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.

Character driven

J. T. Ellison kills people for a living. When she showed up to dinner one night at a nice restaurant and saw her victim alive and well across the room, she freaked out. Wouldn’t you?

J.T. Ellison is a writer, specializing in thrillers, and when she creates a character, she scans the Nashville society sections of the local magazines and papers to find the perfect victim. She just happened to run into one of those victims in real life—a person who was once just a face on newsprint. JT supplied the rest of the details from the depths of her imagination..

Oooooh, what fun!

Writers make the story real for us when they make the characters real to them. Sometimes writers need a visual prompt before they can imagine a character’s personality, predict their actions, know their tastes, feel their pain.

Some writers are plot driven, but I think I’m character driven. Soon after I read The Outsiders as a kid and fell in love with Soda Pop Curtis, I created my own character. He never appeared in any of my stories I wrote as a teen, and he wasn’t an imaginary childhood friend. But whenever I daydreamed, I imagined this person. Today that character is still very real to me. The perfect character. Maybe he’s just waiting for his story to be written.

When I first started my writing venture, I attended one of J. T.’s writing workshops, sponsored by the Tennessee Writers Alliance, and was giddy at the thought of creating my own character.

I wanted to try J. T. Ellison’s technique of building my character around a real person. Like I don’t do that anyway. I always write about people I know—I just don’t tell them. Taylor Swift and I have something in common. She writes about the bad ones, but I write about the good.

I considered perusing the society sections of the local papers, but we don’t have a society section. Too small town. Instead I trolled Facebook and MySpace and gawked at people I didn’t know. That just seemed too weird.

I even considered filling out a dating match for one of my male characters to see what type of girl would be interested in him. But I thought better of it. What if the real live girl thought she had found the match she had waited for all her life—only to find out it could never be?

Nooooo! That’s not my kind of story. My stories have happy endings. As the writer, I’m in control, so I can make it happen, at least in fiction.

Now that I’ve written this, I’m beginning to think I sound a bit deranged like one of those “characters” on Criminal Minds. Eeek. I hope profilers don’t read my blog and think I’m a serial killer. (It wasn’t even my idea to pull Tony the Tiger from the frosted flakes box. But that’s another story.)

I admire writers who create real characters. If I had to pick one of my favorite masters of character creation in addition to J. T., my choice would be Tyler Perry. The man’s a genius.

All of his characters evoke an emotion, but his Madea character is my favorite. Forever the hopeless romantic, I combine love and comedy. So does Perry, but Perry also uses his very real characters to unleash a profound message. He makes us laugh while, at the same time, makes us look dead in the eyes of truth.

That’s why Perry is one of my favorites. His characters are multi-dimensional. I feel as though I actually know them. They have an emotional impact on me.

What character is your favorite and why? What makes that character real to you?

For more information about J. T. Ellison, click on the book jackets to visit her website. You can also see her in person during the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville October 14-16.

Cooler than the flip side of my pillow

All right, class. School is back in session. I have to go to bed at reasonable hour tonight. No staying up until 4 a.m., no sleeping in until noon. So, I’m going to make you do a little work for a change. I’ve got a little assignment in creativity for you. I believe in catering to the individual, so I’ll let you choose from three opportunities to express yourself.

  1.  Imagine you are the star of your own show, sitcom, drama, romantic comedy, action-adventure. You get the picture. Now imagine you are in control of the soundtrack. What music would play in the background of your life?
  2. Not comfortable talking about you? All right then. Many of you are involved in your own writing projects. Tell us a little bit about your characters and the music that fits their lives.
  3. Maybe there is a song that takes you back to a certain time, just as Kenny Chesney sings in “I Go Back.” What song holds a special meaning for you? Tell us why.

While you’re at it, add a link to your blog if you like.  Share your talent!

There is nothing that motivates me more than music. In fact, much of my book was dreamed up on road trips with Kenny as I rode shotgun, listening to either country at the Big 98 WSIX or the Rock 105.9, depending on my mood. I like a song that communicates feeling as well as story. I think Taylor Swift does an amazing job of connecting with her audience. She adds that third dimension of imagery, in addition to visual and auditory. She really makes the listener FEEL the emotion.

Okay, I’ll admit it, there’s a minor character in one of her videos that inspired a minor character in my book. I won’t say which one. But her song “Fearless” could easily serve as a theme song for my female lead character, Megan, although I wouldn’t describe Megan as a country music fan. She’s more of an eclectic music fan, focusing primarily on music with a positive message that reflects her Christian beliefs. TJ, the male lead, is a hip hop fan.  Plus, he likes the blues, thanks to his Memphis roots. What do I know about hip hop? Nothing. If I had to choose a song for TJ, I’d choose “Smile” by Uncle Kracker even though TJ is definitely NOT a country music fan. TJ is just the type of guy who would tell the girl of his dreams that she’s “cooler than the flip side” of his pillow.  Yeah, that’s right. TJ possesses the same quirkiness that serves as the backbeat to this song.

It’s too bad that dreams rarely come true over night. If a movie were made of my book, I serendipitously discovered a song that coincidentally complements the theme of my story. If you get a chance, take a moment to listen to the song, not for the sake of my thoughts, but rather for the chance to hear a truly inspiring song with a great message. (Be sure to click on “The Edge.”)


So, what are you waiting on? Get to work. Chop, chop.

PS—EDGERS, check your Facebook messages.