My male friends know they’re about to be asked a really random question when I approach them with this opener.
“Pretend you’re a guy,” I said to a friend once. “If your best friend liked your sister…”
“Pretend you’re a guy,” I said another time. “If you liked this girl and she totally friend-zoned you…”
I think if I approached people who didn’t know me, I’d probably get some awkward looks. Some may even run from me. But fortunately (or perhaps not), my friends know that I’m a bit of an eccentric and like to humor me.
There are times when I’m writing that I need to check my characters. More specifically, I need to check their motivation. And while I can speak somewhat authoritatively about how a 16-year-old girl might respond to something, I’m unashamed to admit I have no idea what goes on in the male adolescent mind. I mean, I guess I can speculate like I did when I 16, but then my male characters would be ridiculously unrealistic.
So I ask.
I’m an equal-opportunity stupid question asker, though. I’m completely aware that I am clueless, and even worse, I’m a couple of years decades removed from my characters. So then I have to ask even more inane questions to make sure I’ve captured the mindset. But those conversations can be aggravating.
“Pretend you’re in high school,” I said one day to the intern at work. (She’s all of 22 years old.)
“Um, that was a while ago, but, okay.”
I fought the urge to beat her on the head with my notebook but may have still rolled my eyes. (Oddly, it’s less annoying when someone who is 27 years old says that, by the way, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’ll accept 10-ish years as “a while” but not five.)
Because I like to write character-driven stories (which is another way of saying I really just like to think up characters, throw them into a setting, and see what they do), pretending is everything. How else can I draw the reader into my imaginary playground if I don’t pretend first?
It’s not just for Young Adult books. You can do it for any character, any age, any gender, any socio-economic class. Don’t believe me? Try it. The next time you get stuck trying to figure out a character’s motivation, take a step back and ask someone else to pretend to be [insert one or two characteristics of your character here].
Not only will you get an answer that either validates or invalidates your thoughts, you’ll have an opportunity to probe the respondent’s motivation further.