Going against "conventional wisdom"

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ChuckstersGirl
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Going against "conventional wisdom"

Postby ChuckstersGirl » Tue Jun 28, 2016 9:33 am

Hello! I've finished a first draft of a YA novel, and so far I have not described my MC. She has an older brother who is 15, and a younger brother who is 9. That would make her anywhere between 10 and 14 but so far I haven't felt the need to commit her to an age. I also have not described her physically, she could be any race, any build, etc. It just hasn't been germane to the story, in my opinion. This goes against everything I've read about writing YA, but what I want to do is allow the reader to visualize the MC any way they want. My early experience with reading novels was Nancy Drew, and I was always aware that she looked nothing like me, and that was a little disappointing.
If there are other YA novelists here, did you describe your MC? Did you do so because it was important to the story, or because "they" said so?
Just wondering. Thanks for any responses.

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Carly Berg
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Re: Going against "conventional wisdom"

Postby Carly Berg » Tue Jun 28, 2016 10:23 am

I like an introduction to the MC right away. Otherwise, rather than picturing them any way I want to, I'll just be annoyed to not know who I'm dealing with.

However, the typical overdone way of describing the MC is also annoying- Hair and eye color, height and weight. That tells me nothing at all about their personality so it's forgettable and boring. (additional minus points for making the eyes colors that don't appear in nature and thinking it's clever!)

Sorry. I shouldn't post before I've had my coffee. Anyway, with YA, it's important to know the MC's age because readers tend to read up from their age anyway so a ten and fourteen-year-old protagonist would likely appeal to different aged readers. There's also quite a bit of difference between a ten-year-old and a fourteen-year-old so if they could be interchangeable, I'd suspect the characterization wasn't done well. If no race is mentioned, I'd guess readers will assume she's White, in our society.

I'd let the reader in on her age at the beginning, but then feel free to use other descriptors that are more significant to her character than just the looking-in-a-mirror stuff. Also, I don't think this is all because some dictator is making us do stupid things. Readers just want an introduction to the character. Them's my two coppers. Hope it helps.
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shadowwalker
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Re: Going against "conventional wisdom"

Postby shadowwalker » Tue Jun 28, 2016 10:48 am

I don't know if there are description conventions for YA, but in "adult" fiction, I prefer as little character description as possible (ie, only if it's actually important to the story). In this case, based on my reading from younger days, I would say knowing the range only would be acceptable - it allows readers within that same range to set her age at the one that best lets them identify with the character.
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cynicalwanderer
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Re: Going against "conventional wisdom"

Postby cynicalwanderer » Tue Jun 28, 2016 10:53 am

Hmm, I don't think there's any hard and fast rules on this topic. My personal observation would be that the amount of description used for the narrator character is often based on how integral their actions/personalities are to the plot.

As an example of this, think of Watson from the Sherlock Holmes stories. While we do get a small amount of description about Watson's personality and lifestyle, the bulk of the focus is on Holmes himself, as Watson's main function in those stories is to be a straight-man observer and a mostly passive sounding board for Holmes to bounce off. Occasionally he gets in on the action, but for the most part Doyle doesn't give him any more focus than necessary. Contrast that to the Nero Wolfe novels (which borrow from the Sherlock Holmes template) in which Archie Goodwin shows a lot more personality in his narration and takes on a much more leading role in the action. Even then, however, other than his witty banter, we don't really get much of a physical picture of him either - he's once again left mostly up to the reader to imagine - whereas Wolfe's obesity and his various habits are described in extensive detail.

Anyway those are just some things I've noticed over the years. There's no right or wrong answer. Incidentally, in video games, there is a long-standing debate about whether it's more immersive to have the player character in first person shooters speak or not speak, which is a similar issue here. Games like Half-Life have silent protagonists, and the theory there is it allows the player to feel more identified with the char because there's no voice suddenly popping up that's different to their expectations, and so nothing to jar those expectations. But there's plenty of points on the other side of that argument as well. Food for thought.
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Re: Going against "conventional wisdom"

Postby Quoyle » Tue Jun 28, 2016 8:13 pm

Ten to twelve year-olds are considered middle grade, not young adult, so it's not a matter of wisdom, conventional or otherwise, but of interests. For example, if the MC is obsessing about make-up, clothes and the good-looking captain of the baseball team, the genre would be YA, age 13-18. Middle graders are into friends, sports, school activities etc. Language and sentence structure is different for MG/YA too.

