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Writing Teenage Characters, by Sarah Alderson

When my first book, Hunting Lila, was submitted to publishers most of the feedback that came back was along the lines of ‘Wow, she has a really authentic teenage girl voice.’

What I kept quiet was that my teenage girl voice was no different from my thirty year old girl voice. I just never grew up. In my head I’m still seventeen and I think that makes it easier for me to write protagonists of this age.

However, recently my five-year old daughter started school and I realised, once I was surrounded by high school age children, that actually I was deluded and I wasn’t in fact a teenager anymore (you’d think I would have gathered that from looking in the mirror but no). After that I started sending lists of questions to friends’ teenage children, quizzing them on everything from slang and fashion and music to the unspoken rules around pulling (hooking up). This has been invaluable and so many of the stories they’ve told me have ended up in my books, as well as making my jaw hit the floor. Is there anything more cringe-worthy than a middle-aged author pretending to be down with the kids? The most important lesson for me has been inviting teenagers to read my books while they’re still in progress to let me know whether I’ve got the language right. Teens are also brutally honest. And they’re your audience so testing on them isn’t such a bad idea!

It doesn’t matter what age your characters are, your job as an author is to make them believable, and to do that you need to know them. You need to know what drives them, inspires them and annoys them – even the really evil ones or the ones you’d never be friends with in real life – you need to know what makes them that way. Writers need huge amounts of empathy – every line of dialogue or action needs to run true to the character performing it – if it’s just included as a plot device to move the story on then you lose your readers because they stop believing.

So take time out not just to picture each of your characters (I often pick an actor on whom I want to base the way they look) but to establish their character. Maybe they’re based on a friend or someone you know? When I wrote Hunting Lila I actually researched star signs to give me some ideas of what kind of personality traits Lila, Jack and Alex might have.

Then give your characters a background. Spend some time writing down information about where they were born, what their parents did for a living, what their favourite subject at school is, what their favourite food is, what books lines their bookshelves, what music they listen to, what clothes they wear, for example. Some of this information might find its way into the book, giving clues to your reader as to who the characters are.

Details are what let characters jump off the page, turning them from 2D constructs into 3D people. But remember to show, don’t tell.

My final word of advice would be to let your characters have free rein. If you’ve constructed them well and they’re fully fleshed in your head then let them run free! This might mean that once you start writing they start behaving in ways that you hadn’t imagined. This is a good sign. It means that character is real.

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Sarah Alderson bio page

Hunting LilaFatedThe Christopher KillerThylaDangerously PlacedThe Dramatic Writer's Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing and Publishing)Just Write: Here's How!

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. A great article, Sarah! My WIP manuscript is a psychological thriller, but I have an urge to write YA–so many ideas floating about for my next novel. In YA it’s deadly addictive when the teen characters ring true. Not just sounding “believable”, but compelling and unique.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge.

    March 25, 2012

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