Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Point Of View - How to find my inner 14 year old boy

Emo5This week I have a bit of a problem. An editor friend is putting together an anthology with a pirate theme, and she asked me if I had a short story that might work. I didn't, but I told her to give me 48 hours to see if I could come up with something. She said she already had seven of the ten stories in place, and was looking for something that hadn't already been done. She wanted a male POV character, maybe a person of color, maybe someone with a disability, maybe a historical. So I took all that and threw it around the room a little and came up with an idea:

In 1810 New Orleans, a 14 year old boy whose parents are a plantation owner and his black mistress runs off with a pirate. 

Sounds simple enough, right? It has some of the elements the editor was looking for, and there's plenty of STUFF going on in that place and time to build conflict around. And really, the plot hasn't been a problem. It's the main character, Robert. I've had three people read the piece. One, my husband (and not the most critical reader) thought he sounded like a teenage boy. My friend Amanda read it, and she thought I landed somewhere in the 20's. The third (the editor, and necessarily more critical) thought he sounded like a forty year old man.
Stratz - K├Ârper des Kindes 30
Gotta fix that.
I know the basics of how to develop a character. I do a worksheet and figure out as much about them as I can, from their height and weight and skin texture to what's in their pockets and what they like to eat for dinner. All of that detail drives the things they say and how they respond to different situations. I did some of that for Robert - it's a short piece, and I had a tight turn-around - but it was hard when I was working with so many unknowns. Hey, I'm old, but not 1810 old.

I did a series of Google searches using accessible terms like, "societal expectations of children in the early 19th century". Not so helpful, really. Then, I posted my quandary on the WANA112 Facebook page - all writers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. I heard back from YA writer Cristin Terrill that teenagers were hard and historicals were hard and to do them both together would be really hard. Ouch. It sounded like a such a good idea at the time. 

Cristin did suggest that I read books written in that time period that had teenage boys as the main characters. That thought had already crossed my mind, and so now I've got The Prince and the Pauper and a couple things by Dickens tee'ed up on the Kindle. I also found an interview with Claudia Gray, the author of the Evernight novels, a popular YA series. She said that to find the voice for her teen characters, she does whatever she can to remember what it was like to be a teenager. Hmm. Good advice, if I can remember back that far.

My friend Amanda suggested that it was an issue of language, that Robert would feel like more of an outsider and speak less formally. For what it's worth, I was aiming for Mr. Darcy as a teenager. Have to rethink that, I guess. Clearly I was never a teenage boy, but I believe that alienation is part of the package. As is anger. And insecurity. I've got an almost-teen-boy living with me now. And I've got a husband who was, at one time, a teenager. And I've got the internet to help me fill in the gaps regarding the life and times of New Orleans in 1810, if I can figure out the right search terms. I should be able to do this.

If' you've got any ideas on this, would LOVE to hear them in the comments. Thanks!


  1. Sounds like a great premise. Having had two modern 14 year old boys in my house at one rime or another, I wish I could offer some advice. You're right about the mood swings, anger one moment and sweet the next. Good luck!

  2. Thanks Jillian! I asked my daughter - the 14 year old girl - what the boys she knew were like, and her observation was that all the character's dialogue should be in monosyllables. Am still working on it!

  3. The problem isn't with the dialogue, it's with the narrative voice.

    Example: >though circumstances have so far withheld that opportunity.<

    Would a 14-year-old - even in 1810 - really express himself like this?

    If you're reading 19th C authors for inspiration, may I suggest Mark Twain "Huckleberry Finn"? It's a masterpiece of narrative voice, and it's a young boy.

    Of course, Robert and Huck are different characters from different periods and different stratas of society, and Huck's vernacular wouldn't suit Robert. But it may inspire you.

  4. I think I see the distinction you're making. Thanks, Rayne, for checking in. I appreciate your advice. And y'all if you want to get to know an awesome teacher/editor/writer, check out Rayne's website ( She rocks!

  5. I so enjoyed this post, Liv. Your transparency in mapping out a formula to find your fourteen-year-old's voice takes us on a journey of high interest. It sounds like you "haunt" every known receptacle of knowledge when you do your research. Ditto. One small observation from reading your comments...I don't think young boys spoke in monosyllables in those days as they do now. Someone would have struck them on the head or shoulders. Children (and that includes young teens) were to speak when spoken to...and they'd better make it plain. Adults didn't put up with a lot back then. Think Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, the Dickens' characters, etc.

  6. I think I'm going to have to pick up a copy of Huck Finn, because that seems like it'll give me some ideas. Thanks, Jodi Lea, I appreciate your support and input!

  7. Sounds exciting. It makes it a challenge to connect with a new POV or type of character you've never encountered before.

    Good luck!

    TAG! You're it. I've tagged you on my blog. Stop in and check it out.

  8. That's a challenging POV. If you have time to read, then a few 19th century novels involving teenagers would be great. If not, I suggested you find some movies to watch. Good luck!

  9. Thanks Bridget! I think the challenge of finding someone so different was part of why I came up with it - just didn't realize the scope of what I was trying to do. Live & learn...
    [heading off to find others to tag]

  10. Ooh, Patricia, good idea...Movies... hadn't thought of that. Thanks for the tip.

  11. I think movies are a good idea. Also how much time has he spent with his mother? Did the plantation owner speak with him at all? Where does he feel most comfortable? I'm not sure you know your character enough and that is why you are having difficulty in the narration. I know, because I wrote a 14 year old girl and it took me a long time to get her right. I think making a character sketch will help. If you have already done this then go back and be more specific. Your character should start to speak to you. His voice will be clearer. Of course, these are just my own thoughts, but these things worked for me and people who have read my book say the voice is true to a 14 year old girl.

  12. "Where does he feel most comfortable?"
    I think that's the question I haven't answered well enough, and it echos my friend Amanda's comments after reading the piece. Robert had the same tutor as his older brother, whose mother was French, so he'd sound educated, but I'm getting hung up in teasing out his inner thoughts. I hear the first paragraph of the piece very clearly and need to listen harder to that voice. Thanks so much for checking out my post, lionmother, and for your thoughtful comments.

  13. I love that you took on this challenge and all you went through to try to get up to speed on the character and then throwing it out for help...very courageous, maybe crazy, but definitely courageous. Wish I could offer some help but there are no teenage boys around to draw from.

  14. Heh, yeah Cora, I think the jury's still out on whether this post is crazy or courageous. Thanks for checking it out!