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Choosing And Voicing Characters For My Teen Historical Novels, by Pauline Francis

I always imagined that I’d write contemporary fiction. When I decided to write for teenagers, I wrote a full-length novel about a young girl with anorexia. It was good - but it lacked a strong voice.

What is the secret of a good character? Why can it take so long to discover what it is?

I felt like an alchemist in search of the great secret: how to change metal into gold. I followed all the rules. I read and read and read (I was a children’s librarian at the time, so I knew what appealed to readers). I was involved in writing abridged classics (Fast Track Classics) for younger readers, so I knew most of the great English and American Classics and why they’d become classics.

But I still didn’t know how to make my fiction better.

I read and re-read my favourite teen authors; Witch Child by Celia Rees, Apache by Tanya Landman, The Road of Bones by Anne Fine (2006) and Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (2003).

They all have one thing in common - they are historical novels.

I came to understand the author’s voice. …that special ingredient that makes the magic. It’s ME - the author - who must be emotionally part of my writing and that without it, my narrative will be as dull as a base metal, whether historical or contemporary.

I asked myself: what had made me tick emotionally when I was a teenager?

I disliked being a teenager. I felt trapped in a difficult situation - wanting to study and go to University but with a father who believed that girls shouldn’t be educated. I was a rather shy and very thin child, and my family thought I was too serious and hated to see me reading. They believed in lots of fresh air and healthy sport. Lady Jane Grey came into my mind. I knew her from my school history. The little written about her wasn’t very flattering. She was shy, short and very thin – and preferred reading to hunting. Her parents disapproved of her, preferring her beautiful and outgoing sister, Catherine.

You can see where this is going.  I resisted the urge to write about Jane for a while because I’d never planned to write historical fiction. Then I gave in. I decided to make Jane the subject of my first novel because she echoed how I felt as a teenager.

It was unbelievably easy to write about Jane. I understood what made her tick.

She was sold into marriage by her ambitious father to the son of an equally ambitious father-in-law. They both sought power through this fifteen year old girl, because she was close in line to the throne of England. She was manipulated onto the throne and died for it.

I’m sure that my voice echoing through Jane made it the novel it was.

I chose Elizabeth for Traitor’s Kiss because she had to draw on enormous resources as she grew up - and make difficult decisions as I did. She had few people to guide her and this was her great attraction for me.

Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was the second wife of Henry VIII. He had her executed for suppose adultery when Elizabeth was only two. Everything that belonged to Anne was banned and burned. Her name was never mentioned.

What would it be like to grow up, knowing that your father had killed your mother? What would the gossip be like? As  Elizabeth grew into womanhood, spirited and swarthy skinned like her mother, she attracted attention from men who wanted power (she was third in line for the throne) - especially her step-father, Thomas Seymour. He flirted with Elizabeth. She flirted back. They were seen kissing. Like mother, like daughter? Elizabeth was only fourteen, but banned from court. As her step-father tried to gain power, he was taken to the Tower of London and Elizabeth, by association with him, was interrogated for six weeks.

Elizabeth used all her resources to outwit her interrogators - and to live to be Queen. Although none of these events happened to me, I recognised the kindred spirit in a young girl forced to draw on her own resources.

In between these two novels, I wrote another called A World Away, based on the first British colony to be established in America. It has been well-liked, but it is the least popular of my novels and I think it’s because the voice of my characters doesn’t reflect me.


Paulines Francis’s author website:

Pauline Francis bio page


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The Raven QueenA World AwayThe Traitor's Kiss     Victoria RebelsRaven SpeakRed is for RemembranceAngel Dust

Writing Teen Novels

Voice In Teen Novels, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

I get asked a lot in my classes on writing how I make the voice for the teenager ‘authentic’. I think my answer is frustratingly esoteric, but it works for me: I don’t try to sound like a teenager at all. I don’t try to include current slang, or fads, or anything that actually separates me from teens.  I’m a generation older than they are and there isn’t anything I can do about that. Their youth, their teenaged rambunctiousness, their clingy jeans and their weird hairstyles — if I get bogged down in all that, it alienates me from them too much. In other words, I can’t be really authentic in my YA voice if I think of teenagers as the “other”.

Instead I try really hard to get down to the basics, and simply imagine a young, inexperienced person stuck in the situation I’ve created for them. I focus on creating a real, whole character who behaves in all the unexpected, strange ways people behave when they’re confronted with the challenges of life.

Some writers have a totally different take on this question, and they’re not wrong. Many YA writers I know spend time with teens just so they can listen to the way they talk, notice their clothes, and their many changing fads. This can be a good approach too, but I would suggest that even writers who are observing and studying young people, when they’re in the task of writing, are still thinking of their teen characters as people first. Probably all those anxieties about linguistically masquerading themselves fall into the background when they’re drafting.

My only caveat with this approach is that if one tries too hard to sound “current,” one could end up with a book that doesn’t age particularly well. Imagine reading a book written during the 1970s when all the kids were saying, “Far out,” and “Groovy.” Do you want to read that book now? I’ll bet you if you take a look at the books that have endured over the decades, you’ll find that none of the characters sound like the cast of The Brady Bunch.  If plain old lovely English is good enough for the likes of Judy Blume, Madeleine L’Engle, and Katherine Paterson, it is certainly good enough for me.

Besides, there’s so much more to voice than shallow, faddish verbiage. If you get the concerns of a young person right, their frustration with the limits to their own power, their inexperience when dealing with oftentimes adult issues, their very human fears about not being strong enough or pretty enough or smart enough… If you hit all these notes right, the voice takes care of itself. The concerns of a teenager are, in the final analysis, not too different from the concerns of an adult. Where do I belong? How can I be happy? How can I find love?  Who am I? The older I get, the more I realize that we are all like children, continually bewildered by a random, unpredictable, chaotic world, no matter how old we happen to be. If a writer remembers that, s/he can create believable characters of any age.


Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website:

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

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Writing Teen Novels


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