About a Boy: Crossing the Gender and Morality Lines

They say you should write what you know. Though I grew up with brothers, a father, and many uncles, and have had a number of guy friends over the years, I don’t pretend to know how guys think. Half the time I looked at my brothers as alien life forms when we were growing up. (Okay, yes. They felt the same way about me.) So whenever I have authored or coauthored a nonfiction book for boys or with boys as the main characters, I have had to do some research.

African-American-school-children

I’ve mentioned before that I’m writing a middle grade novel. Framing the personality of one character, a boy who makes life miserable for my female main character, has proved challenging. I don’t want to strike the wrong note with this kid—i.e., making him a one-dimensional bully. We’ve seen plenty of those, haven’t we?

Some writers suggested using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to help shape a character’s personality. I took the test as if I were my character and gleaned the ESTP designation—“Extraverted Sensing Thinking Perceiving (Extraverted Sensing with Introverted Thinking)” according to the Personality Page website. If you follow this blog at all, you might remember that I wrote a post on how I felt about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator awhile ago. (Click here for that post.) So I don’t have to tell you that the ESTP designation didn’t really help me understand my character any better. (Well, I guess I just told you.) The results felt too much like an armature without clay or the blueprint for a robot. Please don’t take offense if you swear by Myers-Briggs. Using this personality scale simply didn’t work as a character builder for me.

While I realize that a character is empty until I fill him or her with whatever personality I can provide, I needed my character to go “off the grid” a bit—to have less of a “ready-made” personality. In that way, he would feel more “alive” to me.

Char_25546 Americana_Scarecrow_(516752575)

Not this or this . . .

teen-boy-listening-to-music Sad_Latin_Teen_Male

. . . but this. Real. Alive.

I started by mining my memories for interactions with my brothers, male cousins, friends at school, enemies at school (like boys I’d fought in middle school), and boys in the neighborhood who were just acquaintances. Of course, back in the day, we didn’t have texting, social media, group videogame play, and other ways of communicating that kids today have. But our interactions had some similarities with those today: hanging out in parks; playing sports together; working on theatrical productions; serving on projects; being bullied.

That’s why I’m glad I have kids in my life: nephews; the children of friends; kids I’ve taught in Sunday school. They share their experiences with me even as we talk about videogames, movies, books, etc. For example, I once talked to a kid for over an hour about every Zelda game ever made. Because of that conversation, he felt he could trust me enough to tell me his worries about school.

ZeldaWallpaper800

Other than the fact that they annoy their parents and siblings from time to time, the kids I talk to are basically nice kids who are not the bullying types. But in some ways, that suits my purpose. They help me to remember that sometimes people show different faces to different people. A kid who bullies others at school might not be thought of as a bully at home, especially if he’s nice to his grandparents and always takes out the trash.

As I continued to research, I cast my net wider: listening to kids in public places like malls, movie theaters, and museums. But you can see the limits of that tactic already. I run the risk of looking stalkerish. Yet watching them throw tantrums, laugh loudly and disruptively, and behave like, well, normal, has been helpful.

So imagination has to bridge the gap. (You knew I’d get to that eventually.) Imagination, free writing scenes that will never appear in the book, and soliciting feedback from beta readers all help to put clay on my character’s armature. The beta readers (which include some of the guys I mentioned in the first paragraph) are especially helpful, because they point out clichés and other blind spots.

betta_fish2 betta-fish

Not the betas I mean.

But in the end, it all comes down to spending time in the skin of my character, even when he behaves unpleasantly. I don’t have to agree with his actions. I just have to make them plausible. Going beyond the stereotype helps me remind readers that everyone is more than what he or she appears to be on the surface.

What’s the most challenging aspect for you about writing a character who is the total opposite of you?

Wooden art figure from polyvore.com. Robot from I, Robot found at irobot.wikia.com. Tween boys from howtoparentateen.wordpress.com, thehabarinetwork.com, and thelipkinsgroup.com. Bettas from worldofcutepets.blogspot.com and life.umd.edu. Scarecrow from commons.wikimedia.org. Link from dan-dare.org.