One doesn't have to give physical descriptions, unless Jane's long legs, or Sarah's short but wiry frame, add to the story. Their actions and dialogue should clue the reader in to their character. Tomboy, daredevil Jolene, always pushing the boundaries, or timid, shy Jessica.

Suggest you read some MG books and some Y/A to find out where your novel fits best.

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Re: Going against "conventional wisdom"

Postby ChuckstersGirl » Wed Jun 29, 2016 8:56 am

I have lined up 3 beta readers in my target audience age range, and given each of them a copy. I've asked them for some feedback, completely open-ended, and I'll be interested to see if any of them make reference to the lack of description.

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Re: Going against "conventional wisdom"

Postby ChuckstersGirl » Thu Jun 30, 2016 10:30 am

My first beta reader actually did some editing for me! She also told me the story starts out a little slow, so I'll have to punch up the first 10 pages. She made no reference to the lack of age or physical description information. She's 13, so I would think she'd be sensitive to the whole "reading down" situation.
My MC has a lot of freedom to come and go, so she may "read" older.

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Re: Going against "conventional wisdom"

Postby James A. Ritchie » Mon Jul 11, 2016 11:49 am

You don't have to describe every detail of character, but there has to be enough detail for readers to see that character. Otherwise, it just won't work. Detail matters, and there's a phrase for writers who don't use enough description. They're called "unpublished writers". Most of them stay that way.

But I can tell you exactly how much detail, how much description you should use. Read two or three novels by your favorite writer who writes the same kind of fiction. Read two or three other writers in that genre. If you love reading those writers, that's how much detail and description you should use.

Successful writers are almost always those who write what they would love to read if someone else wrote it. Even most successful minimalist writers use a good deal of detail. Hemingway is a good example. He's about as minimalist as they come, yet some of his scenes are beautiful, and it's because of the detail he uses. Writing is a visual media, and if readers can't see the setting, can't see the characters, your story is going to fail. Detail is what allows readers to see these things.

Write detail, description, characterization, pace, flow, mood and tone, etc. the way your top two or three favorite writers do, and you'll have exactly the wright amount of detail.

As someone once told me, writing advice is often bad. It's misunderstood, it's taken out of context, or it isn't what a writer actually does. But the writing never lies. Many writers say new writers should use very little detail, very little description, but when you read their stories you find tons of great description, and a thousand little details that brings everything to life.

Write the way your favorite writers write, not the way they, or anyone else, says you should write.

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Re: Going against "conventional wisdom"

Postby JohnatWrM » Wed Jul 13, 2016 4:03 am

I like the idea of leaving of leaving the description f a character up to the imagination of the reader, but as others hve said that's not necessarily what the reader wants. You could be vague in how you describe her, giving enough to give the reader a starting point for their imagination and then they can finish it up as and how they like it.

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shadowwalker
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Re: Going against "conventional wisdom"

Postby shadowwalker » Wed Jul 13, 2016 8:15 am

Thinking about it, I believe my objection to most character descriptions is that it's Tell Tell Tell. Hair and eye color aside (who the heck cares, really), why tell me a guy has huge muscles? Instead, show me how he holds back when wrestling with his teenage son, or how easily he carries a heavy suitcase. Character description so easily becomes a cesspool of lazy writing - stay above that and you can give the reader so much more than "brilliant blue eyes".
"It seems rather like wanting to be ... a writer, rather than wanting to write. It should be a by-product, not a thing in itself. Otherwise, it's just an ego trip." - Roger Zelazny

It's really not that hard. Just tell me a story.

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