More specifically, the voice of teenagers.
Now, it has been less than a year since I entered the great unknown of adulthood, and not so long ago I was a member of this demographic called ‘teenagers’. I may be an adult now, spiraling down the ever fascinating whirlpool of college life, but since my age, eighteen, still carries the word ‘teen’, I feel I’m rather qualified to broach the subject of young adult voice. And given my attachment not only to the demographic itself, but also the books written for them, I am very passionate about the subject.
Given that most fiction is written by non-teens, its not surprising that a lot of beginning writers, new to the YA category struggle with teenage voice. I mean, how do teenagers talk and think anyway?
Kind of like normal people, actually.
I think one of the trappings of writing the teenage voice is going into it with the belief that teenagers are somehow greatly removed from adults. They aren’t. They have different thoughts and priorities than adults, sure, but they are still human. As a teenager recently turned adult, I can safely say I feel no great difference in how I think and see the world. The way I speak has not suddenly, drastically changed. It is the same with all teenagers.
So, today, let’s go over some helpful tips for writing good teenage voices.
1. Avoid the stereotypes
I’m not talking about stereotypes of race or gender in this case, but rather stereotypes of speech. There are a lot associated with teenagers. You can probably name a few. Overuse of the word ‘like’, using OMG when oh my god would have been perfectly acceptable, and, of course, snark so heavy you can cut it with a saw. And its not to say some teenagers DON’T fall into these stereotypes, but there is a time and place for it.
My sophomore year of high school, I was asked to read the MS of a local author to make sure she was representing teenagers properly. I remember marking through every use of ‘IDK’ in her manuscript. Mostly because I had never heard teenagers use IDK in a conversation unless they were doing so ironically. I went to a high school with 3,000 kids and not once did I hear that phrase used seriously. It really sucks the emotion and tension out of a scene where lives are at stake when your teenage MC says ‘IDK’.
Heavy snark also has its limit. It takes a master to pull off a sarcastic teen voice. They constantly walk the edge between charming and really annoying. Teenagers are sarcastic, but there’s generally more to their sense of humor. We don’t come up with a witty, snarky retort to EVERYTHING we hear. Most of us anyway. And no one likes the people who do. I've read several pages that go overkill on the snark, making an interesting concept basically unreadable. Bad voice can kill a cool story.
On the flip side, don’t apply teenage voice stereotypes to bullies/antagonists. Don’t do it. I know the temptation is real to put a million colloquialisms in the mouth of the lead bully to make them seem vapid but try to give them a bit more of a personality outside of that. Bottom line: stereotypes don’t make good voices. They more often make for an annoyance. Teenagers can think and speak naturally too.
Teenagers are a diverse group of young people. I think we already knew this pretty well. I mean, half of high school is dedicated to labeling fellow students with a list of hundreds of preselected terms. There’s nothing like the melting pot of education to point out differences, right? But if we know teenagers come from a variety of different backgrounds and have a numerous interests and hobbies, we should also know that teenagers think differently as well. They talk differently. They see the world differently. Just like adults.
Some teenagers see the world through highly logical eyes. Some are very emotional. Some have a dry sense of humor, others a more conventional sense of humor. Some even have no sense of humor. Some teenagers are more likely to narrate their life in flowy phrases and others are more likely to be conversational. Every teenager has a voice and if you’re going to populate your book with them, make sure each voice is distinct.
This is especially important with the recent rise of multiple POV narratives. In order to pull off more than one point of view, it is necessary to differentiate between the POV characters. If you gave the reader a paragraph from each of your characters, they should be able to tell which paragraph is from which perspective.
In short, think about the people in your life you know well and think about how they talk compared to others. Chances are, the same differences can be applied to teenagers.
3. It’s all about Circumstance
But, Aimee, you might say, if teenagers often think and see the world the same way as many adults, what differs the teenage voice from the adult voice? Well, I am of the belief that it isn’t necessary the voice at all. It’s the circumstances.
YA isn’t a category because the ‘voice’ of the main character but rather the issues they deal with. Adulthood is about finding your place in society, and dealing with all the good and bad in the world. Young adult on the other hand, is often more about finding your place in yourself. Finding your identity and becoming comfortable in your own skin before you truly have to face the world. Teenagers are not so different than adults in mental composition. What separates them is their lack of experience. They’ve only had thirteen to eighteen years to gain life experience, so they’re still trying to figure out who they are in addition to figuring out the world. They are still growing up, so YA is designed to show the struggle of doing just that.
There are exceptions of course. Some teenagers grow up too soon and some adults never grow up at all. Some teenagers know exactly who they are while some adults are still struggling to figure it out. And that’s the key: exceptions. There are always exceptions and exceptions create diversity. This is what makes YA such an abundant category.
The teenage voice can’t exactly be pinpointed. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to do. Maybe, the best way to write for teenagers, is not to approach YA with the mindset of ‘I’m going to write about teenagers.
Maybe instead writers should approach YA to write about human beings instead.