There’s absolutely no hard and fast rules about writing YA other than the fact that the characters probably need to be young adults. It’s such a fluid, changeable genre that it’s hard to pin down. However often there is a sizable disconnect between the actions of the character and their situation. Sometimes the reader can be left wondering if the author has even spoken to a teenager in the last fifteen years. When aspiring authors ask if they can use swear words in young adult, it’s a sign that either they may not read enough Young Adult literature or don’t know teenagers well. Which is not to say that, for example, all teenagers swear, drink and do drugs. There are many responsible, mature teenagers out there and they shouldn’t be stigmatized. Like any group of individuals, there is a huge range of behaviours. What they do all share, though, is the experience of being a teenager and how that affects them. What does that mean? How can a writer capture that?
Short answer, I’m not sure that I know or can even answer that, but I do know five ways you can probably not capture that.
1. Nobody swears, has sex, drinks, cuts or does drugs. Ever.
This isn’t to say everyone should swear all the time. But it’s important to understand that for many teenagers, swearing is an easy way of defying parental authority, establishing themselves amongst others and is often something done with little thought. It’s fine if you don’t want your protagonist to swear. It’s also not unusual for a number of teenagers to decide that swearing is either tacky, impinges on their religious beliefs or is not a way they like talking. But if nobody in your novel swears – out of all their friends and acquaintances and people they know – that’s probably not realistic for a contemporary novel.
And if your seventeen year olds aren’t even talking or bragging about sex then it starts to border on curiously naive. Whilst more widely available sex education and increased awareness means teens seem to be having sex later than their predecessors, two thirds of people lose their virginity in their teens. That still means that twelve and thirteen year olds are having sex. Drinking is pretty prevalent as is at least discussion on drugs. It’s not that you have to turn your novel into a PSA for clean living or the ills of peer pressure. Just remember what it’s like to have it there. Your protagonist can do none of these things or want to do none of these things – and they can hang out with like-minded friends. It’s not doing these things that’s important but the what they mean to teenagers – who those teens want to be, whether they’re good at decision-making, or comfortable with their identity. These things are powerful with teenagers for a reason – because they’re apart of teens forming independent identities, pushing away the childish aspects of themselves, rebelling against their parents not only to assert themselves, but because being a teenager sucks.
2. You forget what teenage life is like
A lot of teenagers in Young Adult novels have absent parents. They drive everywhere, go where they like, stay up until all hours of the night and rarely fight with their parents.
For one, remember that teens only freshly have their license. Why are these teens never unsure on the road or having any anxiety about driving? Or the novel treats driving as a given. For many teens, learning to drive and getting their car is a huge deal. And who got a car, or who crashed or who still wants one is also a big part of life. Try to remember the frustration of always having to bum a lift of your reluctant parents (“I’m not a taxi service, young lady!”) or their friends (“Can you fit one more in Billy’s car? Well, can Janiene borrow her mom’s?”).
Then there’s simply the fact that a lot of teenage life is boring. Especially when the allowance is gone and there’s nobody to give you a ride. Should they play Xbox at Sally’s house? Scrimp together their change to share a McNugget meal? God, teens here hang out at the parking lot at McDonalds on a Friday night because there really isn’t that much to do. If nobody has a party on, where do they go? What do they do?
A lot of novels tend to have teenagers who don’t care about brands either. Their characters are too cool and edgy to care about what they dress like. That’s fine. There’s plenty of teens that don’t. But even more that do. Material possessions, especially clothes, tend to be how teenagers immediately classify themselves in their social structure. Many of them want to shop where it’s cool for them to shop – even if that’s welfare stores for something fashionably retro and different. It’s the most easily visual way of building their identities – something that adults take for granted. We’ve learned how to be ourselves, to be mostly comfortable in our own skin. For the most part we know what we like, how we like and where we want to go. This is because we were teenagers – something that many teenagers are still sorting out for themselves.
