Friday, October 7, 2011

Crafting Realistic Characters

It's been a while since I've updated. I've been on a few informational interviews in the city, and I took a lovely weekend mini-vacation to Philadelphia to see two loves of my life: Katie Corr and Matt Nathanson. Oh, and Champ.

Before taking off on those adventures, though, I read a new YA novel from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's and author Han Nolan, Pregnant Pause. Broke and knowing that whichever YA novel I chose would likely not be free of cost on my Kindle, I was careful in my choice. Pregnant Pause appealed to me because reviewers raved about the very realistic qualities of the characters and the plot. Although we've seen this story a number of times--Elly gets pregnant at 16 and has to figure out how to handle it--Nolan did capture it in a slightly more realistic way.

Another interesting spin of this novel was the pregnancy period it covered. While many plots revolving around teen pregnancy begin with conception, Elly is pregnant from the first page of the novel. Furthermore, many shy away from details of the pregnancy itself, skipping to the birth or the moments after. 90% or so of Nolan's novel focused on the pregnancy itself, how Elly handles herself and her emotions, and her decision-making process.

For the most part, I agree with other reviewers of the novel in the realism it presents in relation to other YA novels on the subject. This was not your average "girl gets pregnant at 16, but everything is okay because her family finally comes around and helps her" story, or even a "girl gets pregnant at 16, but everything is okay because a nice family adopts the baby and said girl can now attend the college of her dreams" story. That being said, I struggled a little bit with certain emotions that seemed to be Nolan's "teenager go-tos" and seemed slightly insincere. The ending also gave me pause (no pun intended, I promise. baha. bahaha).

When I finished Pregnant Pause, I was finally ready to go back to Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone after my week-long hiatus. Finally it seems that I can appreciate heavy subject matter again (in non-YA form)! In a word--YAY!

During several of my long commutes last week as well as train rides to and from Philly, I was honored to have Cutting for Stone to keep me company. What was, at times, a very slow-moving plot heavy with detailed medical procedures and long military descriptions turned out to be a beautiful story full of characters for whom I became incredibly sympathetic.

Now, bear with me for a moment while I compare characters from a "courageous" YA novel to an epic work of literary fiction:

While reading Pregnant Pause, I was on the lookout for real characters. That's what I do while I read any YA novel. I want to make sure that whatever character I'm reading, whatever problem they might be dealing with or mental state they might be in, is real. I truly believe that what young adults are looking for in their reading material is something they can relate to in some way, whether it be as a mirror for something they are already dealing with in their own lives, as a cautionary tale, or as a learning tool for those things they might not feel comfortable discussing aloud. No matter their reason for reading, if the characters aren't real, if they don't act the way a young adult really, truly might if he or she were a thinking, breathing, feeling young human...well, that entire illusion and all the lessons that go along with it are completely shattered. In Pregnant Pause, Nolan kept it pretty real, with a few exceptions (and I always keep in mind that being past the actual YA age, I may just be too critical). But now (forgive me for my YA mini-rant), for my point: Verghase's characters were effortlessly real. Not a single one of the characters in Cutting for Stone, were enough like me for me to really relate at first. Their situations, whether in the medical world, in Ethiopia, or even in New York, were far removed from my own. But these characters were so real, so sympathetic, and so full of life and emotion that I cried with them at their every loss. Their story sat with me for days after I finished the last page. These are the characters I'm looking for in every piece of fiction I read. For that matter, this is the kind of depth of character that some non-fiction pieces I've read have had trouble achieving. I suppose my point here is how important that depth is to me as a reader. But furthermore, as important as I find that truth of character in all fiction, I find it perhaps harder to achieve in YA fiction--and sadly perhaps more important.

Thanks for sticking with me for a longer-than-usual literature musing on this lovely fall morning. Check back later for some delicious fall treats.

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