Mind games

Yes, the title’s a a bit deceiving. I’m not really playing mind games, but when it comes to hooking a reader, writers have to execute the right strategies to get their readers into the heads of their characters so their readers can care enough to connect with their characters.

YA writers and readers, I need your input. Being a novice, I am careful to follow all the rules. Survey says—so far—editors don’t fancy adult POV characters telling part of the story, even if young adult characters carry the majority of it.

What do you think? Can a successful YA novel include an adult POV character, especially one who can speak candidly and objectively about the events in the teen world without passing judgment? Will teens buy into the story?

We all have our artistic licenses, and we can navigate inside and outside the boundaries. I have a story or two to tell, and for me to tell it truly, I need to take my young readers into the mind of an adult.

For years, the teacher in me has fought for the young adults, defending their hair styles, clothing choices, tats, piercings, music choices, etc. I’ve heard seasoned adults put down young people because of what they are, the age they are, without getting to know who they are, without getting into their heads.

But now I’m old. I see life from a different perspective. I think the underdog is fastly becoming the older adult, sadly synonymous with antiquated and obsolete, especially the older teacher.

Dedicated older teachers have given their students everything they’ve learned, as well as a portion of their paychecks to buy extra school supplies, and at the end of the day, these same teachers watch their prodigies leave their classrooms and march out to the student parking lots to drive off in shiny new machines, hot from the assembly line.

Meanwhile, after packing their briefcases and bags, seasoned teachers drag their weary bodies and pounds of take-home work to their own junkers waiting for them in the teacher’s parking lot. They count their pennies along the way, hoping they’ll have enough to pay for gas to take them to the middle of next month, pay day. And they wonder, “Do I really have anything that makes these kid want to listen to me?”

When I write, I want to make my young readers feel something about themselves, about their peers, about their mentors. Even if I’m making them laugh, I want them to learn something, to experience Verstehen, “empathy” or “understanding.”

I want to bring people together—not further divide them. The generation gap is growing exponentially.

I think it’s time YA novels, along with other forms of media, stop downplaying the role of the older adult, especially teachers.

It’s not uncommon for young consumers to be media illiterate. They believe everything they’re told. For years, we teachers have been the “bad guys” of most kid shows. Even Charlie Brown’s teacher was just another “Wa Wa Wa WA Wah Wa.”

And have you seen the movie trailers for Bad Teacher, staring Cameron Diaz, Jason Timberlake, and Jason Segel? I don’t want to be portrayed as just another a bad character in the lives of my students. The list goes on. Let us not forget Mr. Herbert Garrison from South Park, Professor Umbridge in Harry Potter, Edna Krabappel from The Simpsons, and Sue Sylvester from Glee. And that’s just fiction!

Turn on the nightly news, and viewers can catch mug shots of teachers who have crossed the line and committed pedophilia and other criminal acts.

Yep, I’m on my soapbox again, but oh how powerful is the act of persuasion.

Let me write. Let me SHOW teens life as it really is. Let ME persuade. Let me take young readers on a trip into the minds of older characters who have been there, done that, and lived to tell about it without condemning or commanding the young people they’re sent to guide.

I believe we writers are doing our YA readers a disservice by not allowing them to listen to the older characters. Yes, teens want to be the stars of their own shows, but they need adults in their lives. They need adults in their books. They need to see into the heads of the adults, to see adults critically, not stereotypically.

Face it. Kids grow up. The thought terrifies them. They need the reassurance that growing up doesn’t mean losing their sense of adventure, their dreams, their sense of wonder. Stepping into the mind of an adult POV character reassures them that growing up doesn’t mean giving up who they are and who they want to be.

