Characterizing From the Inside Out: Why I Heart Laurie Halse Anderson

I have a confession to make. I get literary crushes. When I fall in love with a book, I will read it over and over again and take it to bed with me, sometimes sleep with it under my pillow. At some point, usually between the first and second readings, I will go online and look up the author. And then I will stare and gawk. Just look at those sensitive eyes. Look at that knowing smile. And if it's really bad, I'll go on facebook and try to "friend" the author, knowing full well I'm just one of many fans, and there will be no real interpersonal contact.

My current literary crush is Laurie Halse Anderson, bestselling author of the Young Adult novel Speak. I don't write YA, but I've learned more about characterizing from her than from most literary fiction. What I most admire in Anderson's work is the ability to use her teenage protagonists to evoke an entire world, from what could be a narrow point of view. She does this through interior monologues that show the teenager grappling with the adult world, with often surprising insight. Through the character's inner world, we get not only a clear picture of who she is, but who the adults around her are too. As we see her misjudge and mischaracterize, we learn her failings and blindsides as well as theirs.

Take this passage from Wintergirls, Anderson's novel about an anorexic:

Last time I was locked up, the hospital shrink had me draw a life-sized outline of my body. I chose a fat crayon the color of elephant skin or a rainy sidewalk. He unrolled the paper on the floor, butcher's paper that crinkled when I leaned on it. I wanted to draw my thighs, each the size of a couch, on his carpet. The rolls on my butt and gut would rumble over the floor and splash up against the walls; my boobs, beach balls; my arms, tubes of cookie dough oozing at the seams.

The doc would have been horrified. All his work, gone, in the endless loop of snot-gray crayon. He would have called my parents and there would be more consultations (meter running, thousands of insurance dollars ticking away), and he would have adjusted my meds again, one pill to make my self-of-steam larger, another to make my craziness small.

It's passages like this that reach in and get me, keep me up reading late at night and continue to haunt. Anderson's work is filled with them. If you're interested in learning how to deeply characterize, particularly if you're dealing with teenage characters, check out Anderson's fiction.


Joni Rodgers said…
Wow. That is an excruciatingly right passage.

I read all the books my kids were assigned in school, and SPEAK was one Jerusha read in 10th grade. She loved that incredibly smart, intuitive writing (and actually did a very cool art project on the book.) You're too young to remember Janis Ian, Dr. KatPat, but I was very "learned the truth at seventeen" when I was that age. LHA's writing reminded me of that feeling -- poetic and painfully resonant, even after we've outgrown the teen angst.

Thanks for a great start to the blog week!
Mylène said…
YA writing is rocking these days, and I think it's in part due to the fact that it wastes no time. Boom, it reaches in, boom, connects heart to heart, boom, basic substance to basic substance, before the heart can turn away. Authors in all genres, take note. Kathryn, thanks.
Joni Rodgers said…
Actually, I take it back.

We never outgrow the teen angst.
I know I sure don't! :) That's why I've often thought that if this book does not succeed in its current incarnation, I may try it as a YA novel--OR start something completely new that is literary/edgy YA (along the lines of Anderson). I think it would be easier than what I'm doing now, and I think I have an odd way of tapping back into those feelings.

But we'll see! I'm not giving up on this way yet!
Great post. That's a heartbreaker of a passage. Must read the book.

I enjoy angsty YA on occasion, too. (Another big fan of SPEAK here). Since teens emotions are so huge and raw, there's no need for authors to self-consciously hold back, as we're often shamed into doing with adult works. The teens I work with have brought my some big, juicy melodramatic stuff, and while not all of it appeals to adult sensibilities, it serves as a reminder that the emotional connection, first and foremost, is what engages readers - and hooks them for life.
It's strange--I just caught the movie version of Speak on Lifetime as I was flipping channels, and the very night after I went to see The Lovely Bones, too. I think God just wants me to cry.

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