Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The struggle to keep current

In the Netflix comedy series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Ellie Kemper plays Kimmy, a 29-year-old woman who spent literally half of her life imprisoned in an underground bunker with three other women, and the doomsday cultist who kidnapped her when she was 15. Upon being freed, Kimmy decides to move to New York and start fresh, hoping to avoid having to forever be one of the “Indiana Mole Women.”

Part of the show’s humor (and, despite what is Kimmy’s horrific background, the show manages to be laugh out loud funny, which can be a little uncomfortable when you consider how many women have lived–and died–in such circumstances, and when you try not to wonder how many women might actually be living in similar circumstances right now) is how much of a “fish out of water” Kimmy is: small town girl trying to make it in the big city, which is compounded by the fact that a) though Kimmy turns 30 in season one, she really has the emotional development of a teenager (and a naive one at that), and b) the world has changed substantially in the fifteen years she was captive in the bunker. Kimmy dresses like a kid and often acts like a kid, and her speech is filled with references to people and things of the nineties, when she was a teenager and free, such as when she uses “Psych!” (does anyone do that anymore?), or describes brunch as being “Frasierfancy,” or when she asks aspiring Broadway star Titus if he’ll “…sing at the Grammys with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson?”

Her optimism is endearing

I like to tell my kids that I’m an incredibly hip, incredibly with it guy, that I have my finger on the pulse of society, that I know what’s hot and what’s not, and what all the cool kids like. They see right through it. The truth is, I’m a fifty-plus year-old man who grew up in the suburbs of Long Island and went to high school and college in the 80s. I hear music on the radio and I have no idea who the singer/band is; I see pictures of supposedly A-list actors and actresses and have no idea who they are, and on the rare occasions I move myself to find out, I tend to forget and have to ask again the next time I see/hear them. But I can still quote from Caddyshack, or Animal House, or The Terminator. When NBC hockey analyst, Ed Olczyk referred to a player getting caught in “a Malacchi Crunch,” I knew exactly what he was talking about (and was then surprised to realize he and I are pretty much the same age).

The pop culture of my youth had a big impact on me, and does to this day. As a writer, this can create some interesting problems. In my first two manuscripts, my protagonists were man suspiciously close to my own age, who grew up in similar places to me. Easy enough to represent their similarities. In my now back-on-submission third attempt, two of the three POV characters are close to my age, while the third is a bit younger. In my WiP, my protagonist and her peers are squarely in the Millennial category. What’s a borderline boomer/Gen Xer to do?

“Pond would be good for you.”

Way back in 1999, Bill Murray guest-hosted Saturday Night Live and appeared in a sketch called that opened with this voiceover: “You’re a white male between the ages of 15 and 41, chances are you love quote lines from Caddyshack.” Later in the sketch, Murray says, “the secret language of American business is peppered with quotes from this classic 1980 comedy.”

Saturday Night Live (original cast); Caddyshack. Animal House. National Lampoon’s Vacation. Stripes. For better or worse, these films and TV shows are part of the lens that my world view is filtered through. So, it’s no surprise that one of my characters, when faced with a difficult choice, might say “Sometimes, you gotta say ‘What the fuck.'” And while that might be right for a fifty-year-old, is it right for a thirty-year-old? Or a twenty-two year-old?

Maybe it is. After all, it’s entirely possible that my twenty-something character has seen–and loved–the old movies and TV shows, just as I watched I Love Lucy and could complete this run of dialogue that was old before I was born: “Who’s on first?” “I don’t know.” “________”* While my twenty-something character might know “See the ball, Danny. Be the ball” would that be her ‘go to’ quote in the appropriate situation, or would she come up with something from, I don’t know, Happy Gilmore or…or…I don’t know. (I could write about hockey players. Hockey players all quote from Slap Shot.)

So, there’s my question to you: if you are writing characters that are younger than you–a generation or two younger, in particular–how do you keep them from sounding like they just came out of a bunker after fifteen years?

*”Third base”


5 Responses

  1. I was gonna say my characters are all younger than me, but then I remembered I write vampires and they're all very…old. Haha!

    As for twenty- and thirty-year olds saying fuck, well… sometimes that's ALL I hear from their mouths. And I'm starting to hear it in songs (I listen to Sirius XM Alt-nation). A sprinkle here and there doesn't faze me, but in the title? Okay, now that's just too much.

  2. Ah, the ageless vampire (or aged vampire, not sure which it should be). Do any of them keep their old and out of date expressions and speech patterns?

    As for the f-bombs–yeah, plenty of millennials swear with the best of them. I meant, would any of them use the quote from Risky Business (1980): "Sometimes, you've just gotta say 'What the fuck.'" I'm not sure that film is one that's going to influence multiple generations.

  3. What a great comparison. It really helps to associate with younger people, but I can't help that I'm not immersed in their culture. Fortunately, my editor is young and she lets me know when I'm stilted or making the character sound too old for their age.

    Have a wonderful holiday, Jeff!

  4. I knew Third Base!!! 🙂 I've had my student do that script and they LOVE it! 🙂
    I think teaching with staff members of all ages and having young adult kids helps – but it is HARD to be realistic at times

  5. -Donna–Thanks, Donna. I may have to lean on my agent for some of that lingo, too!
    -Jemi–It's funny how some things never go out of style! Your exposure to so many age groups must be a big help.

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