Writing Believable Teen Characters, by Lish McBride
There are a series of questions that I get at events that always make me do that confused-puppy-head-tilt thing, and though they seem different at first, they are at their core the same question. They go something like this:
“How do you write a male teen character? You’re not a teenage boy!”
“How do you write from the point of view of a teenager when you are obviously full of old?”
“How do I create my own believable teen character when I spend all day eating pudding in a nursing home? Kids are so different these days with their iPads and their Beach Boy records…”
You get the idea. So put down your liniment, turn up your hearing aid and turn off your Victrola.
Here’s the thing – it’s not like we’re talking about strange creatures from the moon. Human experience is human experience. Teens – and I know this might come as a surprise – are people. I know. It’s crazy. They are people and they have emotions just like other people. Sure, things can feel more immediate and intense at that age, but they are, at their base, they same emotions that you have. Even someone like me who has the emotional spectrum of a dilapidated robot can manage it, so I’m sure you can too.
For teen authors: just because you are a teen, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it right either. Sometimes it’s the hardest to write what’s closest to us. Or, if you are like me when I was a teen, you might not really understand what on Earth your peer group is up to. I certainly didn’t get it until I was older. You might be a little swifter on the uptake though.
Back to the earlier questions – no, the last time I checked, I was not a teenage boy. But I’m not a werewolf or a necromancer either and no one asks me how I can write about that without personal experience. Because I write fiction and I’m making it all up. I am imagining what it would be like to be a teen guy in those situations. If I am worried that my responses aren’t “male” enough” I ask a guy friend their opinion. But really, it is generally not necessary, because when I’m writing I don’t think, “What would a guy do?” I think, “What would Sam (my male main character) do? Because it’s not about Sam being a guy necessarily, it’s about him being Sam. He’s not going to bust through the door dressed in leather ready to fight a room full of bikers. He’s not going to do tequila shots and watch the football game on the big screen. He’s not going to become a lumberjack and grow a big, bushy beard. He’s not that kind of guy. Sam is more of the, “Let’s play D&D and go to the record shop,” kind of guy.
Teens are like any other character. Your teen character is going to talk differently, think differently and react differently than other teen characters. Because people are different. Gender isn’t black and white – it’s a spectrum of greys with black and white bookends. Maturity doesn’t necessarily come with age. I know some teens that are more mature and practical than grown up people that I meet. So attempting to write a believable teen is just as hard for a teen author as it is an adult author, because, honestly, you’re still trying to create a unique and complete human being out of nothing.
Though I have tried to block them out, I still remember my teen years. I can draw from that experience. They were, in fact, terrible. I find it very funny that I hated high school so much, and now I spend my time imagining people that are in high school. I would say it’s like a nightmare, but really, I love writing for teens.
Flesh out your teen character like you would any other character. What do they want? What are their dreams? What are they going to learn? What do they like to do with their free time? Don’t ask yourself, “Would a teen do that?” Ask, “Would MY teen do that?” Treat them like they are real people and that will go a long way. (You should also do this with real live teens.)
Homework: Think about your favorite teens in fiction or in real life. What is surprising about them? What is important to them? What do they do/think/say that make them individuals? Then apply these thoughts to your teen character.
Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com
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