After spending five years on a manuscript that still isn’t publisher-ready, I have learned the hard way that there’s a delicate balance you need to walk when writing a compelling teenage protagonist. Here, and I’ll be as brief as possible, is what I’ve learned…
Writing teenagers. From their own points of view. It’s tricky.
First of all, most of us are writing about a time in our life that is already behind us. (Unless you’re one of those prodigies writing a successful novel while still a teenager, which thankfully for my ego, isn’t most of us.) I think I remember what it was like being a teenager–those years obviously made quite an impact on me, given I’ve chosen to spend all my free time writing about them–but of course time skews all our memories. What I think I felt and said as a teenager is not necessarily what I actually thought and felt.
So how to make my teenage protagonists realistic?
1. Hang around teenagers This may seem a given, but unless you’re a high school teacher or the parent of one (I am neither) this is surprisingly hard to do. So what do I do?
I hang around my younger cousins at family parties and listen to what they’re talking about.I hang around the interns at work, who aren’t teenagers, but they were just two or three years ago. And perhaps most creepily of all, I eavesdrop on teenagers. In the subway, in stores. If I am waiting in line somewhere and have a choice of lines to get on, I will always get behind the group of teenagers and (non-creepily) listen to what they’re talking about and the words they use. It helps.
2. Another way to write realistic teenage characters? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: read in your genre. Not only that, read good books in your genre. Ones that have perhaps been praised for their realistic character portrayal.
3. Follow teenagers on social media And not Facebook. They’re not on Facebook. Instagram, Snapchat, and especially Tumblr. Tumblr is my favorite social media platform and probably always will be. I relate so hard to everyone I follow, and they’re nearly all teenagers. Also Tumblr is the platform of anonymity, so it’s not creepy to follow people you don’t know.
4. Finally, I go back and read over my high school journals. I was a fairly angsty teenager back in the day, with very little in the way of a life or friends, so I spent a ton of time writing. I like to think it was in anticipation of my future career, but really it was just because I was sad with no one to talk to and nothing but my words. Sometimes I cringe at some of the stuff I wrote–really, was life that bad?–but it’s nothing if not real. Delve back into your pain, and use it.
The mistakes that I made when writing my protagonist the first time? I was making her too much like how I wish I was as a teenager, which is pretty close to how I am now. A little too mature, making too many smart decisions, not being emotional enough. Then when I realized that, I went in the complete opposite direction and made her insufferably immature, making all kinds of stupid decisions and being way too whiny. Teenagers can be teenagers without being awful. Obviously.
So now I think I’m finally able to strike the balance of a realistic, angsty, relatable teenager. Both of my manuscripts still need another round of cooling off and re-editing (and possibly another round after that) before I start querying (again) but I’m hoping that this time, I’ve gotten it right.
Do you have any tips for writing teenagers? I learned the hard way–by doing everything wrong first, then figuring out how to fix it. But the good thing about learning things the hard way? You’re still learning them!
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