Teenage Lessons for the Adult YA Writer

I wrote my first YA short story when I was a young adult. It was full of the typical teen angst you would expect. Lots of never-ending, die-if-you-don’t-love-me emotion. Even more of the teen hero or heroine as the lone wolf against the world. And every one one of my heroines or heroes died in the end because that’s really the ending I learned from the greatest love story: Romeo and Juliet.

Flash forward a few decades and the world of writing has changed. Heroines aren’t virgins. Heroes aren’t all billionaires. Teens are the same as they were…and completely different. It should be noted that’s true for every generation of teens. They face new complications and challenges the previous generation didn’t experience and will never fully understand.

Then how do we, as adults, write believable YA fiction?

It’s really not any different from writing fiction for an adult audience. Listen to their world. Learn their language. But also learn how they use it. Even more importantly, when they use it. If you’re familiar with the movie classic, Clueless, teen air head Cher, has many personas. She is flighty and needy with the boys. She is surprisingly insightful with the adults in her life. She is relaxed and charming with her step brother.

Avoid the cliches. It’s not just true for your narrative, but your characters. Dig past the stereotypes. The gay best friend better be the captain of the basketball team rather than the effeminate counter point to the heroine. The goth chick with the black lipstick and overly lined eyes better be working at a day care rather than singing emo songs in a dark corner.

Female characters don’t need to be taking karate and beating up the bully. Male characters don’t need to be the school leader or the school bad boy. Racism or xenophobia don’t have to be a conflict for every character of color. Stretch the boundaries of the challenges faced by kids today. The economy, politics, religion, cyber lives, basic safety at home or school….all present sufficient challenges for the fictional teen.

I think the biggest difference for YA audiences is the expectation of a HEA ending. Personally, I want it all to work out in the end. I get mad when it doesn’t. But when I was a teen, I actually expected the disappointing, brokenhearted endings. The caution I give here is don’t market your book as one thing (romance) and give them a contrary ending without some warning. Then again…know your audience. That may be ok with them.


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