Believable Boys with Sundee Frazier

SCBWI Notes IV:

A follow-up session to Mitali Perkins presentation on race was Seattle author Sundee Frazier’s talk “Creating Believable Boys.” Sundee’s session was attended by a good number of men as well as women. On a side note, this year there was a significant increase in men at this year’s conference. With children’s/young adult books being a strong part of the publishing market, could it be that they want a piece of the action? 🙂Sundee told us how her protagonist Brendan in her book Brendan Buckey’s Universe and Everything in It started out as Brenda. She had pulled many of the themes of her book from her own mixed race childhood, but had run into a wall when writing. When she switched the gender and Brenda became Brendan, her character came to life.

When her manuscript drew the criticism that Brendan was “too emotionally articulate for a 10-year old boy” her challenge became writing Brendan as a believable boy.

Sundee then gave us a handout with a title: Anthropological Observations Regarding How Boys Tend to Express Their Emotions (only partially useful, and potentially harmful, to writers of boy characters).

While that caveat clearly designed to ward off criticism of generalizing right at the outset, here are some of the finding of her (heavily annotated) research:

Boys deal with emotion through action, not by talking about their feelings. Boys’ smaller corpus collosum (the nerve fibers that connect the two sides of the brain) added to our cultural taboos leave boys feeling shameful that they even have certain emotions, esp. sadness (crying).

When boys share their feelings, it is more likely to be in a safe environment, often after an event or activity (which allows for processing time), and usually side-by-side (in a car, while washing dishes) vs face-to-face.

Boys are more shame-sensitive. We can more successfully draw out our boy characters if we respond to their actions non-judgmentally.

Boys are capable of tremendous empathy and love; they just express it differently. The common denominator is action. Boys tend to show love more through action than words, which is consistent with how they express their emotions generally.

When revising Brendan, through trial and error, she worked through the process and defined the following guidelines that she uses to write any characters now, boys or girls.

  • Write from the inside out. Journey into your emotional self. Let that emotion find expression in your character. Then observe real boys to add richness to your character’s actions.
  • Access your memories and re-experience your character’s emotion yourself, whether it’s fear, shame, hope, etc. Connect to the emotion and think about the universality and person-ness of the emotion.
  • Listen to music that embodies the emotion of what you are writing that day.

Some of Sundee’s recommended reading:

What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Colman (releasing emotion through action)

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (empathy expressed in safe ways usually considered more “feminine”)

The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo (empathy as mentioned above and an example of a female author drawing out a boy with a secret by responding to him non-judgmentally)

Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond (example of a sensitive caring boy who helps rescue another boy in need)

Craft and/or Psychology/Sociology

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by Davis Bayles and Ted Orland

Story by Robert McKee

The Wonder of Boys: What Parents, Mentors and Educators Can Do to Shape Boys into Exceptional Men by Michael Gurian

Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood by William Pollack

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