I asked my young adult readers what they think about adult POV characters in YA novels. The following is a sample of what they had to say:

  • Rebecca said that adding an adult character who remains a quiet confidant makes the book dramatic because the adult holds a secret but chooses not to tell.
  • Haylee said adult characters work only if they have the “cool” factor and if they’re fun.
  • Lynnie and Payton said likeable adult characters in YA novels provide reliable advice to teen characters.
  • Charlie pointed out that authoritative figures are common in any situation involving teens, but including them in a YA novel provides futher insight or wisdom and creates a parallelism between child and adult.
  • Kayla said she doesn’t have a problem with adults being characters in YA novels because if the adult is cool enough for the characters to interact with then the adult is probably cool enough for the reader to hear his or her thoughts.
  • Izzy said adult characters in YA novels act as guides for the teen characters, and Whitney said adult characters allow teen readers to look up to someone older.
  • Beth said one of her favorite books involves a teacher who is there for her students who need help.
  • Ashleigh, Tyler and Liz said adding an adult character that teens can talk to and relate to makes the story itself more believable, and Aubrey said adult characters create a trustworthy, comforting safety net for both young adult characters and young adult readers.
  • Benjamin pointed out that YA novels with adult POV characters might encourage the readers, especially those in high school, to feel more like adults themselves.
  • And Katie stated the obvious—adults are a part of every teen’s life. Why shouldn’t they play a role in their stories?

So writers, readers, lend me your advice based on your experience. Should writers avoid incorporating adult POV characters in their novels? Tell me what you think. I want to learn from you.

14 thoughts on “Mind games

  1. It’s pretty simple. As long as your adult character is interacting with the YA characters in the novel, there’s no problem. Your YA characters can respond to that adult the way real kids do. You only go wrong as a writer when you try to have your adult character interact with the YA reader directly or when your YA characters don’t act like YA characters in response to what the adult gives them. Adult POV is possible, but remember the rule of one: Until you have at least ONE best-selling novel, editors will reject your book based on reasons that have nothing to do with how good the book is or how much readers will enjoy it. I’d say you should re-examine why this adult must be a POV character. Why does the information have to be *thought* rather than *spoken*?

    • Thanks for the wise advise. You are right. And I know that writers must “kill their darlings” on occasion. But the adult POV is the journalists’ teacher, and much of the action takes place at his house. The students cannot be there to tell it from their POV. And, the events that take place there are kind of a comedic relief in the middle of the drama. This character is “my darling.” I think the readers need to see through his eyes. But, again, what do I know? 🙂 I am not published. There’s always the possibility that if and when I am published, I’ll look back on this particular blog and realize I wasn’t the genius I thought myself to be. 🙂 (Of course, my ego says, “Listen to your gut feeling. Maybe you are a genius.) 🙂

  2. I see no problem in using adult POV’s in a YA novel. I’ve read several YA books that included an adult POV character and enjoyed them. I’ve also used adult POV characters in my own writing because I felt that their perspective added to the story as a whole.

    Bottom Line: If the story is well written, the plot is intriguing, and the characters (teens & adults) are interesting, then readers will accept and enjoy the book. (Those are also the things that catch an editor or agent’s eye–great writing, interesting characters & plot.)

    • Angela, if you have the time, would you mind suggesting a couple of YA books that effective use adult POV. I would like to study them. Thanks so much for being such a help!

  3. Tee,
    I say listen to the young adults in your survey. What about Dumbledore and Hagrid at Hogwarts? They were adults that the teens looked to for advice and support; Dumbledore often provided the adult POV. It is important for the adult POV to be non-judgmental, open to allowing the teen to make their own decisions and mistakes without getting hurt. Your adult POV can be an effective sounding board and perhaps through interactive brainstorming broaden the YA’s view of a situation and let them see all sides and POVs so that they can make a better decision. In a first novel it may be important to have the adult character be non-essential to the main events but instead an adult who has meaning to the young adult(s). A neighbor, a grandparent or great-grandparent, an aunt or uncle. Remember “Finding Forrester” ? Forrester became part of the main events but only by being non-judgmental in the sense of not prosecuting the young man who broke into his apartment.

    As a side note, I saw in the news yesterday a story of a teacher who still teaches reading to elementary level students and is 100 years old! They interviewed a former student who is going to a prestigious college and she credited her scholastic success to the guidance and teaching she received from this incredible woman. Students who started their schooling in her care have a higher success rate at entering quality higher education institutions.

    Think, “Twilight.” The vampires are young and hip in action but they have years, even decades or hundreds of years, of experience and knowledge to offer. What about Giles in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (the series)? His role was that of Watcher and he offered essential information and tutelage to the younger group. He was non-judgmental and protective while still providing that adult POV for Buffy et.al to give them information on all aspects of a situation so they could be prepared to fight the demons (who represented difficult life situations).

