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Four tips for portraying young adult characters

I asked Karly Kirkpatrick, who had the fortune to be my 500th follower on Twitter, what character development question she’d like me to tackle next on my blog. She asked for tips on portraying young adult characters. So here you go, Karly, this one’s for you.

There’s a pretty wide (and somewhat ill-defined) range for what ages put a character into YA territory, but for our purposes let’s call it 13 through 17, those often difficult and awkward teen years before the responsibility of adulthood is fully thrust upon one’s shoulders.

Personally, I think it’s somewhat ridiculous to lump all those ages into a single category, because let’s face it: people change an enormous amount from age 13 to 17. To do the subject justice would probably take a five-volume set of books, one per year, rather than a blog post. But a blog is what I’ve got, so here goes. Four tips for writing YA characters.

Treat dialogue as dialect. Kids these days, with their texting and their sometimes impenetrable idioms drawn from video games and slices of pop culture adults don’t often partake of, might just as well be speaking a different language sometimes. It’s not—it’s still English. Mostly—but it does come to resemble a new and ever-changing dialect. If you do a good job capturing the flavor of that dialect in your books, you’ll be miles ahead of the competition.

Here’s the kicker. YA dialect really is ever-changing. The nuances of it are highly sensitive to the time period of your novel. A novel with YA characters set in the year 2010 will have a different YA dialect than one set in 2000. And James Dean may well have been Hollywood’s ultimate YA icon, daddy-o, but nobody talks like him anymore. YA dialect is also hugely influenced by subcultures—inner city versus suburban, skater doodz versus goths (we still have goths, right?) versus jocks—every little subculture has its own vernacular, and it’s your job to get it right. So treat dialogue as dialect, but do your research.

Attitudes. Not to paint with an overly-broad brush or anything, but let’s face it, there are definitely some recurring themes among the attitudes of young adults. Obviously not every young adult feels or acts the same, but these tropes are sufficiently well-grounded in reality that they’ll help with the believability of your characters. Your job is to portray them vividly, without being clichéd. Here are just a few of them.

Separating from parents. The YA years are when kids experiment with independence, and intentionally create distance from their parents. Having had their entire lives defined by dependence on parents, kids are often eager for a change. This is why moms who may have been best friends with their daughters may suddenly find that the daughter no longer wants to hang out with mom on the weekends to shop or go to a movie.

Pushing boundaries. Young adults rebel against externally imposed boundaries. Be home by ten? No way, you can’t control me! This is kids experimenting to find out how far they can go, what they can get away with, motivated by a desire to set their own rules. And can you blame them? If somebody had been telling me what I could and couldn’t do for 13, 14, or 15 years, I’d be fed up with it too.

Frustration. I wish I had a more specific, pithy tag for this one but I don’t. Follow me here. Kids have been growing up, from birth to the YA years, undergoing an enormous character arc. They’ve learned so much, they’ve grown so much, they’ve changed so much they’re hardly the same person anymore. And they know it. They’ve experienced an overwhelming inner character arc, resulting in a new view of themselves. Where they had previously viewed themselves as generally incapable and dependent on others, they can now see their capabilities, and have a newfound belief in their own ability to be independent. They feel like adults, even though they aren’t fully there yet.

Actual adults know this; these kids’ parents and teachers know full well that the chicks aren’t quite ready to leave the nest. So there’s a mismatch, as the kids feel like adults but nobody treats them that way. Result: frustration, and all the emotions that come with it. This is a big topic, and for more on the difference between inner and outer character arcs, I’d encourage you to read this article from last October.

Know-it-all syndrome. In the YA years, kids finally start to get a clue about life and how life works. The world stops being quite so confusing. When that happens, illusory superiority sets in: kids misinterpret having a clue about life as being an expert about life. Result? You can’t tell ‘em anything. They’re convinced they already know. It’s a problem, because often they don’t already know yet they reject information and advice from adults because they’re over-estimating their own expertise at this whole life thing.

Power struggles and bad choices. Young adults will vigorously fight to get their own way, even if their way looks dumb to a more experienced adult, simply because they are desperate to be in control of their own lives. Thus, the ability to make any choice at all, about anything, often takes on significance out of proportion to the choice itself. This is one of the most dangerous aspects of the YA years, because kids will often make bad choices—ones they know to be bad—simply because they can. Because it’s a choice they can make, that they know their parents can’t stop them from making. It’s all about being in control.

