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Creating Teenage Characters For Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

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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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

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Writing Teen Novels
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Creating Teen Characters For Dystopian Novels, by Sam Hawksmoor

Why does Katniss work so well as a character in The Hunger Games?  (Although I never really saw Jennifer Lawrence as my Katniss, I eventually warmed to her).  She knows hunger.  She knows courage and rebellion. She breaks the rules daily to hunt for food to feed her family.  She understands self-sacrifice and is devoted to her family.  All of this is in the first chapter of the novel.  Who couldn’t like her?  That she is thrown into this terrifying Big Brother Reality Arena with weapons as she is forced to fight to the death is the thrill, of course, but so too is her magnanimity and compassion (this is also her flaw).

If you think people (teens in particular) like this don’t exist, you weren’t watching the 2012 Olympics.  Jessica Ennis won gold in the heptathlon.  Running, jumping, javelin throwing, yet more running, and hurdles over water jumps and hazards. Four years of dedicated training, 15 hours a day, forcing yourself on through injuries, all kinds of setbacks, challenging yourself, submitting yourself to endless heats, never accepting defeat but renewing your efforts each time you are beaten. Multiply this by thousands and thousands of young athletes dedicated to the glory of achievement with a medal rather than financial reward and you will understand that Katniss has done the required 10,000 hours it takes to be a champion.

Creating teen characters who will strive, survive, love with all the intensity of a small nuclear explosion (and hate in the same strength) is what it takes; all this tinged with regret for the fleeting times between 15 and 20 when everything is so important and immediate, so much about you.  Every relationship is ‘the one’ until the next one. Every break-up is devastating until the next one.  Your hormones are raging and won’t leave you alone.  Your life goes from total focus to total distraction in a flash and all around there is betrayal, paranoia, expectation, utter boredom and restrictions. Even so, you are supposed to make plans for your life and career.   You either know exactly what you want to be or have absolutely no idea at all and everything seems out of reach.  Your parents are conspiring against you.  Girls you knew at school last year are going past the school with babies, and some have dropped out because of all the stupid other temptations that trip you up on the way.  You’re still there – slogging away at exams you hate for subjects you have no interest in.  No wonder dystopia is in fashion.  Who wouldn’t want to destroy all this and start over, only with a full fridge and working shower?  The world is utterly mad – until he or she suddenly smiles at you and a door opens to new possibilities. Too late, you discover that love is not the answer – just the question.  But that’s another story.

Characters emerge out of this seething cauldron. I’ll leave you with the words of Ferris Bueller from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:
Ferris: The question isn’t “what are we going to do,” the question is “what aren’t we going to do?”

Cameron: Please don’t say were not going to take the car home. Please don’t say were not going to take the car home. Please don’t say were not going to take the car home.

Ferris: [to the camera] If you had access to a car like this, would you take it back right away?
[beat]
Neither would I.

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Sam Hawksmoor’s author website: www.samhawksmoor.com

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Teenage Characters And Responsibility In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

One feature that I feel is characteristic of teen fiction is the divide between young people and adults.  It can show up as a contrast – between the unfinished, dynamic character of a maturing teen and the more static character of adults who are stuck in their prescribed roles.  Or it can show up as a simple lack of understanding between the adults and the teens in the novel.  Where I find this divide most interesting, and probably most disturbing, is when it’s part of a power play.  This is the kind of conflict that I find myself most often describing in my own novels.

Teenagers don’t appear to have much power in Western society.  They can’t legally drink, drive, vote, fight in a war, marry, hold a job or live on their own until they reach a certain age that adults consider appropriate.  Basically, they are dependent on the adults around them to make sensible decisions for them. These can include life changing or even life saving decisions and, to the maturing mind, not being able to make one’s own decisions is often a source of deep conflict.

The kind of relationship that I explore in all my novels is that of the teen breaking free from the control of the adult world and learning to make decisions and accept responsibility for those decisions.  I don’t really have a moral message to deliver in my writing, but if I did it would simply be that I want people to accept responsibility for their own actions.  That’s what being a teen is all about.

In Code Name Verity, my most recent novel, the young heroines find themselves involved in assisting the British war effort during World War II.  Not only is the dire global situation created for them by adults, but the Air Transport Auxiliary pilot Maddie and Special Operations Executive agent ‘Verity’ find their lives almost entirely guided by the orders and restrictions of superior officers.  When Verity is captured by the Gestapo and Maddie is forced into hiding, the girls’ literal movements and freedom become restricted by the older people in charge of imprisoning or hiding them.  How the girls cope with these situations and win back their individual freedom, figuratively and literally, is the core of the book.

Even a reader with the most ordinary daily existence should be able to relate to this theme, because rebelling against authority or learning to work with it is what people do in their teenage years.

Fiction is good practise for real life.  Perhaps the teen/adult divide is one of the hallmarks of what makes a book a ‘teen novel’ rather than an ‘adult novel’.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

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Writing Teen Novels
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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.