    Follow your heart – listen to your intuition. Your gut instincts as a write are good. Trust yourself.

    • Thank you so much for the help. You know I’ve always admired your ability to write, and you’ve always been a trusted sounding board. I am so inspired by the story of the 100-year-old teacher, I must look it up.

      Thanks for confirming the part about the adult being non-essential to the action but also having meaning. That’s pretty much how my adult POV character works. He’s an innocent bystander who stumbles into the student drama. What he sees is from a different angle than what the main characters see. I always like looking at songs, poetry, stories from different angles. I like polythematic writing. Did I just invent a word? 🙂 Your advice is very much appreciated!

  4. For fall break, I went to Georgia with one of my friends, and her mother and I got along right off the bat, which was strange for me because I tend not to trust parents typically. However the reason I trusted her so much was because she let me know she had a rough past, similar to mine in a lot of ways. She helped me realize that a lot of adults have a past and not all pasts are perfect. I wouldn’t like a YA novel from an adult’s POV, but it would be interesting to have half of the novel dedicated to a role model open enough to share their past.

    • This info helps. I agree. The story should be the YA’s story, not the adults. But I like the interaction between youth and adult. I think it’s healthy for both generations. I’ve been watching a new show Called The Finder. I think the key word that draws me to the show is quirky. A former Iraqi war veteran with a brain injury returns home with an obsession to find things. He’s joined by Leo, who owns The Ends of the Earth Bar, the safest place on the island. Somehow, Willa Monday, a teen gypsy, finds herself among the two, and she helps Walter find what he’s looking for. The show is a little like Psych. What I really like about the show is the mutual respect among all the characters, regardless of their ages. Willa interests me because of her background–and, well, truthfully, she’s got the coolest clothes. (Yes, even old people like me can admire her style.)

  5. I always enjoy having some sort of parental figure in teenage books. Why? Simply because it makes teenage life more real. While some teens don’t always have a regular adult role in their lives, some do. Because I did, I could always relate. Take Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen for instance. The father is one of the main characters in the book and the tale revolves around the fact that her mother “died” when she was three. Both Catherine and Martha Ann are the primary characters, but their parents help shape the story. Moreover, Sarah Dessen books are very similar. Most if not all have a parental or adult character that is a main role. Even the darkest of teen fiction like Ellen Hopkins books have parents and adults; they just take on a negative roles. To make my point, adults and parents are needed in the books because that is just real life. No teenager goes through life without some sort of adult figure.

    • Thanks. I really appreciate the examples you use. I really want to study Sarah Dessen’s style. I need to run away with a few good books and just read.

  6. I’ve been reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy and I find it a lot more filling in a reading way than I do a lot of the more recent Fantasies. I think because of the tone it’s told in, especially in The Hobbit. Tolkien is telling the story as if he were talking to the reader personally. I love that. I think that if a YA book was written that was told like that yet still had some of the more relatable characters that are in the more recent YA novels it would be super amazing. I like the idea of having adults playing bigger parts in YA novels, it’s sounds really good.

    • Thanks for commenting, Faith. I really feel a strong conviction to use my writing to bridge the gap, but I will really have to work on my craft to succeed. I walk through our school library, and sometimes I run my fingers along the books, wondering what it feels like to have one on the shelf with my name on it. But few of these writers are so far from the bar that Tolkien has set. For me, tone is everything. I like to feel comfortable, cozy, as if I am part of the story. I think when readers feel they are have a personal chat with the narrator, they are more deeply engaged with the story.

  7. I hesitate to comment, because I feel like I’ve always been “old” on the inside…. I’m not sure how much I’m in touch with what YA readers would be drawn to, but I don’t think an adult POV would be a bad thing in a YA novel.

    So many families are so dysfunctional. I think young readers would be drawn to an adult character that was dependable, genuinely caring, kind, patient, discerning. Everyone is searching for family and community.

    • I think all people, regardless of age, need a mentor, someone who can talk like Jesus with skin on. I don’t mean that to be disrespectful. Young people need unconditional love. We all do because we’re imperfect and can’t live up to others’ expectations. It’s nice to have that person close by who listens without judging but who gives firm, faithful advice. It’s good to have someone you can trust. I think young adults seek that. They know their peers don’t have all the answers.

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