Friday, March 25, 2011

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Will Grayson, Will Grayson came out about a year ago. Co-written by John Green and David Levithan, it's about two boys with the same name who meet in a very unlikely place and end up being linked through their association with a very unusual person.

OK, there's more to it than that.

If you are interested in a study of authentic teen voice, then read this book. It also happens to be hilarious, squirm-inducing, and utterly cutting while simulteneously being incredibly sweet.

My favorite character  is the second Will, whose chapters (written by David Levithan, I believe) are written in entirely in lowercase. This Will is gay, isolated, and depressed. One Goodreads reviewer kindly described him as "such an a$$hole teenager," especially during the first few chapters. I think that pretty much nails it, which is why it's so cool that this character is entirely sympathetic.

I liked both Wills, but lowercase Will just grabbed me by the heart. As I read his chapters, I was really struck by how accurately the author portrayed lowercase Will's depression.

Depression in teens doesn't really look like depression in adults. Depressed teenagers are more irritable and hostile than depressed adults. Lowercase Will certainly is (though he goes through a couple life-changing events that soften him up a bit), and that was one of the things that made him authentic. It's so obvious he's miserable. But not come-comfort-me miserable. He's back-the-eff-up-and-leave-me-the-hell-alone miserable.

Unlike depressed adults, who tend to withdraw from nearly everyone in their lives, adolescents, including lowercase Will, are withdrawn from most people--but not all. For good or ill, there are certain relationships Lowercase Will closely clings to, even lives for.

These are the primary manifestations of his depression, and one of the by-products appears to be the life he lives online, which is also common in depressed teens. He is only half-present in his daily life, and seems to save nearly all his emotional energy for an online relationship. When this happens in real life, it often leads to even greater isolation from in-person peers.

LGBT adolescents are at higher risk for depression, suicide attempts, and completed suicides than their heterosexual counterparts. And gay and bisexual adolescent males? Ouch. They are extremely vulnerable--one study indicated that 28% had attempted suicide, compared to 4% of heterosexual adolescent males and 20% of lesbian/bisexual females. HOWEVER--the link between sexuality and suicide is MEDIATED by (this means the effect of sexuality essentially gets filtered through-->) things like depression, family factors, social relationships/bullying, and gender nonconformity (the guys who don't act stereotypically "guy-like" are more likely to get harrassed and bullied).

Lowercase Will's observations about his own depression are astute and brutal. He struggles with hopelessness and a bitter knowledge that he "will always be the blood and shit of things." But he still has a wit and spark, and a fragile desire to connect, to find his way. 

And because I loved this character so much, I must include his thoughts on "mental health days":
i think the idea of a 'mental health day' is something completely invented by people who have no clue what it's like to have bad mental health. the idea that your mind can be aired out in twenty-four hours is kind of like saying heart disease can be cured if you eat the right breakfast cereal. mental health days only exist for people who have the luxury of saying 'i don't want to deal with things today' and then can take the whole day off, while the rest of us are stuck fighting the fights we always fight, with no one really caring one way or another, unless we choose to bring a gun to school or ruin the morning announcements with a suicide.
Now--I asked these questions in another post, and I will ask them again because they are just as relevant here. How do you keep characters genuine and believable and relatable even when they're going through something that makes them miserable? Do you feel the temptation to soften them up to keep them sympathetic? Do you pull back from ugliness and anger because you worry you'll lose your reader? And when you read, what is it about a character that keeps you walking down that road, and turning those pages, with him/her? What makes you care about a character like this, and what puts you off?


  1. A character can be miserable & awful, but if they have one thing I can relate too - confusion, feeling alone, a sense of not having control, etc. - then I can get behind them. Basically, as long as there is some sort of humanizing characteristic, I'll root for them.

  2. I haven't yet read this, but it's on my list to buy! Your review of it makes me want to read it even more.:) Great question about keeping characters real and believable. It's something I'm struggling with now, with one of my character's voices. I'll be sure to link to your other post and read what you had to say on the subject there.:)

  3. I haven't read the book, but after reading this, I'm adding it to my list.

    This was something I struggled with in the book I'm querying. My mc had been struggling in silence about being raped and had been dealing with depression, just not severe depression. The book is partly about the healing that happens when she finally reaches out for help to one person who figures out what happened to her (he knew someone who was raped and recognized similars signs in the mc). The problem was the voice. You see a change in her through the book, but she didn't capture anyone's attention in the first chapter. I had to do a lot of rewrites and changes to the voice in order to land the requests. It's not easy writing the voice for someone dealing with depression.

  4. I LOVED this book--and lowercase Will was definitely my favorite. He was both funny and heartbreaking at the same time. I think it's important to be authentic to your character's experiences, but make sure to leave a little room for change near the end. I've definitely read stories where a character was so angry that I hated them in the end, but only because I didn't understand the anger. Lowercase Will's pain was clear and present from the beginning, and so I wanted to read more.

  5. Wow. I absolutely HAVE to read this book. I've wanted to anyway, but wow. Yes, I think keeping the character true to him/herself is most important, and if you've done a good job accurately portraying the person as a "whole" then there should still be enough to connect with on the readers part.

  6. first off- lowercase will's description of mental health days was hilarious! so true will! so true! :)
    another one to add to my list!

    i don't think that you should try to make a character sympathetic. i think that you should understand and love your character- and any sympathetic characteristics will organically evolve. i really don't like forcing anything into your writing. i like to be as genuine as possible.

  7. I don't mind a character having uglier moments if they are there for a valid reason, not to just create drama. I would, for the sake of a story, soften them just enough so the reader gets a reprieve to show a different side of the character once in a while. I'd need a little something to root for in all the negativity, even if it's not their fault, like depression. Great post.

  8. I'm a big fan of John Green (Paper Towns is one of my favorite books across any genre). I've read about characters who are not very likable, but in glimpses they may show kindness to someone undeserving, or may reflect on something that is more sad than angsty, letting you see that their personality may be driven by something deeper. Things that show a character going beyond just being a surface jerk. I love that quote you pulled out about mental health days. I agree it is something said soley by those without mental health issues. It's fine to take a day off b/c of stress, and I suppose technically it's not wrong to label it a mental health day, but it does kind of diminish the severity of those who are suffering from an acute illness.

  9. Someone else recommended this book to me, and your breakdown of it definitely puts it on the TBR list now. Here's my take: I enjoy following a genuine character, but don't leave me wallowing in misery for the sake of it. I'm looking for some sort of resolution, even if it's bad, or there's no point for me.

  10. I've been dying to read this book for AGES. *sigh* Thanks for always reminding me that my TBR pile always needs a little something extra.

    I think the lowercase use is a great example of how to develop a genuine/lovable character. That makes me want to give Will a hug. I sympathize with him, and can understand why he views the world the way he does, even though I don't view it similarly. To me, the key to creating/enjoying characters with "annoying" traits is to latch on to something readers/you can relate to.

    As always, amazing post! :)

  11. I think a lot of people have the tendency to stand back from this kind of teen emotion, because it's seen as safer. It can be hard to put this kind of raw emotion on the page -- but I think it pays off in the end. I wrote a lot of books before I sold one, and the one I sold was the one where I finally said, "Fuck it, this is my character, and if people don't like him, too bad."

    I haven't read this book yet, but I'll have to.