I’m a woman of a certain age. How the heck can I write the voice of a teenager – especially a teenage boy – with any confidence or believability? To tell you the truth – I’m sort of a chicken when it comes to writing boy voices in my stories. I tend to shy away from boys as main characters, and I’ve come to realize that I might do this because I feel like I have no confidence that I could sound, realistically, like a teenage boy. And why should I? I have very little contact with teenage boys right now in my life…and certainly had very little contact with teenage boys even when I was a teenager. (They were the Other Kids in classes and leaning against lockers in the hallway; they tended to smell like sweat or too much cologne, and I always wanted them to be more like Romeo or Luke Skywalker. Yep. Once again … showing you my high level of geekiness.)
Anyway… this week, I accidentally picked up two novels in a row and now I wish to bow to the superior – and very different – ways in which these authors wrote in believable, honest, and sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious voices of teenage boys.
M.T. Anderson, author of the Octavian Nothing books, wrote Feed (a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Los Angeles Times book prize) in 2002. Here is the concept: In a distant dystopia, Titus is a teenager whose “ability to read, write, and even think for himself has been almost completely obliterated by his “feed,” a transmitter implanted directly into his brain.” (Quote from the back matter on the paperback from Candlewick Press.) Feeds are crucial to the lives of everyone on the planet, transmitting a never-stopping stream of advertising and information, 24 hours a day. But Titus meets Violet, a girl who decides to fight the Feed…
Titus’s voice is short and choppy – using lots of colloquialisms and slang from this future world, but also displaying an almost too intimate view into the brain and thoughts of a teenage boy. It is hard to explain, so I’ll give you some quotes to see if I can help convey the cadence and …. Well, voice … voice in Anderson’s novel.
Page 34, Titus and friends at a dance club on the moon: There were about a million people it seemed, and lights, and the beat was rocking the moon. There was a band hung by their arms and their legs from the ceiling, and there was girders and floating units going up and down, and these meg youch latex ripplechicks dancing on the bar, and there were all these frat guys that were wearing these, unit, they were fuckin’ brag, they were wearing these tachyon shorts so you couldn’t barely look at them, which were $789.99 according to the feed and they were on sale for like $699 at the Zone, and could be shipped to the hotel for an additional $78.95, and that was just one great thing that people were wearing.
See that? Anderson’s long, breathless sentences – his words and thoughts running together without a break? This was early in the story, so the language serves to get the reader into the uninterrupted, random feed that the characters experience every minute. Pretty cool. (The writing, not the feed.)
Page 114, Titus talking to his parents after meeting Violet: I was looking out the window, being sorry, and my mother was like, “What’s wrong?”
I didn’t answer for a while. Finally I said, “Do you think I’m stupid? I mean, am I dumb?”
“You’re a non-traditional learner.”
Smell Factor said, “No he’s not. He’s dumb.”
My mother said, “Is this re: Violet?”
“Come on. Is it re: her? Because she shouldn’t make you feel stupid. That’s not good.”
“Mom, it’s un-re: her, okay?”
“She should be proud of you.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want my mom to think Violet was a snob. Violet wasn’t a snob. I was just dumb.
So Anderson manages to have the insecurities of his main character still become a focus of how he speaks, acts, and interacts with others… I think this is part of what makes this dystopia feel believable. I read through Titus’s thoughts and hear his conversations with his friends and family…and I think this kid sounds real, even if I’m not familiar with his slang.
Anderson’s Feed was fascinating, in a dark, depressing, we-are-all-victims-of-consumerism-and-advertising-and-techonology sort of way. Some of the language took a while to get used to, and the pacing is a bit frantic – but it all serves to tell the story.
Right after finishing Feed, I picked up Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner. I’d heard of this novel from an author at a recent SCBWI conference. She listed it as an excellent example of voice in teen literature and also as one of the funniest YA books she’d read. To that list of criteria, I’d add that it is a fantastic example of a teenage boy’s voice.
The story is written partly in first person traditional narrative, but has sections of the main character’s senior year thesis (a school-assigned memoir) interspersed throughout. Also written in first person, there is subtle language change and tone changes between the more traditional first person narrative and the chapters written by the main character for his assignment. Both are snarky (to say the least), self-deprecating, raunchy, and totally teenager. Shakespeare (the main character) presents a brutally honest – and absolutely hilarious – look at the life of a teenage boy, including his bowel-movement obsessed best friend, his desperate (and sort of pathetic) attempts at talking to girls, his applications to colleges, his popular younger brother and of course -- his driving need to get laid. I laughed out loud throughout most of Spanking Shakespeare, and especially fell in love with the Shakespeare Shapiro and Mr. Wizner, when Shakespeare writes a hilariously inappropriate poem for a girl he likes. This girl reads long books by Russian authors…so Shakespeare decides to impress her with poetry about famous authors with the hopes she’ll let him get a little “closer” to her, if you know what I mean.
I can’t stand it. The whole chapter made me laugh and giggle and snort; I ended up reading it to my husband and chuckling my way through each stanza… How could you not love a character who could write:
Milton himself was a mischievous louse
Whose favorite hobby was to egg
And with whom did Milton engage in
Sometimes Ben Johnson, sometimes John
(There are raunchier verses – lots of constipation and erection references. Hilarious even to a “woman of a certain age”…trust me. I snorted tea out of my nose while reading…)
Shakespeare Shapiro’s voice is honest. No doubt in my mind that I was inside the head of a teenage boy, doing what teenage boys do when they are getting ready to graduate high school.
I’m pretty convinced I’m not going to write any teenage boy characters nearly this honest and believable any time soon. But it is good to have examples waiting in the wings.
Keep reading…and let me know if you have other great examples of voice in YA or MG lit. I’m always on the lookout!
PS – For more on voice in YA literature, check out this great blog post, Evolving Voice in the Young Adult Novel, by Swati Avasthi, author of Split (Random House/Knopf, 2010), which was nominated for the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults award for 2010.