Friday, July 15, 2016

Writing Teenage Characters: What You're Doing Wrong

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.
1. You are generalizing. This is the number one problem that spans across all genres and effectively ruins potentially awesome characters. Your character needs to be treated as an individual with unique personality traits and interests, not as part of the teenage body. As soon as your character's defining trait becomes "teenager," you have lost all hope creating anything other than an annoying, stereotypical fictional person.

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!

Related articles:
7 Cliche Characters in YA Fiction that Need to Stop
Writing Strong Female Characters: What You're Doing Wrong
Writing Awesome Male Characters: What You're Doing Wrong

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44 comments:

  1. Thanks, it really helps! Just what I needed!

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    1. That is awesome to hear! Best of luck to you.

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  2. I love these tips lists. Informative, to-the-point, and always hilarious!

    Hurrah for #2!! Yeah, you grew up really quickly in time periods where you had to *work,* often manually, to survive--and especially if disease carried off both parents, and you were the head of the family. (Being the eldest in my family, that is definitely a concept I've thought about a lot.)

    Also love your turns of phrases in #3. :-)

    Good points in #7 as well; it's one thing to create empathy for folks who have gone through or are undergoing one of those listed issues; but another thing entirely to write as though these are the only difficulties teens face--how about "I'm about to graduate, and I still don't know how to change a tire or do taxes"?

    #8--what I find interesting is that this stereotype seems to have begun with The Hunger Games; but I think HG actually handled this scenario realistically. Given the world-building, set up, and character choices, it makes sense that Katniss became the symbol that she did--but that's also all she was to the adult leaders: a symbol. And as such, she was used, not followed, by the grown-ups playing the power game.

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    1. Yay! My aim is to help and entertain. Happy to hear that this post did both for you. =) I like your point about # 7. I personally would love to read story about a teenager about to graduate who is stressed about trying to learn how to do laundry and taxes. =)

      I also agree that The Hunger Games did a really good job portraying the scenario in a realistic way. I think a lot of other writers tried to piggyback on that and weren't quite able to pull it off.

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  3. Ahhhhh this is SUCH an excellent post! As a teen myself, I definitely agree with you on all of this.

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. I am so happy to hear that, Ellie! It's sad that young adult fiction doesn't seem to know how to accurately portray teenagers. Hopefully it will take a turn for the better soon.

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  4. I agree that these are all things people should avoid. I haven't actually come across them much though, probably because I don't read much YA.
    And what I do read is mostly by homeschoolers who are aware of the fact that teenage rebellion is completely unecessary. So they write books about young adults instead.
    It's interesting that the genre/age category is YA not 'teenager'.

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    1. Great comment, Anna. The age categorization has always confused me a bit. YA and teenager are two different words, but I can't figure out the difference. It seems that YA spans a slightly larger age group? Or maybe it was an attempt to make the genre more appealing, given that "teenager" has become a nasty word? I don't know. =]

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  5. "Adult characters are lead by your teen character." I respectfully disagree. Teen characters do not make their adult counterparts into old-fashioned pencils. :D
    Seriously though, nice post. I'm a teen right now and though I know most of you consider teen writing horrendous, I intend to keep all of it so I can actually remember what it was like being a teen once I reach adulthood. :)

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    1. Ah. Yes. Great point! No doubt that some adults would be open-minded enough to see teenagers as valuable leaders. But there would still be many who would oppose.

      Great idea for keeping your teen writing! I don't think that stuff written during teen years is horrendous. I know a lot of teens who are capable of writing just as well (if not better) than adults. =) Keep up the awesome work!

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  6. So what you're basically saying is that teenagers are people, too?
    ...
    Nah, don't believe it. :D

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    1. Pffft. Crazy, right? How is that even possible? =D

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  7. Amazing post. I couldn't agree more! When reading certain YA books I always felt problems, but this post puts a name to it. Constantly worrying about love and sex and hot guys when the world is ended and all your friends are getting shot. Thanks for helping my brain put actual words to feelings

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    1. So happy to be of help, Tori! When I first started reading YA, that was the first problem I picked out. Probably had to do with me being a tomboy who would be more interested in learning to fire a gun than find the perfect guy. =D

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  8. This is soooo good! I was reading this while drinking ice tea and had to work quite hard not to bust into laughter, because at the moment, that would have been rather disastrous! Lol Thanks for making me laugh :) (sorry for the funny language. I've been reading this fabulous old book with gorgeous rich language and its invading my mind.)

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    1. Lol! I am proud to be of service. And I completely sympathize with your high-flown language syndrome. That happens to me all of the time. =) Old books have such beautiful prose.

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  9. I really agree with number 3. The clichés are horrific. People should stop copying. UGH.

    Also number 9. Yes. For flips sake, what's up with all these stupid crushes invading the book, man? And the people the protagonist usually have crushes on are bad boys vs the good boys. Why can't they be a mix of both for goodness' sake! Or no crushes at all for once. Yeah, I like that.

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    1. No crushes at all? Yes. I am on board with this plan. =D Thanks for the funny (and on-point) comment, Grace!

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  10. As a teen myself, I highly agree with these points. Loved the article, Hannah! :D

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    1. This makes me glad to hear, Adina! Hopefully we can start getting some more realistic teen characters floating around soon.

