A theme that has emerged in recent reviews of Abendau’s Legacy (and builds on those of Inish Carraig) is how I use children’s voices in what is, essentially, a trilogy targeted for adults.
‘His (Kare’s) children are the real focus, and, whether they like it or not, are crucial plot-drivers’ – Bryan Wigmore
It surprised me, not that it was being mentioned, but that it had only become noticeable in book three.
Children have been the focus of Abendau from the start. Ealyn risks madness to save his, in the opening scene. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a theme – but it is a persistent story driver. And it’s not just one-way (because that would be weak storytelling and unrealistic). The kids worry about the adults, and each other, and their place in the great scheme of things.
‘It’s a brave decision to have characters so young and important – and it works’ – Pete Long.
I remember being very, very worried about opening Abendau’s Heir on a spaceship with an adult and two kids. For me, though, it felt logical. I simply do not see how strict genre restrictions on age are helpful to the readers, writers, or give a true understanding of what makes us tick as people.
I rail against the notion that all those voices can’t be merged together in one cohesive story. I share my house with young people. I’ve known them as babies, as toddlers, as young girls, and as teens.
I spend time with my mum – I’m as likely to be found shopping with her as anyone my own age. I have friends my own age to chat to, and friends who are older, and some who are younger.
My world is not a fixed narrative of one type of voice – and nor do I want my fictional work to be.
Which means the notion of being brave doesn’t come into it, writing-wise (although if I was writing to sell a blockbuster book, it would be easier if I could stop the bad habit of mixing all my ages up). For me, it is logical. Abendau is a big, sprawling tale about people. As reviewers have mentioned, it’s not about a world, or pitched battles, or jaw-droppingly clever politics – although all those are in it – it’s about people. A family crossing generations – as yours does, and mine, whatever its make up of people, ages and beliefs.
When such an approach is taken, it changes the importance of young people to the story. Make no mistake, in my house a change to the household routine, to the needs and requirements, to the culture, if you like, is driven as much by my children’s voices, as is it the adults’.
In the interest of being useful, then, I listed some of the things I do to make the children and adults have parity.
1. Our place in the world.
In my experience, young people are not that much different from adults. So, when Bryan went on to say that the children’s characterisation is ‘every bit as compelling as their parents’ that is how it should be. Just because language may be less mature, or beliefs less fixed, does not mean a young person should be less formed, or real, than an adult. The age and stage they are at is representative of a person, not a cardboard character used only to drive the plot.
The trick, then, is – as with an adult character – being able to ask how that person – not that child, or that teenager, but that person – would react in that situation. YA writers do it all the time for teens, and adult writers for adults, and it is exactly the same process. Empathy, if you like.
There are things I don’t know about my kids – I hope! – but I am aware when they’re with their friends there is a different language spoken than with me.
Similarly, when I’m with my husband or best mate, sans kids, we talk about things, and in a manner, that we never would in mixed company. And with my mother, or aunts and uncles, it’s different again.
What I struggle to identify is which of those voices is the real me? I’d argue that none of them definitively are, and each of them is.
To capture cross-generational relationships, we need to allow our characters space to be the person they are, at that time. It’s not a case of putting a child into an adult situation, but instead capturing the persona that is that young person, in that situation.
It’s one of the things that makes some of the great child-characters so memorable. In To Kill a Mockingbird, it is Scout’s variant and honest relationships with a range of characters that helps to make the book work on a complex level. Not just Atticus, who comes alive through her, but her brother, her neighbours, the whole community. She is a shifting, changing, alive character, at once a child and then challenged beyond her years. Huck Finn, too, captures that essence of being both himself and what he must conform to and it is, for me, what makes him the more enduring character than the rather more conventional Tom Sawyer, who has less room to adapt and grow and interact with a range of people.
4. Character arcs
When writing Young adult books there is often a focus on growing up, finding one’s self – and that growing up often takes place away from the parents. It’s a great genre, I love YA, and I think it gives important space for young people to reflect and grow. But in a wider book those arcs may not carry the same focus.
That’s not to say they aren’t there, nor that they shouldn’t be. Ian McDonald’s Luna mixes adult and children, teenager and elderly voices, seamlessly. He deals with young people breaking free, with older people facing their own mortality, with the juggling that comes from being in the middle of many generations, with variant needs, beautifully. Another of my favourite books, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, mixes generations gracefully and without forcing it.
The conventional YA arcs – and wider story arcs – are there, but they are not the focus of the plot. For me – and only me – that is a natural way to immerse myself in a story, that these themes become part of the wider whole, and complement each other. Because to come to know ourselves, we must know others, too.
To do that, including the voices and focus of more than one generation makes for a very different, and often rewarding, reading experience.