Trying on new identities. This is a big one, too. Young adults are becoming aware that there’s a whole range of options for what kind of person they could be. They’re cluing in to white collar / blue collar class and professional distinctions, to the variety of careers, modes of dress, subcultures, et cetera that they could potentially belong to. Life’s whole palette is becoming visible to them, and while it’s exciting as hell, they don’t yet know which of those choices is right for them.

So they experiment. They try out different personas, different political and spiritual attitudes. They may begin to champion a social cause, such as suddenly declaring “meat is murder!” and going hard-core vegan. They may join and leave a variety of cliques at school. Experiment with being straight, gay, or bisexual. Come home from school with their hair suddenly dyed blue. The variety here is endless, but if you’re looking to show a teen who can’t yet answer the question “who am I?” this is a great way to go.

Steal from your own life. We were all kids once. Not to discount the few gifted teenage novelists out there or anything, but most of us writers are well past the YA years ourselves, which gives us an edge. We’ve been there. We’ve lived through it. We can look back on our own youths with a much different perspective, and by all rights this ought to give us some good insights into how to write YA characters.

If ever there were an excuse to “write what you know", this is it. Just look back on your own youth. Try to remember how it felt. What struggles you faced. What made you really mad. What giant arguments you had with your parents. Think about them, and try to figure out why those things happened. Maybe they happened for some of the reasons I’ve discussed here, or maybe for other reasons entirely. When you figure it out, I promise you a little light will go on in your head for how you can apply that to your own YA characters.

May 28, 2010 17:32 UTC

Tags: character, young-adult, dialect, slang, attitude, inner character arc, power, choice, identity

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PNWA Day 3: There's something about Mary

For me, day 3 of the annual PNWA Summer Writers Conference was much like day two: back-to-back (times eleven) sessions with the writers whose works I was critiquing.

I got the day off to kind of a poor start by being late for the first appointment. Oops! What can I say; 8:00 AM is darned early to start, and yesterday the first one was at 8:20. I didn’t think to check my schedule for a different start time today. My bad. The scheduled client was really nice about it, though, and was happy to reschedule her consultation during one of my slotted breaks.

Like yesterday, I got to meet and talk with a bunch of interesting people who I would otherwise never have had the chance to interact with. But all morning, I was looking forward to one consultation in particular. This mystery writer, I knew only by the name Mary and by her writing. I couldn’t wait to meet her because her 25 page submission was, hands down, the flat-out best piece of writing I’ve seen outside of print in ... you know what? I can’t think of an unpublished piece of writing I’ve encountered that was better. Not one, and I’ve seen quite a bit. Mary wins.

The thing about Mary is that her writing has got voice. That elusive quality that sets great writers apart from the crowd. It’s the thing that, like former Attorney General Edwin Meese said about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Mary reached into her subconscious, found a heartbreakingly poignant character named Lil with an incredible life story, and channeled Lil straight onto the page. I have never seen such a strong voice in an unpublished writer before in my life.

So when Mary’s time slot rolled around, in walked someone I’d never have expected: the sweetest little old lady you ever met. I didn’t ask how old she was. It didn’t matter. She sat down, an anxious look on her face. I told her how much I had been looking forward to meeting her. She softened a bit. I told her how I felt about her writing. How beautiful and wonderful it was. She smiled. Her anxiety melted away. She wiped a tear from under one eye.

Writers invest so much of themselves in their writing. Eyes may be the windows to everyone else’s soul, but ink is the window into a writer’s soul. Mary’s soul is there in her writing for all to see. When she sat down at my table, all I could see in her eyes was how much of herself she felt was riding on my opinion.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. I am so pleased that I was able to replace her nervousness with validation, send her off with the confidence in her ability that she so richly deserves. But I’ve seen the same look on other faces, too, that same desperate hope for validation, from writers for whom my honest assessment of their work cannot be so glowing. I feel obligated to tell them the truth about their writing as I see it, but at the same time I struggle to do so in a way that encourages them forward. I know that if I deliver the feedback in the wrong way, they’ll leave crushed and never write again. That’s not the goal. I don’t think I want that kind of power over people. I just want to help them.

I hope my feedback helped Mary. And I hope I get to read the rest of her book and work whatever iota of magic I can on it. The economy is hard for all of us lately, and especially on sweet little old ladies with home decorating businesses who can’t find clients right now. Mary told me she can’t pay me. I told her I didn’t care. I’ll work on her book for free if I have to. I just want to read the end of it, and for a little while bask in the glow of amazing writing that I, lucky stiff that I am, have gotten to see before anyone else. I hope she lets me.

August 02, 2009 05:14 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, book doctor, feedback, confidence, voice, power, validation

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