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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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Un-Clone your characters with distinctive dialogue

In yesterday’s post, I wanted to cover everything about using dialogue effectively to show character, as well as warning of some of the pitfalls. Oh, naive blogger, ye! That’s a whole book, not a blog post, so I’m taking it in smaller bites. Today I’m covering some tips and tricks for creating distinctive dialogue for your characters.

Writing dialogue is hard for a lot of reasons. One, as I said yesterday, is that all readers are experts in dialogue. But another is that we are each so deeply steeped in our own patterns of speech that we have trouble thinking in different patterns of speech for the characters we create.

If we don’t work to avoid it, all of our characters end up sounding like us. And thus, they all sound like clones.

There are a lot of strategies for avoiding this bland fate, and you’ll have to experiment with what works for you.

Strategy #1: Imitate people you know.

Where you come from influences how you speak. American English has different patterns than British, Australian, New Zealand, and Caribbean English. America and the United Kingdom have many linguistically distinct regions within them, and I imagine the same is true for Australia and the rest. So think about people you know who didn’t grow up where you grew up, and try to imitate them.

If you have a character that comes from a place with a distinctive patois, you should take particular pains to learn enough so you can imitate it. Just think about the immediate difference between “Good morning,” “G’day, mate,” and “Good mawnin’, braddah.” Even an otherwise throw-away line of dialogue can be made to show character if it is distinctive.

Strategy #2: Create mannerisms

Most people have at least a few verbal tics that are unique to them. I knew a guy once who sounded entirely normal to me, except he used “whenever” in places everyone else would simply use “when.” Myself, when I was about 12 years old, I developed this habit of inserting the word “basically” into nearly every sentence that came out of my mouth. Fortunately I got over it but you get the idea: for each of your characters, create some particular phrasing that is slightly unusual yet still immediately understandable. And make sure to keep straight which characters have which particular tics.

Strategy #3: Formal vs. informal vs. slang

Some people are very formal in their speech. Some are more casual. Some use a lot of slang. There is a whole spectrum of formality you can draw from, and you should. Degrees of formality are excellent tools for showing a character’s level of education and social background. Yes, it’s stereotypical that upper-class people with more education tend to speak more formally, while lower-class people with little education speak in a streetwise vernacular. I know, we shouldn’t stereotype people, but then again the stereotype wouldn’t exist if it weren’t more or less true. Again, consider the immediate difference between “Would you be so kind as to get me a drink,” and “Yo, my man, grab me a beer!”

If you play it right, you can create some very distinctive characters by explicitly manipulating the character’s level of formality in different scenes. For example, if you have a character from the wrong side of the tracks, who has worked hard to put himself through college and become an upper-middle class professional, this person may well use different speech patterns at work versus hanging out with his old pals on the weekend. It’s a great device for showing the character’s dilemma of trying to fit into two different worlds.

Ok, so how do I actually do that?

Obviously, it’s best if you can work out each character’s manner of speech before you write the novel. That way, you can get it right from the beginning. If you’re one of those writers who creates extensive character biographies beforehand, this is something you could easily incorporate into your pre-novel-writing preparation. Write some sample scenes for your characters so you can practice their voices.

But not everyone works that way. Some writers only come to know their characters in the process of writing the books, so what then? That’s fine, so long as you’re willing to accept that you’ll need to do an edit pass specifically to address these questions of distinctive voice. Just write the first draft, do your best as you go along, but don’t stress about it.

When you’ve finished the first draft, make a list for each character of the verbal patterns you have discovered for them. These could consist of notes like “sounds like my friend Elwyn,” or “says ‘very very’ instead of ‘really’ or ‘a lot’.” Stuff like that. Now compare your lists to make sure they aren’t too similar, and adjust if necessary. When you feel you have a good handle on each character’s voice, do an edit pass on the whole book and adjust every line of dialogue to fit with the speaker’s verbal patterns.

Finally, a word of caution:

There is a difference between how people sound when they talk, and the words they choose to say. The physical sound—how they shape their vowels, whether they roll their Rs—that’s accent. The patterns of words they use, that’s dialect. As an author, you have to learn to control both.

Dialect is straightforward, because it’s just words, but accent is harder. To represent accent on the silent page, you must often resort to intentional misspellings. When done well that can be very effective, but it is all too easy to take the business of accenting way too far, turning it into an ugly caricature that borders on a racist portrayal. Few things will turn a reader off faster than a suspicion that the author is a bigot.

Also, it is just plain hard to invent accent-oriented misspellings that give the sound you’re after but are also easy for the reader to understand. Some writers have a flair for this, but most don’t. For this reason I encourage most of my clients to stick with word-pattern distinctions but shun the accents.

July 15, 2009 18:17 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, distinctive, clones, accent, dialect, imitation, mannerisms, verbal tics, formal, informal, slang, stereotypes

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