Madonna = Lady Gaga: Writing with an authentic YA voice

I want all of you YA authors to pay very close attention to what I’m going to tell you now. If your story is populated with today’s teenagers in today’s world you must get your middle-aged (or 30-something or 20-whatever) sensibility out of the story. “But, what do you mean, Linda?” you may say, “My teen characters are very accurate representations of today’s teen.” Well, let’s get one thing straight right off the bat:  Most teenagers don‘t use e-mail. “Wait. What?” you’re saying. “I thought that’s all they did. I put that in to show that they’re a teenager!” WELL, THEY DON’T!!!! They text, tweet, use Tumbler, FB, BBM… We old fogies use e-mail. Teenagers, not so much.

Second of all, unless your character is quirky in this particular area, when making cultural references they should be from today‘s culture, not from when you were a teenager.  No Cheers, Seinfeld or Bugs Bunny references. No Billy Joel songs. No Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, or Star Trek movies. Do your homework! Talk to  your kids, or your nieces or nephews, or your siblings, or your friend’s kids, or that sullen looking person serving you coffee at Starbucks. Sheesh! If you’ve mentioned Madonna (the singer, not the mother of Jesus) just change it to Lady Gaga, ok? Do you even know who Death Cab for Cutie is? Please tell me you’ve watched Modern Family

I know it’s hard to accurately capture a YA voice when you’re no longer a teenager. What often ends up happening though is the teen character becomes an interpretation of a teen as seen through the eyes of an adult. That doesn’t capture an authentic YA voice! So rather than mentioning that your character rolled their eyes at their mother, mention that the mother is so effing irritating. If you’re writing for a YA reader, you have to be on their side. That’s usually not very understanding of how hard it is to be a parent, how hurt mom or dad is that their spouse has divorced them or died, how scary it is to not know if you can make a mortgage payment. Even the greatest teenagers on the planet usually have their heads up their own asses. It’s part of where they are developmentally. Include that in your story.

Take your memories of your own teen angst and put them through a 21st century filter. Then stand in the shoes of your teen characters with all those feelings and write. When you do, you will be closer to capturing that elusive YA voice. Your characters will ring more true and sound more authentic.

What do you do to create authentic characters? How do you maintain a credible narrative voice?

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4 responses to “Madonna = Lady Gaga: Writing with an authentic YA voice

  1. So true! I once had a 14-year-old protagonist use the word ‘dork’ and my kids still remember it with horror. And you’re right: my kids NEVER email — it’s passe. Instead they amaze me by tweeting, FB-messaging, and Skyping all at the same time. They keep me modern — it’s a huge plus.

  2. I think the best thing to do to understand the voice, actions and reactions of today’s teen is to go to the mall or wherever they hang out in your neck of the woods and “pay attention”. My teen years is NOTHING like today’s teens. Not only that, if you have parents prominent in your books, watch the interactions between parents and teens. Many parents today are more permissive to behaviors that my Jamaican mother would have slapped me back three generations for.

  3. This is a great topic. It’s so awkward finding stuff in YA novels that no actual young adult would think or say, whether that’s “Golly gosh, gee willikers!” or “I should appreciate my parents more; look at all the generous sacrifices they’ve made for my well-being. I think I’ll trot along now to do multitudinous household chores without complaint – toodles!”

    The fact that I’m 17 makes writing 17-year-old characters easier. But I’m well aware that my voice isn’t the voice of all teenagers or anything, and the voices of my main characters won’t have lasting power if they don’t also relate to teenagers in the future. So I keep my pop culture references to a minimum (which is tough – my friends and I constantly make references to movies, books, internet jokes, random celebrities, etc.) and slice my slang as much as possible, because both of those are seriously volatile. I don’t trust the current teenage language to be around in five years.

    Oh, and in my opinion, dialogue is the hardest part to nail, because to transcribe how a real teenager talks would, like, probably turn out … like, I don’t know, turn out something like this, you know?

    (You’re spot on about Modern Family, by the way! I don’t have cable, but my friends are always ranting about how awesome it is. =D)

  4. Great post, Linda. This is one reason I don’t write YA.