Writing for 'real' teens
I'm often asked the question, "What's the secret to writing 'real' teens?" because I wrote my debut novel, The DUFF, when I was seventeen years old. And also because all of my other books are YA and touch on some real life, sometimes uncomfortable teen issues – sex, divorce, friendship, drinking, etc.
So here's the secret, the most important thing to remember when writing 'real' teenagers: 'real' teens can be really different from each other.
And here's what I mean...
When I first sat down to write The DUFF – when I first decided that I wanted to be a writer – I made myself a promise: I was going to write honestly, even if that meant writing about things that made my family, my readers, and sometimes even me uncomfortable. I was going to be as truthful about the high school experience as I could.
And the truth about the high school experience is that it varies from person to person. Some teenagers are having sex in high school. Others don't even get their first kiss until after graduation. Some teenagers go to parties and drink. Others never have a sip of alcohol. Some teenagers swear like they're on an episode of The Sopranos. Others never utter a single four letter word.
The mistake I see too often in YA books is that teenage characters only end up being one extreme or the other. Either they have sex, drink, and swear like sailors, or they're totally squeaky clean. They’re either 'good kids' or 'bad kids.'
But if we're talking about 'real' teenagers – they're far more complicated. They aren't always on one end of the spectrum or the other.
When I was in high school, I was somewhere in the middle. I had never had a boyfriend – or even a first kiss – in school. But I did drink a few times. And by the time I was seventeen, I was swearing like a South Park character. Meanwhile I had other friends who slept with multiple boys but never had a sip of alcohol and only uttered a curse word when it seemed really appropriate.
And, for the most part, even the teenagers that are squeaky clean are aware of what's happening around them. Just because they don't choose to partake doesn't mean they're naïve to the world around them. Teenagers who don't swear still hear swearing. Teenagers who aren't having sex still hear gossip about others who are.
And all of these teenagers, no matter where they fall on this spectrum, are very 'real.'
So that's the secret to writing about 'real' teens -- it's remembering that every teenager is different. That they're complicated. That they are more than just 'good kids' and 'bad kids.' They have layers.
And, for me, those kinds of characters – those 'real' teens – are way more exciting and fun to write.