Writing Teen Characters (The Non-Cliché Way)
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Teenagers are weird.
There. I said it. It’s what all of you are thinking. I mean, the angst, the hormones, the unstable emotions, the cliques, the lingo . . . they’re like a whole other species. It’s daunting to imagine including one in your story, much less being in their heads!
Except they’re not a whole other species. They are human with (mostly) human thoughts and emotions. It’s pretty easy getting into their viewpoint once you pick out the differences that set them apart from the “adults.” (Yes, I put adults in quotations because we could name several supposed adults that have yet to earn that title).
So here I am, a young writer caught in that limbo between teenageness (shut up, MS Word, I’ll spell how I please) and adulthood, come to show you how to write a teenage character that isn’t false or cliché.
1) Accept that they are human.
I know what you’re thinking: “Well, duh.”
“Well, duh” is right, but many people don’t seem to accept this fact. It’s easy to brush a teenager off as incompetent, unmotivated, uncaring, and generally unfeeling. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because no one expects them to have their own insights and opinions, or they think those opinions don’t matter because teens have yet to experience the hardships of adulthood—they are not yet ready to become a Jedi master because they do not understand the balance of The Force.
When the truth is . . . age does not make a person more human. Develop your teen character the same way you would develop any character: what are their interests, hobbies, goals, dreams? What do they love, hate, fear, appreciate?
You’d be surprised at some of the insights a teenager can have; they have a lot of time to observe and form conclusions whilst cooped up in that dreaded Building of Boredom known as school. But don’t take my word for it—ask a few teens, if you have such guinea pigs handy, for their opinions on worldly topics (which don’t always have to be current events). Ask them for their philosophies on human nature. The answers may surprise you.
2) Not all teens are whiney, depressed assholes.
Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Hollywood. Somewhere down the line, it became the norm to portray teens as brooding, sulky people who blast loud music and slam their doors at every opportune moment. They are characterized by their long, sullen silences and ability to roll their eyes in a manner that conveys boredom, disgust, and contempt in point-five seconds.
At the same time, they can turn around and become a high-strung basket case who stomps about like a cave troll while wailing over every minor inconvenience, particularly if said inconvenience involved not getting their way. Basically, they now have the emotional quota of a three-year-old.
Sure, these people exist. For every stereotype, there is a percentage that falls into that category. If you need a bipolar teenager in your story, then feel free to pull from that percentage.
For those of you who are trying to avoid that cliché, consider this: there is a large amount of rational, level-headed teens out there. Treat their thoughts and emotions as you would any character. Why are they upset? Is there a reason for them to be? How will they go about fixing the problem and/or coping with the stress?
Double-check for shallow logic. If it seems shallow in an adult character, it looks shallow in your teen character.
3) So what do teens think about, anyway?
Here is where you may handle your teen characters a little differently. A teen’s thought process is bound to be different because, well, their lives are different. Adults don’t attend high school, this isn’t their first time driving a car or going on a date, and they probably don’t still live with their parents.
The first step to getting in your teen character’s head is understanding their experiences up till now. What is their home life like? Do they have a strained or happy relationship with their parents and siblings? Family relationships play a key role for teens because these are the people they come home to every day.
How do they fit in at school? What are their friends like? Peers are a major influence on teens (not always in a peer pressure way!). As an adult, it’s easy to get caught up in work and family life, and there may not be time to uphold friendships like you used to. As a teen, friendships are a focal point because they’re able to interact with these people every day. It’s common for a teen’s friends to be on their mind a lot; they judge their actions by how their friends will react: “I can’t wait to tell Jenny about the Bigfoot in my yard . . .” “Shawn would laugh if he was here to see this.”
Does your character have a crush on anyone? What do they consider “good qualities” in a partner? Let’s face it: most teens, particularly girls, are looking for love, whether they understand it or not. And honestly? I find many teen relationships to be sweeter and more innocent than adult relationships. Especially if your character isn’t exactly the veteran of the dating world and they are just now experiencing their first date, first kiss, and so on. Like with friendships, teens have much more time to devote to their significant other, so their attachments grow quickly.
How are your character’s grades? Are they involved in any sports? Other extracurricular activities? School is almost always on a teen’s mind, whether they think of it as merely a setting for social interaction or they’re concerned about school work (and, yes, there are plenty of teens who care about their grades).
Does your character have a part-time job? How about a car? In this, your character’s thoughts won’t differ much from an adult’s. Job, car, money—these are all familiar concerns. Teens can have them, too.
4) What do teens mean when they say this??
Ahahaha. Haha. Hah . . . look, I’m a wordsmith, but even I can’t keep up with teen slang all the time. Honestly, it changes so much within a single generation that it’s hard for anyone to keep up. So here is what I propose:
Keep it simple. Shoot for shorter sentences, particularly in dialogue. Use fragments. Even the brainiest of teenagers don’t think or speak in long-winded monologues befitting the likes of Shakespeare. Make sure their word choice reflects who they are as a character. Do they have an accent? What slang do they use? What’s their education level? Do they swear?
Every writer will approach this differently, but, personally, I tend to avoid slang as much as possible. I believe it makes my writing easier to understand and keeps it relevant for longer than following those short trends would.
But the best way to learn someone’s speaking patterns is to listen. Do you have teenagers at home? Pay attention to their word choices, the flow of their speech. Notice how it changes (if at all) when speaking to a peer versus an adult. Put those people-watching skills to the test! Go to places a teen might frequent (malls, arcades, fast-food joints) and do some class-A eavesdropping! Just make sure you aren’t stalking . . . I could do without that on my conscience.
Side note: don’t restrict your people-watching to only one group. Listen to guys and girls; listen to the group of skater kids, the ones dressed all in black, the ones in gym shorts, the glitter-spackled crew. Not only do speech patterns change based on the “cliques,” but so will topic choices.
5) Examples, please!
Alright, alright, don’t take my word for it. I see how it is. My expertise is no good without references, right?
Here I lay before you Young Adult books that I read as a teen and found spot-on in regards to teenage characterization:
–The Maximum Ride series by James Patterson (Action/Adventure/Sci-fi)
–The Daniel X series by James Patterson (Action/Sci-fi)
–Spellbound by Cara Lynn Schultz (Romance/Urban fantasy)
–Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Drama)
–The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (Romance/Drama)
If you’re in the fantasy genre, this post is irrelevant; your teens can speak like an epic badass and no one will bat an eye.
Now go forth and channel your inner high-schooler!