Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

The Value of Adults

adultsMy teenage son was peeking over my shoulder, and when he read this title, he laughed.  I didn’t ask him what was funny — that adults have value? — or that we are at a point of needing to blog about it? But we do. Need to talk about it.

During the summer residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults, one of our amazing advisors, Amy King, known to the world as A.S. King, presented a passionate and illuminating lecture — and a plea — about fleshing out adult characters. I just knew I had to share it! (Late as it is. Better late than never, right? Right? The good thing about these topics is that they are as timely today as they were back in July. See, this is why I am glad I am not a journalist anymore :))

Anyway, with Amy’s permission, here is  the gist of her talk, in my own words. Mostly.

In writing books for young readers, of course we want to keep our young characters active. We want them to have agency (which, incidentally is the topic of my graduate lecture, coming up in a month and a half, omg). We want our young characters to make mistakes, to act, to shape their destinies, or at least try to, not just to watch or merely respond to adults and their drama. And we surely don’t want the adults to pull our characters out of every sticky situation, solve all of our heroes’ problems, or achieve nothing more than stuff the young characters with morsels of wisdom and knowledge and message — no, no, no. Of course not.

But can we sweep the grownups aside completely? Kill them off, immobilize them, shut them up, so our young characters can have room to make their own decisions and affect their own destinies? Shove them onto the sidelines, keep them shadow-like, in the background, to serve cookies, step aside, pass out in front of the TV?

If we do, we might be creating a flat, unbelievable story world.  If we don’t develop our adult characters, we might rob our young protagonists of the chance to really grow.

In real life, adults are everywhere for the teens and younger kids to watch, emulate, learn from, detest, idolize, try to make sense of, make fun of. In deeply felt and richly imagined stories,  young characters don’t come out of nowhere and don’t get handed down a world free of adult control or influence. Amy implored us to embrace the possibilities offered by adult characters in order to craft stories that would ring truer for young readers. Here are some questions to consider when developing adults in YA and children’s fiction:

1. Look at the teachers, the bosses, the neighbors, the celebrities, the heroes. Spend some time fleshing them out, the way you would your younger characters. Who are they? What drives them? What do they believe and why and how do their beliefs affect their actions? How does your main character feel about them and why? In what ways is your main character like them? And how is she different from them?

2. Get to know the parents on a deeper level, as “fully formed human beings.” Consider: young characters might have adapted their parents’ attitudes, or they might be rebelling against them. What is each parent’s gift, or legacy to the young protagonist?  Ask yourself: “Are they distracted? Supportive? Yelling? Happy? Hardworking?” A combination of these? And, “Why are they these things? What is their connection with the protagonist?” Does anyone tell your young main character, “You are just like your mother?” And how would your main character feel about being told that?

Reflect on how your young character might try to fight against the legacy passed down by her parents or other adults. Alternately, how can your young character try and embrace it? How can she do both in the space of the same story and even the same relationship?

3. We typically think of parents or adults influencing the younger characters, but consider: inspiration and wisdom can flow both ways.  How can your protagonist influence the adult characters in her story?

SOME EXAMPLES OF YA BOOKS THAT TAKE FULL ADVANTAGE OF THE ADULT CHARACTERS’ POTENTIAL:  Amy King

– In John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, see Hazel and August’s interaction with Hazel’s favorite author Van Houten

– In Nancy Werlin’s fantasy Impossible, the main character’s foster family are supportive, imperfect, empowering and wise. They make a tremendous positive difference in Lucy’s life, yes. But they learn from her, too.

– In Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, the young maid Griet is at first inspired and learns much from her “boss,” her master Johannes Vermeer. But in the end she proves to be a stronger character than her flawed and legendary hero.

– And let’s not forget Amy’s own Please Ignore Vera Dietz, in which the protagonist’s father is the one trying to keep his daughter from making his mistakes.  But really, Amy makes adults matter in all of her books, from Everybody Sees the Ants to Reality Boy, to the just published Glory O’Brian’s History of the Future).

A. S. King is an award-winning, critically acclaimed author of six YA novels and short fiction for adults. She taught adult literacy in Ireland and now lives in Pennsylvania with her family and teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program.

Thank you, Amy so much for the inspiration, for letting me share, and for all those glorious books!

November 25, 2014 Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | , , | 6 Comments