Today, I asked my friend (and fellow writer and YA Confidential blogger) Copil to guest post with some insight regarding real vs fictional teens.
So settle in, relax, and whatever you do, DON'T DRINK ANYTHING WHILE YOU READ THIS.
(Unless you're ready to spit it out/have it shoot from your nose.)
(Seriously. Don't say I didn't warn you.)
Hi, Sara, thanks for having me!
Wow, look at this place! I like what you've done with the drapes! Lemme just move this stuff and—oh, shit! I hope that wasn't expensive!
Here's my overmonth bag (it's like an overnight bag only with an extra change of underwear and some Mentos).
Huh? Oh, just marking my territory. Didn't even realize I was doing it. Just habit, I guess.
So. We're here to talk about real teens (like me and my bros about a million years ago) vs. imaginary teens (like the ones you find in a book).
Here's my take. Imaginary teens are better.
Well that was quick. Listen, you can just cut me that per diem check and I'll find my own way to the snacks.
What? Oh fine. I'll explain.
Let's see. . .okay, let me put it this way. When you go to a horror movie, you don't go in expecting to see reasonable people responding to reasonable situations in reasonable ways.
In retrospect, you should not have sublet the basement to the Manson Family.
True story: One time I was playing a fierce game of Balderdash with some high school bros when we heard the front door open and assumed it was our buddy Tub-a-Lard (not his real name) who was always late. Heavy footfalls confirmed Tubby was on the stairs leading up to the living room. We all turned in unison to greet him.
Guess what happened next.
Not a goddamn thing.
The footsteps stopped and no one showed up at the top of the stairs. We waited a few seconds as our youthful enthusiasm turned to cold dread.
Who the %$#! was on the stairs?
Now. If we were teen characters in a fiction novel (which, I think we can all agree, is the best kind), what do you suppose would happen?
Here are the top five most likely scenarios:
1. We'd Ro-Sham-Bo for who gets to investigate. This would continue as our numbers dwindled and no one returned.
2. A magical elephant named Colombo would pick us up with his trunk and show us how our lives would be different (and chock full of jail time) if we'd never met one another
3. We'd go to the stairs and get sucked through a portal to Sanguinarius where handsome Normals like us are considered monsters by the homely vampires who live there
4. One of my buds would sheepishly explain that now was as good a time as any to tell us he had killed a hobo (who, in retrospect, was probably a witch) and buried him in the front yard not twenty minutes ago
5. A charming but insane surgeon would appear at the top of the stairs with a bag full of medical equipment and a one-slide PowerPoint:
Bro? This is bad, bro.
But none of that happened because we're not book characters. Here's what happened instead:
One guy grabbed the phone and dialed 9 and 1 and had his hand poised over the 1, ready to dial it again and summon help. Two guys went to the window and looked out to confirm the door we thought we heard open was actually still closed. Three of us, armed with a kitchen knife, a metal chin-up bar and a taper candle (seriously, Eduardo, you're useless in these situations), cautiously approached the stairs and looked down.
Nuthin'. Then we checked the whole house, made sure all the doors were locked, located Tub-a-Lard and confirmed he wasn't messing with us and then went back to our game of Balderdash.
And our ghostly visitor? Most likely a combination of cheap eighties era housing standards and a strong, steady wind conspired to make us all think we'd heard something we hadn't.
Our merry little band didn't always respond so maturely to the situation at hand (which is why three of us are banned from Las Animas County in Eastern Colorado). But generally we didn't make a habit out of running in where angels feared to tread. We left that sort of shennanigans to faux teenagers who can respawn by simply turning back to page one.
The point is, people talk about making stories more realistic and writing characters that are just like people you know. But is that really what we want? Real people, by and large, are fairly reasonable and behave relatively predictably. We all know the outliers, of course, but we know them because they behave out of the norm. No one goes around crowing about that guy who did that thing that everyone else does.
There goes Toby. Thinks his guano don't stink.
Yes, your characters should probably respond in a realistic fashion. But the threshold for realism should be based on the world you've created, not the one you live in. Do you really want your literary characters subject to the DSM-IV and American criminal law? Of course not. Most of your favorite characters would either be committed to mental institutions or be doing hard time in a state pen.
· Romeo Montague: Subject to a restraining order, put on probation and court-ordered to complete anger management courses.
· Albus Dumbledore: Convinces Gellert Grindelwald to abandon his dark ways, makes him an honest wizard, invests in a kosher juice bar near their West Hollywood bungalow and is honored every October as Queen of the Halloween Parade.
· Bella Swan: Bella's dad calls in the CDC, Edward is quarantined, Jacob is reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park where he helps reinvigorate the wolf population, and Arthur, a nice young boy who's had a crush on Bella since she got to town, finally gets the courage to ask her out, giving her a reason to !@#$ing smile already!
· President Snow: Overthrown by a UN backed resistance movement, flees to the Northern wilds, convoy destroyed by Predator drones, captured by rebel soldiers and tried in the Hague for crimes against humanity.
See what I mean? Realism is fine and there are plenty of real behaviors that can be the basis for your characters' actions. But don't mistake realism for interestingism (Balderdash word meaning “stuff worth reading”).
Let me put it another way. You know that memoir you've been working on because your friends told you your life would make an interesting self-published book?
Spoiler Alert: your friends lied. What they meant was that your life would make an interesting story if you cut out all the true stuff and, you know, made some shit up.
So the next time someone says your story lacks realism, just nod knowingly and say, “Thanks, muchacho.” Pull a gold coin from under the sarape you're wearing and flip it onto the bar. Then walk out as if pushing aside double saloon doors and disappear into the night.
Who do you think they're gonna remember? You? Or the hundreds of boring patrons who pass through that IHOP every night?
That's right. You.
Well, my work here is done.
Buenas noches, seňorita Sara! And thanks again for the chance to talk to your imaginary friends!