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  11. Thank you for this!!! I have been going through my unfinished WIP (work in progress) for months now and always thought "There is something I'm doing wrong!
    I know what it is now!! This post is AMAZING!!!
    Also, as a teen, these points and opinions are reciprocated fully!!

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    1. I'm so happy to hear this, Alex! Now that you know the problem, I'm sure it will be much easier to fix. Best of luck to you!

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  12. Thank you Hannah. You reaffirmed my intuition about decisions made in my own story. I would love to see more YA writing that follows this advice.

    I want to be realistic, yet I want to draw the reader in without blown out of proportion antagonists! I want my readers to connect with my protagonist and to be exposed to Christian characters who struggle with issues.

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    1. I also would love to see more YA writing attempting to accurately portray teenagers. It's awesome that you are working to do this in your writing. Hurrah for you and your Christian writing! Striving to be realistic and truthful, but not overly dramatic is a great goal.

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  13. Hi! I don't write YA fiction, but I have read quite a bit and I absolutely agree. I think what you said applies to films about teens too!
    What's interesting is that when I first started writing online, I ghostwrote and edited a lot of fan fiction. If adults wrote it, the teens were always shallow, angsty, and focused only on friends and dates. (plus all that heaping sarcasm). The stuff that teens wrote (for the most part) was much more in-depth and mature sounding. The focus was usually on family,future goals, and coping with the emotions of being in that limbo where biologically and mentally they want to start their own life. It was a great way to gain perspective, so I really recommend that anyone who wants to write a teen character should read some stuff that teens actually write. Not Facebook posts, but their fiction. From what I saw, the only "problem" most teens have is that society changed and they have several years there where they get conflicting advice as to whether they should "grow-up" or "enjoy being young". As you said, in the old days, once you could walk, talk, act and work like a grown-up, you could be one.
    Great article, and I will pass it along to other fiction writers I know!

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    1. Thank you so much for this cool comment, Jayme! I have also noticed that adults tend to feature teenagers in an only angsty, thrill-seeker way, almost as if they are trying to re-live their "glory days" through their characters. Teenagers can be very powerful, thoughtful writers, which is something I wish more people would recognize. I'm so glad that you have noticed this and have pointed it out.

      Again, thank you for the insightful comment! I'm glad you enjoyed my article.

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  14. Keen eye. Awesome new hair!!!! ;) An excellent post, which I'd love if every YA lit writer would read and take into account. Fabulous, Hannah.

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    1. Thanks, Ramona! Glad you like the hair. =D

      I'd also love to see more YA writers taking their teens more seriously. So many great things could come of that.

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  15. Sorry, I'm late. But I really, REALLY like this one. I hardly have the heart to enter the YA section at the library anymore. These are all spot on, but #8 is particularly good. I hate that cliche. So. Much. So much. (Yes, I'm a teen. I still hate it.)

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  16. The sass is strong with this article. Especially in point #2. Haha! ;)

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  17. Wow. Thank you so much. I am both a teen and an aspiring writer. I agree with you and your stance on teens in YA fiction. I think that your article was both informative and hilarious. Thank you.

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    1. I'm so excited to hear this! Teens are both epic characters and epic people. I'm sure you can write something amazing. Just keep at it. *fist bump*

      Thank you for the comment!

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  18. Thank you for saying this! *sigh*

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    1. I linked to your post in my review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1720391388

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    2. Thank you, Midu! I really appreciate it.

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  19. Had to laugh at "and for some reason the only clothes available are grey-colored." Good tips! :-)

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  20. This is a weird pet peeve of mine, but I can't remember anyone but adults calling kids "teens" or "teenagers," usually accompanied with a roll of the eye. I still cringe whenever I see the word in YA novels. It just doesn't sound like something a kid would say. At least, I didn't, and neither did just about everyone I knew. Maybe it's a Texan thing 9_9

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    1. I've often thought the same thing. YA is such an odd, extremely broad term. Also, I agree: many 16-year-olds or there abouts don't refer to themselves as teenagers. Why would they? It's become something of a derogatory term. =]

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  21. Oh God this was helpful. I mean I write and publish stuff on Fanfiction and I get good reviews but never any comments on how my writing actually rates against others.
    I also have this problem of starting to write a character that starts off really individualised but ultimately he or she ends up turning into that cliche, generalised annoyingly stupid and sarcastic prick - excuse the language - that everyone likes to read about for some reason and I find myself somewhat unhappy about...
    Anyway your tips and pointers were really helpful and will definitely help me improve my writing.

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  22. I love this!!! I write Christian YA fiction and fantasy and it's so helpful that you've put this out there. They're very important issues most authors struggle with, and I don't want to be one of them so I'm beyond grateful for this!

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  23. Hi, Hannah! This is my first time reading your blog. I loved this post! As a reader of YA, I've seen way too many of those mistakes around. You made me laugh with number 8, haha! It reminded of the cliché of "the chosen one", where the destiny of the whole world is put in the hands of a single character due to a profecy, and other characters use that as an excuse to act like potatoes. Like, "only he can do it, so why should we bother doing anything?" I've read one too many stories like that.

    To me, the worst mistake may be number 4 on your list. I have actually written a blog post about that, explaining why teens behave rechlessly. Like you said, it goes beyond just being a teen.

    Anyways, awesome post! Thanks for sharing!

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