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Smells Like Teen Spirit: Writing Fiction For and About Teens, by Diane Lee Wilson

teen girl reading a book at outdoor table

Why do adult writers, who are usually well past their teens, write novels for and about teens?

One of my motivations (which may be quite the opposite experience of others) is that I enjoyed the teen years. Yes, there was anxiety and tears and overblown emotions, but there was also an intoxicating sense of what life had to offer. The world was opening up to me, presenting ever-expanding freedoms along with an unimaginable variety of places and people and experiences.

The teen years were and are a precious time because they embody promise and possibility. With each year taken into adulthood those possibilities narrow. Adults necessarily limit their options as they become classified by education and career choice; as they are weighed down by a job, a mortgage, and family responsibilities; and as they become tethered to routine, to friends, and to hobbies. As we get older it becomes harder and harder to embrace change.

Not for the teen. The teen years are a whirlwind of constant change: body, relationships, music, dreams, friends. Beliefs and personalities are adopted temporarily then easily tossed off as other ones are sampled. The teen years are a time of exploration and of testing one’s abilities, and that’s what makes teen characters so much fun to write about. Anything can happen.

So how does the typical adult with a deadline and a mortgage and failing eyesight and friends with cancer and a stack of newspapers delivering more sadness than the day before recapture that teen spirit? Remember. All those poignant, horrifying, exhilarating times are still inside you. Call them forward. Re-experience the giddiness of that first love, the crush of malicious gossip, the terror of new schools and new teachers. How did you feel when that first classmate died? What song was on the radio the first time you took the car out alone? Re-live those experiences and make new connections.

A favorite perspective of mine comes from Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, a book that compiles conversations with the author’s former professor who is dying. When asked if he envies the young, Professor Morrie Schwartz responds, “Age is not a competitive issue…The truth is, part of me is every age. I’m a three-year-old, I’m a five-year-old. I’ve been through all of them, and I know what it’s like. I delight in being a child when it’s appropriate to be a child. I delight in being a wise old man when it is appropriate to be a wise old man…I am every age, up to now.”

Slipping into the skin of a teen character is an opportunity for an author to revisit his or her own youth. But there is an adjunct rule to remembering: Don’t judge. Let your character breathe, rush down the wrong road, make impetuous choices. It’s what teens do and it’s part of the fun of being a teen. Yes, as adult authors we’re older, and perhaps wiser, but avoid the temptation to preach to your teen characters. Let them experience the world in their own way and be molded by the consequences of their actions. That’s living. And sharing their adventures keeps writers young!


Diane Lee Wilson bio page

To Ride the Gods' Own StallionRaven SpeakTracksFirehorseGlowMishapsCode Name Verity

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Very interesting! I must admit that I have the opposite motivation; I write about teenagers because they are powerless, confused, scared, lonely, hated, pushed around, et cetera. These are the reasons that teenagers make such readily identifiable protagonists, but it’s also the reason that I loathed every day of those seven years.

    July 1, 2012

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