Today’s article is written by regular contributor Lydia Sharp.
This month I wanted to discuss a topic specific to my main area of writing interest–young adult fiction.
One of the things I am asked most often by aspiring YA writers is how to write realistic teen characters. Last month on my blog, Martina Boone said:
It seems to me there is little difference between the craft of a YA novel and that of an adult novel. The differences are more of voice, perspective, and the depth of the POV. I’d love a post on how you perceive those differences.
It’s true there is little difference between adult and YA novels structurally. The most notable difference is the teen viewpoint versus an adult viewpoint. But rather than compare the two, I think it would be beneficial to focus solely on what works in an authentic teen viewpoint.
Insecurity lurks in all of us, not just teenagers, but for some reason it becomes most outwardly apparent during the years we are transitioning from childhood to adulthood.
Common places insecurity rears its ugly head:
- friendships: Why is she spending so much time with those other people? We used to be so close… Did I do something wrong?
- romantic relationships: Does he like me? Does he still like me? I like someone else, now what? Oh he likes me… How do I tell him I’m not interested without crushing him?
- standing up for what’s right: During moments of insecurity a character will often say or do one thing while thinking he should say or do another, perhaps even the complete opposite of what he knows he should do or say.
- uncertain decisions: Even small choices can feel huge when you don’t know which path to take. This uncertainty breeds insecurity from the time a character is faced with a tough decision and can continue beyond the point that they make the decision, until they see concrete results of that decision.
Even when teens are insecure in some areas, they will still react impulsively in certain situations. For example, a boy in high school could go from awkwardly talking to another student he finds attractive in one scene, and in the very next he’s breaking up a group of bullies assaulting a weaker student. He has the impulsive response to stand up for what’s right, regardless of the danger, even though he couldn’t muster up enough courage to ask someone out to a movie.
Another teen character could have the opposite problem. He faces social situations with ease, but when confronted with a dangerous physical conflict, he freezes up. The different combinations of what makes your teen character insecure mixed with what he will react to impulsively is a big part of how you make each character unique, while keeping them authentically teen.
Finding Your Place
Teenhood is when we start developing a deeper understanding of our role in our personal life, our local community, and in the world as a whole. Although it may take us decades, on into adulthood, to finally establish ourselves in such a role.
Finding your place involves:
- questioning authority, rules; pushing boundaries
- challenging what is considered truth
- comparing your own situation to that of your peers
- making mistakes, more mistakes, and even more mistakes
- watching others and mimicking what works for them
- trying new things; discovering your passion
Most teens are much more intelligent than they are given credit for. A teen character does not have to be a “nerd” to be intelligent in some area. They could be a brilliant musician, or mathematician, or artist, or cook, or athlete, or whatever you can think up. The point is, people don’t master anything without intelligence. Giving your character a passionate focus on something they enjoy and are clearly good at can add an authentic layer to both their characterization and their story.
Teenagers have not lived long enough to be adults, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t lived at all. They each have their own history, and that history will affect their present actions and decisions they make about their own future.
For example, if a girl’s father works as a police officer, she has lived every day of her life with the knowledge (and fear) that one day he may not ever return home from work. Each day he says goodbye on his way out the door could be the last thing he ever says to her. This could realistically affect her choice of romantic partner, always in favor of someone considered safe. A good dramatic conflict for this character would be to introduce her to a “dangerous” love interest she can’t resist.
Milestones are Major
Milestones in childhood and teenhood seem to take forever to reach, whereas in adulthood time slips away too quickly. Even regular events, like birthdays, always feel far away. This is why so many teens fixate on upcoming milestones, like getting a driver’s license, getting their first job, graduating high school, etc.
Fictional teen characters, no matter if they live in the real world or one the author created, feel authentic when they have this same mentality, always looking ahead toward something they want. That something could be an object, an accomplishment, a new responsibility, higher learning or an apprenticeship, moving to a new location, etc.
Remember when Luke Skywalker whined to his uncle Owen about having to wait “a whole ’nother year” to go to the academy. Why is one more year helping his uncle with the harvest such a big deal? Because he’s young and eager to try something new and his friends already left for the academy last season. To an adult it might seem annoying and trivial, but to Luke his whole world is crumbling. This “milestone mentality” works for teens no matter what genre the novel.
YA authors, would you add anything to these points? Aspiring YA writers, do you have a question about this topic that wasn’t answered above?
Join the discussion
This post reminded me how much it sucked to be a teenager! LOL
Natalie Aguirre says
Great tips, Lydia. I think you really nailed some of the issues for teens that make their stories different than adult ones.
Cathryn Leigh says
How do you mix varying ages of teenagers?
I’m currently working on a story around a group that ranges in age from almost 15 to 21, and I’ve come to realize that’s a pretty big gap.
Is there a decent go to resource that could help me understand how maturity might affect them differently, so that they act appropriate to their age and maturity?
Lydia Sharp says
I don’t know of a go-to source for understanding different levels of teenhood, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. The best suggestion I can offer is to read as many novels as you can that have characters in your characters’ age range, and apply your observations to your story. Good luck!
Jennifer E. McFadden says
Great tips on how the teenage mind works!
A totally new insight into teen age. It will help me a lot. Thanks!
Anne R. Allen says
What a great piece. Very clear and nicely done. I’ve read so much YA where the protag seems like a not-terribly-bright adult stuck into a high school setting. This helps get the emotional core of your characters right.
Julie Musil says
Such excellent points! I have a sixteen-year-old son, and I can say you nailed it.
Tamara Pratt says
Hi Lydia, what a great article, thank you! I’ve printed it out and will keep it close for reference.
There’s a lot of talk lately about New Adult as a genre. Do you have any thoughts on how that might be defined, and what are the differences between this and YA (in addition to the age groups? any thoughts on the emotions, maturity level of characters, that sort of thing?)
Lydia Sharp says
Good question, Tamara!
I’m not an expert on NA, and there are a lot of good NA authors out there who can define it much better than I can. But, based on my limited experience with this reader category, I would say the difference of age is about much more than just the age number. YA generally cuts off at 18 because that is the cut-off age of being a legal minor. Once you are a legal adult and out of high school, it isn’t just that you’re older in age–your life situation has taken a dramatic leap from minor to adult. You’re able to make your own decisions, pursue your dreams, get a real job, create your own family, etc. A lot of NA follows students in college, but it doesn’t have to. Not everyone goes to college right after high school (for example, I didn’t–but I did join the adult workforce right away so my life had significantly changed).
The point of separation from YA is that the characters are technically starting their adulthood now, not just preparing for it as they do in teenhood, and that will inexplicably affect their character viewpoint.
Amy Leigh Strickland says
This is a great article. Teens are so interesting to write because the stakes for minor things are heightened and anticipation of upcoming events builds more naturally than with adults. I spend a lot of time around teens (teaching 12th grade English) and this article is spot-on.
As a teenage aspiring writer, I have to say you got everything right about how the teenage mind works! Well done ^_^ I hope you write again for Write It Sideways – your points are clear & easy to follow. I also hope you end up writing YA fiction – us teens badly need more talented writers like you or John Green, not Stephenie Meyer!
Lydia Sharp says
Thank you so much!