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: www.amykathleenryan.com
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