Teenagers. They're a species of humans generally disliked by both adults and children. It's seen as some kind of horrible disease that pops up around 13 and supposedly miraculously disappears at the age of 18 or 20, depending on how one interprets the word teenager or the laws concerning minors. Suffice it to say that teenagers are not a favorite part of most societies.
And yet, books featuring teenage characters are some of the most popular stories known to modern man.
Makes total sense, right?
Yeah, not really.
Because teenagers are generally frowned upon and not well understood, they almost always suffer when they are converted into book characters. As a writer of YA, I spend a lot of time reading YA fiction. It is very rare that I run across a teenage character and think, "Yeah, this one was done really well!" Most of the time it ends up being, "Idiots. They're all idiots!"
Allow me to explain to you all of the various ways that many writers manage to ruin their teen characters, along with ways to fix them.
2. You aren't taking time period or society into account. This is the part where I tell you about how teenager is a fairly new word, that "back then" you were either a child or an adult, that teenagers were expected to run houses, have jobs, and function as adults, were actually able to pull it off, yada yada yada. But I'm not going to, because I'm sure you've heard that before, and yet it doesn't seem to matter to most writers. So go ahead and ignore all that and plop your teenager into medieval times and have him act like an immature idiot. Or make your Indian girl be extremely disrespectful toward her elders and get away with it. Go on. I'm sure it'll be fine.
3. You are relying on cliches. The characters defined by their love triangles, the "I can change him" girl, the guy with absent parents, the bookworm nerd, the brooding jock, the hot one. *slaps upside the head with your own manuscript* Stop it! You are a writer, not a copy cat. Besides, if you are going to rip something off, then rip something of that isn't subpar and completely horrendous.
4. You're using the "teenagers have bad decision-making skills" excuse. In an attempt to explain away the fact that your characters are acting like idiots, you may try to say that they do dumb things because they are teens and thus don't make good choices because they're too young to know differently. Let's get something straight: Teenagers are not stupid. They have brains and are perfectly capable of using them. You need to develop your character so that any bad decision he/she may make is specific to him and his mentality and his past. Teenagers don't make bad decisions simply because they're teenagers. It goes far deeper than that, so find the root of the problem that is unique to your character and go with that.
5. Your slang skills are horrible. If you are writing contemporary fiction, please, for the love good dialogue, go talk to some real teens. You will soon discover that they do not say things like, "OMG, that was, like, totes cray cray." They just don't. If you want your characters to talk like teenagers, then let them talk like teenagers, not like some crackpot 80-year-old alien who has come to earth and is attempting to masquerade as a teen. Unless you actually are writing a book about crackpot 80-year-old alien who has come to earth and is attempting to masquerade as a teen, in which case, that sounds amazing and I applaud your genius
6. Every piece of dialogue you write is dripping with sarcasm. Some teenagers are very sarcastic, some are only a little bit sarcastic, some are not sarcastic at all. If all of your characters have sass buckets for their patronus's, then you have some serious editing to do. I suppose you think your pieces of dialogue are terribly clever, but they probably aren't. They will get very old, very fast, so tone it down. Try reading this guide for writing sarcasm.
7. Your character is extremely troubled. The teen who drinks too much, has abusive parents, misuses his ADHD meds, is bulimic, and is in and out of juvy. This may come as a shock, but that is a rather extreme scenario. Try to find a middle ground. No, I am not saying that troubled teens don't exist, but I am saying that they have become the focus of many stories, so much so that there is a huge (and unhealthy) imbalance in YA fiction.
8. Adult characters are lead by your teen character. The world is in shambles, people are dying left and right, freedom has disappeared, and for some reason the only clothes available are grey-colored. A leader is needed to fix this broken, dying, ugly-clothes world. So everyone decides to herald a sixteen year old girl as their leader. Sounds like a great plan, right? While it is not absurd to think that a teenager can be elemental in leading a group of people, it is absurd to think that adults would choose said teen as their unrivaled leader. So please, don't be such a clotpole. Use your brain to create realistic situations.
9. Your teen is constantly thinking about crushes. While you may spend most of you time playing "he loves me, he loves me not" in high-stress situations such as zombie apocalypses, most people do not. Stop putting your character in a position where he/she is trying to save the world while also fretting about which crush to choose. Here's a fun idea: How about the crushes stop trying to hit on the main character and instead come along side her and try to make her life easier rather than harder? And, if you aren't writing an action novel, please remember that sex should not be the main point of your story. Give your characters a personality and a reason for existing. If you have to put sex in there to make your story interesting, then you're doing it wrong.
And there you have it. 9 common mistakes writers make when writing teenage characters. What do you think? Did I miss any or get any wrong? Tell me about it in the comment section below!
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