Thursday, October 4, 2012

Maturity, perceived age, and development

Perceived age of characters is a tricky thing. Since I'm currently 41, it's been a long time since I was a teenager. My teenage years aren't exactly memories that I cherish, either. My main character Kate starts Disciple at sixteen years old. The story will finish before she turns eighteen -- or not long after, at worst. I do not consider Disciple a YA story, though I don't doubt that teenagers might find it interesting.

Kate has been confronting me with questions like what is "maturity" and how is maturity demonstrated and what is "appropriate" for a given age and level of experience -- partly because she starts out "more mature" due to the cultural expectations put on her, and partly because she goes through so much in the course of the story.

In the course of preparing Part I to publish and revising Part II, I got some whiplash from meeting the (slightly) younger, (much) less experienced version of Kate.

I saw some vintage photos, recently, of child laborers from the turn of the 19th/20th century, and wondered what they were like as people. Were they angry that they had to work, or did they simply accept it as "normal," maybe something they felt obligated to do to help support their parents and siblings. Did they "act out" in reaction to it? Some of them had cigarettes in their mouths; it's entirely possible they were drinking, too. What did "adults" think of that -- did they pull up a stool at the bar and commiserate, or did they shake their heads and dismiss it as childishness?

It's possible some of them were sober, hard-working, kids who never questioned that this was what they wanted. Maybe they welcomed the responsibility of a job and felt it was a validation of their worth.

People come in all flavors, after all, at every age.

Getting back to Disciple, I'm more worried about Kate sounding like a 40-year-old than about her sounding like a 16-year-old. It's my opinion that the maturity level we perceive as "appropriate" for a given age is highly dependent on culture and affluence. But, as has been reported in a variety of (fascinating) places, the teenaged brain is noticeably different from the adult brain, and that needs to be taken into account.

How those difference manifest is heavily shaped by culture and affluence -- which is why I brought up the child labor photos. Compare those kids' lives to a well-off high school grad who's working a part-time summer job because s/he wants to, not needs to. People talk about how kids are in such a hurry to grow up (usually with a shake of their heads). I doubt anyone said that of the child laborers.

This post is already turning into a ramble. In short, I feel comfortable with Kate "sounding" older than 16 because in her culture, she's expected to be married, a mother, and running a household at that age. Due to the story, she's actually responsible for much more than that. And yet, I can't have her acting with all the mature perspective (lol) of a 40-year-old.

What does your character's culture expect of children and teenagers?

See also: Demonstrating maturity


E.J. Wesley said...

VERY well put, L. I host a weekly Twitter chat (9 PM EST every Thursday) called #NALitChat and we talk about 'New Adult' lit, which is basically what comes after YA. It's a burgeoning category for sure, but lots of people (readers and writers alike) are interested in it. (It's also what I'm focusing my writing on at the moment.)

Anyway, that's a really long way of me trying to say we talk about character age a LOT, and I'm going to share this article with the chatters.

L. Blankenship said...

Thanks! I will try to drop by the chat tonight. 9pm is right in the middle of my nightly writing block, but I'm editing Part IV right now so I won't be as mentally tied up as if I were writing.

E.J. Wesley said...

We'd love to have you! Lots of folks pop in and out as they have time, so chatting in between work, etc. is accepted. :-)

Also, good luck with the edits! Been knee deep in them myself, and just shoved the story out the door last night to critters. I feel free this morning! That'll last until the feedback starts coming back, then I'll be a mess for a few days...

Charity Bradford said...

This is always a hard question to answer. I think it comes down to what feels natural for your character and the culture you've built. It sounds like you've taken all of that into consideration, so you should be fine. And so should Kate. ;)

Liz said...

This is why I don't write teenagers. Although, I'm around them all the time, so I should know what they sound like.

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