Something that bugs me in the YA books I’ve read recently is making the characters too one-dimensional, too much like stereotypes. This is especially true of female characters that are meek or shy at the beginning of a story and then suddenly transform throughout the story in response to a quest or other dramatic event. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that most kids, most people, have a little bit of everything in them? We’re usually not one way all the time. With some people we’re outgoing, with others we’re reserved. In some situations we’re adventurous and daring and in others we’re terrified.
I saw this most clearly in my own writing when I finally got a chance to spend some time with my 16 year old niece. The story I’m currently revising is very loosely based on some of her life experiences. From an outsider’s perspective, I thought I needed to make the character angry and cynical, in order to make some of the big events and revelations make sense. And, though I wrote certain glimmers of happiness and contentedness, I kept the character sort of guarded and surly through much of the book. However, when my niece came to visit, I got a glimpse into the life of a 16 year old. And maybe there is some anger, but mostly there’s still growth and development. Sixteen year olds like one thing one minute and another the next minute. They want to wear make-up and have sex, and they want to make origami boxes and color the driveway with chalk. They’re walking contradictions as they discover who they are.
It was stunning to realize how much I’d underestimated and pigeonholed this character, because my own memories of teen life are permeated with angry, discontent feelings. Those strong feelings clouded the others. So much that I forgot about the humdrum of daily life. I forgot that I wasn’t angry all the time, or even half the time. After I spent time with my niece, I went back and reread my story. I didn’t do the age, the experience, or the inspiration very much justice in what I’d written. I know there needs to be elevated emotions and drama to come across strongly on the page, but I want to do a better job of making my character well-rounded and more accessible to lots of different types of readers.
On a side note, this post seemed timely because I did the same thing in real life. I sort of under-estimated, or maybe assumed is a better word, I assumed things about someone I work with because of his position in the company and his experience in business. Instead of thinking of this person as a well-rounded human begin who probably has many likes and interests, just like everyone I know, myself included, I assumed he was stuffy and maybe uninteresting. When in reality, since I’ve learned a lot from him and about him, I’ve been surprised by how wrong my initial assumptions were.
As a former teacher, I should know the rule about not judging a book by its cover. I’m working on it, though. It’s a hard habit to break. I think maybe it’s not about breaking the habit, but rethinking the process- maybe it’s okay to make initial assumptions, as long as we actively seek to find ways to contradict them.