There’s a lot to be said for writing what you know, within certain parameters. While there are obviously some things you’ll never have firsthand experience with, like living in the Middle Ages or breeding dragons, and some things it’s probably not such a wise idea to research firsthand, like a tiger attack or brain surgery, it’s still a good idea to have grounding in the realistic things.

The way I wrote adult and child characters as a teenager was just laughable. There was a reason I had always written about characters around my same age, because it’s what I knew. It made perfect sense for me to write about preteens and teens when I was in that age range, even if these weren’t completely realistic characters just yet. I had basic experience with being that age, as well as having some idea of how slightly older people behaved, based on watching TV shows and reading books.

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When my Atlantic City characters started aging up and having their own children, a lot fell apart. I naturally didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s so painfully embarrassing and obvious now. I was a sophomore and junior in high school, trying to write about characters in college, in their twenties and eventually thirties, raising children. To my adult self, they come across as immature, childish, ridiculous, overgrown 12-year-olds playing at grownups. There’s being young at heart or young for your age, and then there’s just being stunted and childish.

The child characters were just as bad, if not worse. I had the entirely wrong idea about when speech starts, and thus had babies under a year old speaking in complete sentences, and toddlers and young kids having conversations about politics and literature. Yes, I was extremely advanced intellectually for my age, and had atypical interests at a young age, but that’s not a reason to project it onto everyone. Also, even I didn’t have those interests or that knowledge when I was all of 5 or 6 years old. My other problem was that I hadn’t been around young children very much, and thus really didn’t know how they tend to talk, act, and think.

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When I went back to Little Ragdoll from scratch and memory in November 2010, I took great pains to depict all these child characters, of various ages, as accurately as possible. I did my best to keep the language and situations around Adicia’s level as she ages through the book, much like the Little House series gradually becomes more mature as Laura grows up. As I wrote Part I, when Adicia is all of five years old, I tried to think of my rabbi and rebbetzin’s then-five-year-old daughter and how she would talk, think, or act.

I felt really validated and proud every time someone commented, after reading the numerous excerpts posted, about how realistic these children and young people were. And I had a lot of things to meld together—age, aging up, the 1959–74 era, the poor and working-class Manhattan world, the parentification of many of these children, the forced maturity and growing up way before they should’ve. Even Justine and Infant (later Aoife), the babies of their respective families, aren’t shielded from reality and know life is tough.

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When dealing with kids in the 2–4 range, it’s also important to know how speech develops. Children just learning to talk frequently engage in overextension (e.g., “We goed to the store,” “I finded it,” “He throwed it”). They also won’t have such a large vocabulary yet, and will tend towards simple, short sentences.

When writing Part II of Journey Through a Dark Forest, I also had to keep in mind how children of various ages understand Death. Two-and-a-half-year-old Velira thinks her mother was sleeping in the woods, and frequently asks when she’s coming back. Three-year-old Veronika asks if her father went to be dead because she did something bad, and if he’ll come back if she’s good, while her seven-year-old brother Andrey asks if their father is getting enough to eat, and wonders how he can breathe if he’s dead.

Also important to keep in mind is how people of a certain age range would’ve behaved in a certain era. A teenager of the 1940s tended to be both younger and older than a typical modern teen, due to being more innocent about certain things while still having more mature responsibilities and often expecting to marry and start a family by the early twenties. A teenager of the Middle Ages would’ve already been married and a parent.

6 thoughts on “Know the age you’re writing about

  1. I kind of had the same problem with the series I started when I was twelve. My characters grew up with me and the tone of my stories change dramatically as I got older. I couldn’t read my first book without laughing and how I portrayed my characters. I ended up rewriting the whole series and making my characters adults instead. But that involved changing the plots as well. Someday I’m going to rewrite that old series again but keep the teenagers and plots.

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  2. Voice is incredibly important. This is why I write adult characters. I could never pull off a teenager because I wasn’t like other teens. I got old before my time! Now as I grow older, my characters tend to get a little older too.

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