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

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Some Themes For Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

I sat down to write these blog posts armed with some thoughts about writing, reviewing, themes I deal with, and literary tips that I think help make the story vivid.  And then I found myself stuck because I realized that none of these ideas were specifically connected to writing for teens.  So, I am going to start my entries with a disclaimer.  I don’t write teen novels.  Most of my novels are about teens, but I have never once in my life set out to write a ‘teen novel’.  As a teen – and into adulthood – I never set out to read a ‘teen novel’.  I just read!  So, as a novelist I can probably give some good advice about how to write a book, but I haven’t thought much about writing a ‘teen’ book.  These posts are going to make me think about it!

My first ‘teen’ novel, The Winter Prince, has a narrator who is pushing thirty.  In my third and fourth ‘teen’ novels, The Sunbird and The Lion Hunter, the hero is 11 and then 12.  In Code Name Verity the heroines start at 18.  I don’t consciously sit there thinking, ‘Ah, this time I’m writing for teens, so I’m going to have to do things differently.’  I just write the book that I am writing.

However, my books, despite my protests and the wide age range of their protagonists, are very solidly Young Adult.  So maybe I need to think about why.  I think it has to do with the themes I deal with in my novels.

1) The age of the protagonists.  Okay, so the narrator in The Winter Prince is 27 or whatever.  In fact, it’s the teenagers in the book that the reader really cares about—the narrator’s 14-16 year old siblings and his relationship with them.  In The Sunbird, where the hero is a little younger than a teen, and in Code Name Verity, where the heroines are a little older than teens, their age doesn’t get mentioned.  The implication is that they are teens, or close to it—and also, that teens reading the books will relate to these characters in spite of the slight difference in age.  This is not only an authorial decision but an editorial one.  In crafting the book, we are consciously aiming it at teen readers—giving them characters they can relate to because of their age.

2) The emotional maturity of the protagonists.  There are a couple of themes that resonate throughout my books and, I think, throughout all YA fiction, and one of these is that the heroes or heroines have to mature in some way.  The events of the book help them or force them into growing up.  In a true YA novel, the main characters will be changed forever by the end of the book.  This isn’t necessarily true of ‘adult’ fiction.  To my mind, the change ought to be for the better in teen fiction—even in fiction where the ending is bleak, the protagonist should have had the opportunity to grow somewhere along the way.

3) The acquisition of skill.  This is also key, I think, to teen fiction: the characters are thinking about What They’re Going To Be When They Grow Up.  In an adult novel, that’s no longer necessary, and in a book for younger readers, they’re not yet worrying about this.  So figuring out who you are and what you’re best at, and how you’re going to use that in later life, is critical to teen fiction.

4) Figuring out your body.  I don’t really want to say ‘sex’ is a driving force in teen novels, because it isn’t always, but certainly there has got to be some aspect of the protagonist facing and dealing with his or her changing body.  In The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom I took this on both metaphorically and brutally by making the hero have to deal with losing an arm.  In Code Name Verity the two heroines are physically mature, but they are pretty sexually innocent, and though that’s not the focus of the book, their growing awareness of their own attractiveness and desires does affect the plot.

5) Building relationships.  Moving from the limited relationship of family life into the broad and complex relationships of society, including friendship, conflict, and romance, is another key theme that characterizes teen fiction.

These five points probably aren’t the only defining themes in teen fiction, but they are the ones that leap out at me.

For further reading on this topic, Jo Wyton has an interesting discussion on her blog about what makes teen fiction, using my book Code Name Verity as an example.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

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Why I LOVE To Write For Teens, by Alane Ferguson

With my daughter, I just finished watching back-to-back episodes of The Vampire Diaries.  I found myself squealing with delight when Elena FINALLY kissed uber-hot Damon, followed by me bawling my eyes out in …the next episode when a character named Alaric stoically accepted his fate, while The Fray’s “Be Still’ played mournfully in the background.

Before you judge me a weepy author, I dare you to listen to that beautiful song without at least a single tear welling up in your eye. (Okay, okay, so maybe I’m just a wimp…) My point is, as my daughter and I passed the tissue box between us, I wondered at how my inner teen has remained in many ways unchanged by the passage of time. It’s as if I’m still the same girl running late to class, jamming my books into my too-full locker while trying to remember which pocket of my backpack contains my missing homework. (To this day I have that awful test dream, the one where there’s a quiz that I haven’t studied for and I’m at my desk, trying frantically to write down the answers on a blank sheet of paper.) My conclusion is that, although I’m now much older and wiser, I’ve been lucky enough to retain that passion, which in turn transmutes into the characters I create. My Cameryn is full of emotion, as are the other characters I’ve breathed to life on the page. They embody my readers. As my readers embody me.

So many times I’ve opened my door to a young woman in crisis.  Many are friends of my children who just need an ear. We talk, we eat, we laugh, and yes, sometimes we cry. Everything for them is so raw, so intense, and very, very important. When it is time for me to create, I find that I write their stories – never an exact rendering, but a flavor of what they share. That is mixed within the texture of my own memories, and I find myself echoing the words of Cameryn Mahoney, who is intent on giving ‘the voiceless a voice.’

As a young adult author I find that is my mission. I listen, and I remember. In the end I write for people I love, readers who are themselves filled to the brim with what I call ‘life force.’ These are the ones who will change the world. I can’t wait to see what they will do, because I and others will be the beneficiaries of their boundless energy and ideas.  Carpe diem!

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