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35 thoughts on “About a Boy: Crossing the Gender and Morality Lines

  1. I just build characters from the ground up and go with the flow. Might be easier for non-Earth-based fiction. I’ve tried to use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, but I keep finding that it doesn’t give me enough. Also, I see that a lot of people use the results as a crutch or an excuse for their behavior. Kind of turns me off to the whole thing. People watching and talking seems to be the best way to go. Even if it’s on-line, but one has to remember that many people tend to be on their worst behavior when on the Internet.

  2. I’ve never benefited by using tests such as Myers-Briggs. I think talking with people, as you do with the kids, L. Marie, is the best approach. I love to write a character who is completely opposite of me, that’s when I can let my imagination soar.

  3. My second novel has a 15-year-old boy as one of the main characters. Luckily, when I wrote it, my oldest was 15, and he served as a beta reader for me to make sure I got the nuances right. He was so helpful. Plus, having two sons and growing up best friends with my brother closes that gender gap for me too.

  4. I think building a character like this is pretty subjective. You have put together your character from experiences you’ve had with people in this group, much like I put together a 9-year-old girl from my own experiences with one specific girl. Some people will find these portrayals true and others won’t, depending upon their experiences. I’m rambling, because I’m exhausted. I mostly missed you and wanted to catch up with your words and say hi. But you always give me something about which to think. 🙂

    • Miss you too. Will write soon. 🙂
      I agree that characterization can seem subjective. It all boils down to whether or not someone is engaged with the story. 🙂

  5. I definitely find that the more time I spend with a character, the more I get inside their heads. That’s the single most useful thing, I think, when it comes to building a character: things like the Myers Brigg can only give you a ‘flat’ overview of the characther — in my opinion anyway.

  6. I try using the some of the quirks I see in people around me to build my characters. But, I think creating a young boy who bullies the protagonist would be difficult for me. Sort of on the same topic; I remember a woman’s story in one of my writing classes. She had the female protagonist do something. Most of the women thought it was out of character, most of the men disagreed. Always stuck with me, not sure why. 🙂

  7. It seems as though you’re doing all the right things. I think your Beta readers will help make your character very real.

    I find writing about male characters difficult because I think like a woman 🙂 I usually have to base the character on someone I know to pull it off. Then I find a man to veto my writing.

    All the best with your book!

  8. With my current Fish story, I probably bit off more than I can chew: seven-year-old girls and late-twenties women are pretty far from my daily experience, but the mind wants to write what the mind wants to write.

    It sounds like your position and interests give you amazing insight to younger characters. If you ever want an opinion, don’t hesitate to reach out as I was a young boy once upon a time. 😉

  9. It’s great that you can chat with the kids around you to gain some insights. I think the key thing is to be able to see the motivations for the actions from a kid’s point of view, which can be very different from an adult’s. That’s so hard when you are all grown up! I know I have learned a lot from my own son – things I had forgotten, and things I never experienced. All the best to you as you develop your character!

    • So true, Sue. I wind up having to change scenes if a character seems too wise. There were too many times when I was a kid that I thought dangerous or stupid ideas were great ideas!

  10. That red beta fish blows my mind. There’s really a fish like that?

    I guess the most challenging aspect of writing from the POV of a character who is the opposite of myself is having the courage to do it in the first place. It took me a long time to dare to write my novel Tiger Tail Soup from a Chinese POV. I didn’t know it was possible until I got started. Then one thing led to another. I researched the situation she had to live through. I made a few basic assumptions about her personality. And then, imagining her in those situations, it became clear how she would act.

    I’ve never had a male protagonist. And right now it seems impossible that I could do a good job of it. But I suppose that once I decided to have a male main character, I’d find a way.

    • Yes. I had a betta, but not one that color. It was sparkling pink. It used to belong to a first-grade classroom. The students named the fish Sparkly Rose.

      It all comes down to character. If you have a male character that really speaks to you, you’ll write his story.

  11. I can see how that would be a challenge, Linda. To get in the mind of a young boy is no easy feat! I am glad you have real life examples of ‘nice’ kids to research. You could always work as a substitute at your local middle school for a day – that would give you plenty of material! 🙂

  12. I do a lot of “Honey, does this sound right?” I’m still not sure with writing kids, though. At least not in novels for adults. It’s easy enough to write a children’s story about a realistickish kid because I’m already in that mindset and they’re short, but writing a kid from an adult POV is a little more challenging to me.

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