Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reflecting the Times

By Mark W. Danielson

It’s interesting how a novel’s characters set the period. Although humans look like they did centuries ago, they don’t dress, act, or talk the same because their surroundings have changed with time. Writing about previous periods is difficult, and few authors will be as successful as Michael Crichton or James Michener. Rather than confront this problem, most authors write in the present. Comparing Shakespeare’s characters to Charles Dickens’, or James Michener’s to Michael Connelly’s demonstrates how characters have evolved. But even writing in the present includes generational experience issues. Think back on how much has changed over the past sixty years.

There was a time when people formally dressed for dinner, didn’t wear hats in restaurants, cussing was a sin, parents held their children accountable, and adults acted responsibly. But those Lake Wobegone Days Garrison Keillor wrote about are gone. By 1950s standards, today’s world has gone mad, so novels written in the present should reflect that. Unfortunately, generational bias may hinder us in getting it right. How so, you ask. Simply put, generational bias is a function of experience, age, and upbringing. I couldn’t possibly write about growing up in the ghetto any better than I could comprehend a teenager’s mindset. Fortunately, research, interviews, and observation can assist with this.

In the 1950s, the first televisions began replacing radios. At best, they had three or four channels on a rotating circular dial. Families gathered around their tiny sets, sometimes while eating TV dinners. Record players folded up like lunch boxes, and there was one family phone and car. Color TV followed, but it was years before we had one in our house. Compare this to my children’s generation where they grew up with their own cars at age sixteen, personal computers, unlimited television channels, pagers, cell phones, the Internet, and now Internet camera phones. You can get instantaneous news wherever you are, and texting has evolved into sexting. I saw a two year old in a restaurant watching TV on a four inch screen while his parents dined, and a four year old with his own cell phone. Many new family cars come equipped with GPS and DVD players. Yes, times have changed, and we’ve changed with them, but that doesn’t mean we understand the generational differences.

If you were born fifty plus years ago, you would never dream of a flight attendant grabbing a beer and bailing on the tarmac. Nor could you foresee a crazy woman getting out of her car and beating a McDonald’s employee because she couldn’t satisfy her breakfast craving for Chicken McNuggets, and yet these things happened. You may be disturbed by MTV or so-called reality shows like The Colony, which features a doomsday scenario, and yet young people may crave it. Generational differences have never been more divided than they are today.

Consider this when developing your characters, and use your parenting or grand parenting experience to see the world through younger eyes. Understanding that your reality is different from theirs can create characters and generational conflict as powerful as those in Clint Eastwood’s Grand Torino.


Chester Campbell said...

Raising a thirteen-year-old grandson, I experience the generational conflict every day. If I criticize his belt way below the waist, he says we don't wear pants like eighty-year-old men. I still know a little more than he does about computers, and he depends on me to correct his homework. But when it comes to cell-phone gadgetry, DSI's, iPods and such, I'm out of my league.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Good example, Chester. Thankfully, adults get wiser as their children age:) (But in your case, don't count on that happening for another 13 years.)

Jean Henry Mead said...

I just finished my first children's mystery novel and found the language difficult until I watched kid's TV shows. It was like learning a foreign language. :)

Mark W. Danielson said...

Congratulations on your latest novel, Jean. Your language issue brings up an excellent point. While children have their own language, so do many professions. Doctors, soldiers, pilots, police officers, engineers, and many others have languages that are specific to them. It would be very difficult to write an accurate story without knowing this professional lingo. Add to that the abbreviated world of texting and it can get very confusing. This poses interesting questions to the author -- how much of this language do you include when it requires an explanation?