people find that exciting and open up even more), just ask questions about what brings them here and what they do and who they are.

I can’t tell you how many story ideas I’ve gleaned from these conversations – sometimes only a few seconds long – and how many friends I’ve made too.

5. Give your character a passion or obsession

Rather than going out to find out how teenagers and children talk and behave in general (which will do nothing but end in stereotypes), think about a particular child or character in a particular situation in a particular world with a particular passion or interest and then find a young person who has something in common with your character. This is where imagination and research overlap. You will need to start crafting your character first and once you know a bit about them, you can go out and find someone to interview.

One of the best ways into finding a strong, young voice is to give your character a passion. Children and teenagers are often obsessive in the things they learn, follow or spend their time doing or thinking about. These things dominate their lives and shape their days and their thoughts. They might be into a particular sport or follow a sports team; they may love a band or play a musical instrument; they may spend their whole lives playing a particularly computer game; they may be part of a gang; they may have a love interest – requited or unrequited; they may love cooking or write fan fiction or collect empty perfume bottles.

These passions turned obsessions create a window into your characters’ souls, can act as wonderful metaphors and can also serve the plot of your novel.

When writing Wishbones, I soon worked out that one of Feather Tucker’s great loves was swimming – more specifically than that, swimming butterfly stroke. And I knew that she swam competitively too, so it was a bit deal to her. Those of you who’ve read the novel will also know that swimming forms a crucial part of the plot. It so happens that a dear friend of mine has a teenage daughter, Emily, who swims butterfly stroke – it may well be that my knowledge of that filtered into my subconscious while I was getting to know Feather. Anyway, I took Emily out for many hot chocolates at our local café and asked her endless questions as I filled my writing notebook. What did it feel like, in her body, to swim this particular stroke? What was it like competing against other girls – and were any of them mean or annoying? What were their parents like? What was it like performing in public? How did she feel about boys watching her as she walked and sat around in her swimming costume? And, of course, I had to familiarise myself with all he technicalities of swimming and racing in this way.

People research is so much fun and can trigger so many ideas.

Simply having a conversation with a child or teenager will tune your ear and your mind to how young people speak and see the world.

It usually doesn’t take much asking around family, friends and colleagues to find a child or teenager willing to talk to you about their world. Just don’t forget to mention them in your acknowledgements!

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6. Make your voices and characters specific

This ties in with the ‘specific research’ point above.

When you’re writing from a particular point of view, the unique traits and personality of your character are more important than their age, gender, race, class or any other category you might ascribe them.

The way you write your character, the voice you give them, should first and foremost be dictated by who they are and how they live – by what makes them unique: their loves, their fears, their passions, their quirks, their desires, their habits, where they live, where they’ve come from, what their family is like, where they go to school, and so on. Once that is in place, the voice will fall into place.

If you put a group of teenagers or children in a room, you’ll soon notice that there’s no one way to be three or thirteen: one child will act like they were born middle-aged, another will act as though they’re never going to grow-up; one will have the vocabulary of a Harvard professor, another will sound as though they’ve never been to school. In fact, sometimes it’s fun to play with the age of your character: to make them behave older or younger than they are, to be atypical.

Above all, remember this:

Readers want to fall in love with unique characters, not with stereotypes.

7. Strength of feeling & a time of transition

This is something my agent, Bryony woods, reminded me of early on in our relationship. I remember asking her what she felt made young adult fiction special and she didn’t hesitate in her response: strength of feeling.

Children and young people have the volume knob turned right up when it comes to feeling and expressing their emotions.

I’m no psychologist but I imagine that part of where this strength of feeling is down to the fact that childhood and teenagehood are times of huge change – and these changes, these transitions, both inside their minds and bodies and in the world they inhabit, can be deeply unsettling, which makes emotions raw and nerve endings particularly sensitive.

The ground is forever shifting under young people – and they have little to cling to. So when their world is disrupted – and fiction is about disrupting your characters’ worlds – the emotions come flooding out.

A key to writing authentic young voices is to convey that strength of feeling. It’s also what makes reading these narrators so attractive: we feel with and alongside them and reading is as much about the heart as it is the mind.

8. Do some acting

Before my husband became a teacher and director, he trained as an actor. He liked – and likes – the stage. But more than that, he likes to understand – and so inhabit – characters radically different from himself. I’m no performer, but his craft, his way of getting inside the mind and body and heart of his characters, can serve as a great lesson to us writers.

When I sit behind my desk, I act too, though through my imagination. I think about what it would be like to live as my character. To be as tall or short as them. To experience heat or cold. To fall in love for the first time. To have a parent disappear. To live with a chronically sick mother. To love swimming. I try to inhabit them and, as I go about my days, I think: What would Feather do in this situation? What would she think? How would she feel?

Carry your characters through your days and inhabit them too.

9. Read, read, read

Some writers disadvise reading anything similar to what your’e writing: I believe the opposite.

Just as young artists study great paintings and sit at the feet of great artists; just as sports men and women study the technique and training of the athletes they aspire to be; just as musicians go to concerts and listen to music and seek mentors and role-models, so writers should find ways of learning their craft from those they admire – and books are perfect for that.

One of the greatest inspirations behind What Milo Saw, my debut adult novel written partly through the eyes of a child, is Emma Donoghue’s Room.  Donoghue showed me how you can write an amazing adult novel, one which deals with sometimes heavy, even dark subject matter, from the point of view of a child – in this case a five year old boy called Jack. I gather that Donoghue had a five year old at the time of writing and would follow him around with a notebook!

Donoghue completely inhabited the world of her character, down to the physical level from which Jack sees the room to the phrases he uses. Though once again, Jack isn’t a ‘typical five year old’ – he is a specific character in a unique situation and this was Donoghue’s starting point.

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Writers down the centuries have written adult book from the point of view of children, most notable Charles Dickens in Great Expectations and, more recently, Mark Haddon in The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night Time. The success of these novels is in no small part down to the extraordinary young characters who carry and tell their stories.

And then, there are those extraordinary Young Adult novels, which have such brilliant teenage narrators: they too have been my mentors. I’m currently reading I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson and her ability to create authentic – and electric – teenage voices, is incredible. When We Collided by Emery Lord and Dumplin’, by Julie Murphy as well as the novels of Rainbow Rowell, Robin Talley and Gae Polisner have all inspired me this year and taught me how to create strong and engaging teenage voices.

10. Love them: on and off the page

I’m a huge fan of teenagers. I love small children too, but I don’t think they need many advocates: they are cute and funny and quirkily loveable and so win people’s hearts quite easily. Teenagers are sometimes harder to love: they can be listless and depressed and pessimistic and reclusive and obnoxious and ungrateful and loud and narcissistic and volatile and they’re not physically as cute as babies and toddlers. However, they can also be imaginative and fun and energetic and idealistic and passionate and open-minded and flexible and loyal. More than anything, they are undergoing that extraordinary transition from childhood to adult, perhaps the hardest transition of all, and that makes them fascinating. And I love them. I love meeting them and talking to them and so writing about them.

I believe that loving and appreciating young people is of the keys to writing their voices authentically.

If you love those you write about, both on and off the page, you’ll want to represent them faithfully and you’ll want your readers to see them in the way you do too – as infinitely complex and flawed and beautiful.

High Resolution Paperback Cover Norah Wells