Today marked the final morning of lessons for another school year. While many teachers let their students play games or put on a DVD , I interrogated my classes in the name of literary research. The theme: what questions do you regularly ask yourself?
According to the gathering of experts at this past weekend’s Harrogate Crime Writer’s Festival, a good book should start with an interesting question to explore. This, apparently, is the first step in creating a novel. My previous creative strategy was to think up some really cool characters, get readers to care about them, then hurl endless mud pies of trauma in their faces to see what happens. But questions sound like the basis of something more substantial. I can work with questions.
What kind of questions though? I mean, I know the sorts of questions I obsessed about when I was a teenager but that was almost thirty years ago. Do today’s teenagers think about the same sorts of things? Turns out, they do.
Where do I fit into the world? What’s going to happen to me? Who should I look like? Am I good enough? What do others think of me? How do I measure up to other people? Am I liked? What do I have to do to get where I want to be in life? Do all good things have to end? Why don’t I just go kill myself? Will I ever find anyone to like me? Should I really do this thing that so and so wants me to do? Will they like me if I don’t? What right do these people have to tell me what to do anyway? Does all this crap really mean anything?
I found it rather comforting to learn that teenagers have not changed significantly since the eighties. In fact, I suspect they have remained fairly consistent since their invention in the mid-twentieth century. I found it less comforting when I learned that thirteen-year-old girls still feel the need to “act dumb” to entice boys. Grim.
These same thirteen-year-old girls had very definite ideas about the kind of boy their stupidity should attract. While there are no real surprises on this list, I did learn a new term or two. Again, as an adult writer of YA fiction I found it interesting to realise that teens never change.
Success Criteria for a Fictional YA Romantic Hero
(as decided by the girls of 8H1D1)
1) Tall. Tall? Apparently yes. This was unanimous. Thirteen-year-old girls in the 21st century still like to “feel protected”. So, you still got some work to do there, Buffy.
2) Funny. That’s better. This was also unanimous and is backed up by Caitlin Moran who firmly believes that “if, after fifty years of sitcoms on television, you have not learned at least a few good jokes then you are fairly useless as a bloke.”
3) Nice hair. Naturally I asked them to qualify what they meant by “nice hair”. Very short, neat hair is not acceptable. It should be wavy, a bit long and slightly floppy. But only if that suits the boy. These girls then proceeded to point out three boys in their class with long hair who were not suitable.
4) A bit naughty. Smartly uniformed boys who never get told off in lessons, always turn in homework and open doors for their mums are absolutely off the menu. One young lady described her dream boy as “rough and ready”. Aside from the amount of time these boys spend standing outside the Head Teacher’s Office, a drool worthy hottie should push the boundaries of school uniform: black jeans instead of trousers, tie worn off to the side, blazer always bundled into a bag.
5) Cheekbones. This surprised me, as it seems like such a subtle detail of appearance for teenage girls to focus on. They were in universal agreement however. A nicely sculpted pair of cheekbones is essential.
6) Not too hairy. This is a bit of a wasted criteria element because, as I pointed out to them, there is little danger of too much hairy on a teenage boy.
7) A good “V-line”. A what? Apparently the “V-Line” is a side-effect of a well-formed six-pack. The handy visual aid to the right shows in vivid detail what the v-line points to. Who knew thirteen-year-old girls were so saucy?
So now, thanks to my Breaktime Lads and the Ladies of 8H1D1 I have questions to consider for my latest novel and a blueprint for Lewis Breeze, my fanciable anti-hero. In terms of Floretta Deliverance Hughes, I am left with three interesting questions to explore. What happens when a girl who believes she’d be better off dead accidentally succeeds then returns to haunt the world she hated? Another character Rosie Lightowler, knows exactly where life is taking her, but what happens when tragic circumstances force her to completely re-think her place in the world? For Lewis Breeze, a boy who has made not giving a toss his entire persona, can he find meaning and purpose to his life?
All of these characters, in different ways, will ask: “Why don’t I just kill myself?” Ultimately this question is about finding something to live for–someone or something to live for and fight for and die for. Maybe the real question then is: “What would you die for?” Or possibly even: “How do you know you’ve found something worth living for?”