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Creating Teenage Characters For Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

teen girl reading book in chair

If you’re writing teen novels you’re probably not a teen. In fact, you’re probably well into adulthood and burdened with adult responsibilities. So how do you stay connected to today’s teens in order to create believable teen characters?

First of all, draw on your memories of being a teen. Remember the rawness of emotions, the vulnerability and insecurity. Additionally, remember – and honor – the rampant optimism inherent in being a teen. That was a time when dreams were big and anything was possible. I currently have a clipping from Elle magazine on my desk that features a photographer discussing her portraits of children and teens. In it she says, “What I like about young people is the potential is there but not developed yet. In a way, they’re sort of abstract.” I think that’s a wonderful example of why it’s enjoyable to write teen fiction. The possibilities for character development are endless.

Second, work to understand how today’s teens live their lives. Know what music they’re listening to, what movies and television shows they’re watching, and what clothes they’re wearing. Interact with teens if possible, perhaps kids in your neighborhood or at a nearby school. Sense the energy they’re expressing. Is it rebellion, hope, dismay, anger, fear…? Tap into that with the theme of your novel and explore those generational identities. Add your own opinions, if you’d like, through one of the characters in the story or in the way the story plays out. Just don’t preach!

Third, be open to any and all serendipitous interaction with teens, whether it’s overhearing a conversation on a bus or responding to a reader’s letter. Always be listening. Not long ago the teenage daughter of a neighbor recently appeared at my door in tears over an argument she’d just had with her mother. I invited her in, of course, and listened to her tell me why she should be allowed to travel to a foreign country by herself next summer and why her mother had said she couldn’t. I care for this girl as if she were my own and shared her hurt. I listened carefully as she stated her case. “My mom’s so bossy. She won’t listen. She won’t even consider it. She always has to be right. I know it’s because she didn’t get to do these things. She thinks it’s a big bad world out there. She always expects the worst. She doesn’t trust me to make the right decisions to not get into trouble.”

What I heard was a girl who wanted to stretch her wings and was crushed by the belief that her mother doesn’t recognize her capabilities, doesn’t trust her and insists on keeping her fastened to the earth. She had a hurdle and a desire to overcome it – two essential story components. As the conversation went on, I learned that her father had joined the discussion and had supported her wish to travel independently, adding conflict between the parents.

This simple event could be turned into a realistic and compelling story. Just how far would a young teen girl go to achieve her dream? Would she stow away on a plane, run off with someone she met online or disappear entirely? What dangers would she face: drugs, kidnapping, rape, theft? Conversely – let’s exaggerate here – what would happen if her parents kept her here, inconsiderate of her dreams? How might she react: rebel by breaking rules, act out in school, pit one parent against the other?

All of the components of a believable teen story were present in my living room, contorted by hormones, tears and a youthful desire to be free. I could easily have fallen into the parental role (my own daughter is just five years older) but I chose to be a good friend and listener. I kept my writer’s ear open to better understand and connect with this teen girl and the way she lived her life.


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