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Tuesday, April 16

Writing Realistic Teenagers in YA

By Jodi Turchin, @jlturchin

Part of the How They Do It Series


JH: The young adult market has been hot for years, and many writers are testing these deep waters. Jodi Turchin visits the lecture hall today to share some tips on writing realistic teens. Please help me give her a warm welcome.


Jodi Turchin is a Young Adult novelist represented by Dawn Frederick at Red Sofa Literary. She’s also a photographer, a high school English teacher, a former actress and director, an Independent Scentsy Consultant, a Younique presenter, and a dog-mom.

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Take it away Jodi…

Recently, I wrote in my blog  about people who judge the Young Adult category as being less than real writing. But as both a high school teacher and a YA novelist myself, I get very upset when the world at large looks down their collective nose at a category that, while aimed at a teen audience, enjoys much crossover into adult readership. When writing a novel for the YA category, it’s important to root your characters in the world as it stands, not as you remember it looking back as an adult. Today, I’m going to give you some tips to making your teenage characters feel real to the teen reader.

1. Observe teens in their natural habitats. 


As a teacher, I’m lucky to be around my target audience on the daily. I teach high school English as my day job, so I have about 75 teens a day in my classroom, and many more passing me by during class changes. I always warn my kids at the beginning of each school year that anything they say or do could turn up in a future novel. In fact, my first year teaching at my current school, I kept a hardbound notebook on my desk to jot down things my kids said, did, or wore that I felt I could use later. 

If you don’t teach, go find a place where teens congregate and channel Jane Goodall. How do they interact with each other? How do they talk? What do they wear? Translate that to your characters. The beautiful thing about most teenagers is they can be completely oblivious to adults eavesdropping on them. If they don’t notice you’re there, they are completely honest about who they are in that moment. Steal that honesty.

2. Listen to actual teenagers. 


Most teens don’t talk the way adults do, and they don’t sound like stereotypes either. Not every California kid sounds like the movie Valley Girl. Before landing my agent, I queried a multitude of agents on four different novels, and the one common compliment across the board was the authenticity of my teen voice. 

Some of that does come from me – I fully admit to being emotionally stunted at sixteen, which is why most of my protagonists are either that age or only a year older – but most of that comes from listening to my students and other teens I encounter. My local public library is located next to a charter school, and when I stop in after school to get or return books, I listen to the kids outside waiting for their parents to pick them up to see if there are any interesting conversations happening as I pass among them. 

(Here's more on How to Write With a Teen Voice)  

3. Avoid current slang in dialogue. 


It’s good to listen to the kids. It may be tempting to use the words the kids are using, but the bigger problem with that is in the turnover of popular language. If you put specific slang in the book you are writing today, and then once it’s done, you go through revision, query, get an agent, get an editor, then eventually your book comes out, the slang you chose when you started the process could already be yesterday’s news. You can choose to make your characters unique by having their own code words in their social groups but trying to make them current by utilizing existing slang could hurt you in the long run by dating the book.

4. Include diversity but avoid stereotypes. 


When creating your cast of characters for your novel, it’s tempting to make all your characters whatever you are. Write what we know, right? But especially now, with #ownvoices and @diversebooks being so on the YA forefront, it’s important to recognize that the world our teens live in is not all black nor all white.  

My school is a high minority population, but the kids all intermingle. So my white main character may have friends who are persons of color, or whose sexuality isn’t hetero, etc. Having a diverse cast is good – putting in “token” characters to have a diverse cast is bad. If you’re not sure if your character is good-diverse or bad-diverse, find a reader of the culture you’re including. They can tell you if your character works or not.

5. Mine your own memories. 


Teens have some universal fears and experiences. It’s okay to look back on your own experiences as a teenager to build the foundation for your character. However, what you want to be careful NOT to do is date your character by using your experiences too closely. 

While some contemporary teenagers like to listen to the “oldies” (It hurts to write that in reference to the music of my teen years) and watch our 80s movies, most of them are not going to relate to a character whose roots are living in the past. Even in my current novel, my main character’s father is a drummer and she grew up on his music (classic rock), but in revisions with my agent, it was suggested to include more modern musical references as well. You can’t rely completely on your experiences as a teenager, but you can use them as a reference point to build upon.

6. Consider current events. 


Unless you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy, your characters live in the current world. In The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas tackled a huge issue of a young man of color being shot by a police officer. This is the reality today. School shootings are more common now than ever, and students must face “Code Red” and “Active Shooter” drills in schools. 

These are some things to consider when writing YA in the now. Most of my students are minorities, and over the years they’ve shared with me their resentment of being “tracked” when they walk into a convenience store or being targeted by police officers who assume the worst of them because they’re black in a low socio-economic neighborhood. These are some elements to consider when writing. You don’t have to put them all in the book but think about how your characters might react to the situations that present in our world today.

What other tips would you have for someone wanting to write for teens?

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