So, today is my sort-of birthday, my almost day, the day before the day after my birthday. It’s a bit of a mind-bender isn’t it? Yes, I was born on February 29, Leap Day, that day that only comes once every four years.
And it’s really weird not having a birthday every year, let me just say. The most common question I get is “which day do you celebrate?”, followed by, “so how old are you?”. To answer the first, whenever’s most convenient, and to answer the second…I’ll never tell. ;-)
I was thinking today about the fact that next year I’ll have a “real” birthday – hooray! - and it occurred to me, not for the first time, how much I define myself by my weird birthday. It’s something that set me apart from my friends when I was a kid, an instant conversation starter when meeting new people, and it’s an anomaly many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around. It’s also a fact about my history that’s always made me feel special. I don’t just have any birthday…I am a LEAP YEAR BABY. And, to boot, I’m left handed!
As a teenager navigating the scary waters of puberty, making the first tentative steps towards establishing an identity, I found my unique birthday an easy place to start.
And, thinking about it, it makes me wonder…what would I have done if I didn’t have that little thing – a thing I had no control over, I might add – setting me apart? Would I have found another quirk to hold on to? Without it, would I have felt just like everyone else? (A good thing or a bad thing, depending on the day.) Or would I always have felt a little off-kilter, a little isolated, a little different? Because maybe that’s what being a teenager is all about.
In writing for YA, it can be difficult to get your characters to stand out. Sometimes there’s an impulse to give them unique names or funny birthdays – something that sets them apart from the beginning, something that indicates, right away, that they’re special.
But is this really necessary? Would a character born on Leap Day be as interesting, if she were defined by that, as, say, a character who – at sixteen – is still deathly afraid of the dark? Or is really good at softball? Is basically, in short, defined by things SHE’S established for herself, not what the world she was born into established for her? Then again, maybe that's what teenagers DO define themselves by at that age. Maybe I wasn't weird or special at all, but just chose the thing - for me - that was unique. Did you define yourself in high school by your funny name, or your birthday, or some other truth about yourself that you had no control over, like your parents' ages or the town where you were born?
How do you decide what makes your YA characters special? Do they just appear on the page with all their quirks and idiosyncrasies fully realized, or do you consciously choose their defining characteristics?
I’ve never written a book where I’ve even known the birthday of my main character. But I do wonder sometimes…would someone want to read about a quirky sixteen-year-old who’s really only four? (Yeah, probably not. But it’ll still be cool to say I’m only 10 when I hit my forties. ;-))