This goes for music and body art. Hobbies and interests and, most of all, some really poor decision making. Because teenagers are still learning about themselves, and because their frontal cortex is still developing, many teens lash out and make bad choices. Especially when it comes to fighting with parents which, for many kids, is a normal part of their every day activity. Parents are the placers of boundaries and rules. Their job is to keep the teenagers close so that said teens can survive into adulthood. This is anathema to what many teenagers want. Try to remember what it felt like to need to test boundaries. To prove to yourself if you could do it or not, what you could get away with. Most of all, to show your parents that you weren’t some little kid. Try to remember the senseless rage at not being allowed to buy that $80 sweater, or go to that party that you absolutely have to go to or your whole world comes to an end. Teenagers are a bundle or outrageous hormones and emotions. Even the most collected, mature teens still have there moments! Which is why:
3. Your characters are too cool
So many Young Adult characters have it all down and sussed. Which is just crazy when one considers the cocktail of insanity that is the life of a teenager. Even the coolest kids in school have serious issues. Because teenagers are still learning about the world, and life and people in general, and because we force them to do that with more than a hundred other random kids the same age, teenage years tend to be hectic. They’re often a hogepodge of embarrassing, mortifying, humiliating situations. Not just which lunch table to sit at, but romantic interactions, who gets paired with who in science class. Moments that make you wish you could be home schooled forever, that time you dreaded going to school on Monday because you would never live THIS one down. That test you’re probably going to fail or the pimple that you can feel coming up with the dance is in two days. You bled through you jeans or you asked a boy/girl out, got rejected and everyone laughed at you. Fighting with friends, losing friends, having to negotiate psychos that are other teenagers.
Nobody knows it all or has it down pat. Sure there are highly intelligent, focused teenagers who have it more together than most. However, there’s still an abundance of social situations and experiences that they have to navigate before even thinking of dealing with 6-8 teachers, their family and their friends.
4. You don’t know what high school is like anymore
So Hollywood still makes movies and TV shows where the jocks rule and nerds drool, princesses primp and wallflowers…wear glasses, a pony tail and dress in baggy clothes? Sure, maybe they’ll throw in one or a few weird asocial goth kids to get picked on, but that’s all there is to high school, right?
If you haven’t seen 21 Jump Street with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in it then you may want to give it a watch. It’s not every high school or even most high schools. What it is, is an eye opener. Yes. You still have jocks, cheerleaders and nerds. However high school is so much more than this now. Goths, emos, punks, skaters, stoners, free spirits, academics, loners, nerds, geeks, gamers, the “bad” crowd, the cool kids (these don’t necessarily have to be jocks these days! They can even be nerds! Nerds, geeks, gamers – depending on who they are, are no longer necessarily the horror of high school existence), rural kids, surfer crowd, TEEN WEREWOLVES (totally a thing, and not just a MTV Show about Teenagers who turn into werewolves), scene girls, scene boys, theater crowd, band geeks, sports freaks (different from jocks), the art kids, dancers – high school is a veritable plethora or cliques and groups. Some schools tend to be a lot more inclusive than movies would make high school out to be.
And with all this differentiation comes cultural aspects. If you’re still making gross generalizations based on race then your novel is going to lack a lot of the real substance of every day life for teens. Just because your character’s ancestry comes from somewhere that makes it easy to generalize them as straight-laced, unpopular academics, doesn’t make it an accurate reflection on many schools. Maybe instead of making them math geniuses who talk with a funny accent – you give them bleached blond hair, a crazy awesome fashion sense and a passion for playing the treble base?
If computers, phones and consoles are barely even mentioned in your story then you might want to rethink what they mean to teens. School socializing no longer ends when you go home and do your homework. Most teens are texting with each other, chatting on line, using social media and blogs to keep up with each other. Cyber socializing and bullying has become a massive issue for teens to navigate. Where social structure means everything and their whole world is both so chaotic and tightly controlled. It’s easy to forget what being just older than a child and not yet an adult is like. They tend to make their characters too mature, too responsible – to adult-like.
5. Your characters are too responsible
How many times have you read a YA novel where the protagonist cooks dinner, does the groceries or the washing or is saving up their money for something. Do they ever mention how dirty their room is or have to kick teddy bears under the bed when others visit. It’s easy as adults to imagine teenagers doing all this on a regular basis because that is part of our life. There are, I should add, some incredibly responsible teens out there. But the point is that many teens do their homework on the rug, have filthy rooms, never cook and never, ever do the groceries. Because they’re children. Then there’s the whinging about having to do things around the house that is suspiciously missing from most novels. No, “But moooooom!” or “I’ll do it in a minute!” or “This is so unfair! *Sibling* never does ANYTHING!” They’re children. Most children are spoiled. They don’t understand why they have to work when they want to play games or talk on the phone. Most don’t just get on and do the work because it’s done for them by adults. It also means feeling entitled until the world teaches you otherwise. It’s great to see reasonable, responsible teenagers represented in young adult literature – but it sometimes misses some of the most authentic moments of being a person in progress.
Mostly, there’s going to be so many factors that determine whether your book is good or not – but it’s worth keeping in mind that life for teens has changed since you were a teenager. It’s worth investigating, thinking, remembering what made the experience so powerful and evocative. Maybe try writing different characters that your audience can easily relate to , that shows the complexity and considerable intensity of their every day life. Mostly, just let your teenage characters be teenagers. There’s plenty of time for that maturity when they’re older!