Holden Caulfield once said: “I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do.”
As a self-described “theatre person,” this Salinger quote lives with me. I think about it every time I attend or perform in a show. And Holden’s got a point. Actors, especially on stage, seldom act like real people. They are too precise and articulate. There is very little small talk in their lives. They tend not to eat. Dialog pops and crackles along so quickly, playwrights are frequently temped to write the dramatic pause (beat) into the repartee.
As Tom Stoppard points out in The Real Thing, the difference between the dialog in a play and conversation in real life is the “thinking time” between lines. While this is true, I don’t blame the actors. They can only be as good as their material.
Clearly – writers are the problem.
The breakneck pace of wit, conflict, and resolution is just as apparent in books. How often is an aggregate lifetime of human cleverness compacted into a 25-word gem that shines at PRECISELY THE RIGHT MOMENT. What about an off-the-cuff exchange that serves up a fatal character flaw, three plot points, and four laugh lines over the course of a page and a half?
These sorts of passages can be examples of excellent writing – but they hardly reflect real life. Life doesn’t conveniently jump-cut from one True Moment to the next. It doesn’t come with danger music or tireless banter. Because life is largely lived on the cutting room floor. The in-betweens. Our lives are crammed full of inner monologues, missed opportunities, and flubbed lines. Waiting rooms. Emails. Driving. A whole lot of nothing, people.
Which is why we need material to READ AND WATCH.
So I arrive at our topic. This week’s posts are about: “Writing Realistic Boys.” The problem is, I don’t much care about writing realistic boys. I know a lot of real boys. I’m told I was once fairly realistic myself. I’m not overly concerned with writing them, because here’s where realism and art have a nasty collision:
When I was 16, I wasn’t a particularly good writer or clear thinker. I did, however, have the advantage of being 16 years old. Authenticity, perfectly in order. Now, at 32, I have a refined sense of craft and broadened understanding of humanity, but – yeah, I’m also 32.
How much should I worry about that?
Does realism demand I cram my 32-year-old observations into the specific vocabulary and voice of a 16-year-old? Dull the edges of the prose, when necessary, to make it feel authentic? More importantly, does my 16-year-old character need to curse and dwell on sex as much as a REAL 16-year-old boy? Because I remember what that’s like. And it’s a book you aren’t likely to finish.
Do I mean all 16 year-old boys are incoherent and depraved? No.
M.T. Anderson makes a strong case that intelligence is the final taboo in young adult fiction – that young people are much more knowledgeable, mature, and articulate than adults give them credit for. I completely agree. But even if they’re not – it doesn’t matter.
Because in fiction, being realistic just isn’t that important. Should we cut the perfect word because we assume a teenager wouldn’t think it? Alternately – should we, as writers, be forced to create an endless cast of contrived geniuses through which we can channel our pithy, 30-year-old observations? Is the future of young adult literature doomed to a sad parade of excusably overarticulate protagonists – the underachieving geniuses, artistic savants, and budding writers?
That’s missing the point – like writing 10-minutes of silence into a play because sometimes people are quiet.
Where realism counts isn’t in pacing or in language. It’s in emotional authenticity. And I write for young adults because the world of the teenager is overflowing with emotion. Most of us have long since been teenagers. But the discoveries in those years, and their associated feelings, take time to understand, and even more time to write. The telling may require more words, spoken at a faster clip, than a realistic 16-year-old would be able to muster, page after page, scene after scene.
But this isn’t life. It’s art.
So use words as well as you can to build me a bridge from your pages and into your mind. Build it more beautiful than real. Make me think. Make me cry. Or lift me out of life’s waiting room and give me someplace more interesting to explore.
And don’t sweat Holden Caulfield’s opinion of realism. It was developed with a little help from a 32-year-old – so I’m sure he’d understand.