No, I'm not talking about you knowing me. The title above is a question asked by our characters. But I also don't exactly mean knowing our characters on an individual level—their likes and dislikes, personality quirks, deeper values, etc. (Incidentally, though, From the Write Angle recently had a couple of great posts on that. Here's one. And here's the other.)
My question is related, yet different. A more global perspective—more demographic, maybe—where knowing our characters and knowing our audience overlap.
When you write about teenagers, and teenagers are your target audience, this is kind of important.
Everyone knows generalizations are ridiculous. You can't say, "All teenagers are like this." You can't even say 'most' are. The opposite, though—where you're pretty sure no teenager would say or do something, or act a particular way—that can happen. When teens read the story, they don't have to think, "Every character's just like me," but they should identify the characters as real ... like some teenagers somewhere.
How do you make that happen?
I consider myself lucky. I'm surrounded by the target audience throughout the workweek. A pretty good cross-section of personalities and backgrounds, too. That definitely helps. Not a possibility for everyone, though. And not a necessity.
What are the other options? Believe what TV and movies would have us believe about teenagers?
I grew up with the running joke of actors pushing (and pulling) thirty playing teenagers on 90210. So, um, no.
Better option for those who don't have a lot of teens in their everyday lives (or even those who do): READ.
Unlike when I was a teen, there are a ton of great YA books out there. Even better is the wide variety of character types you can find. They're not all perfect—some Mary-Sues, some clichés and stereotypes—but if you look carefully and read (a LOT), you can get a feel for the modern teen character.
Personally, I can't imagine trying to write a YA novel without reading stacks of them first.
And if you can find some brutally honest teens willing to beta-read for you and call you out when the adult-writer is overpowering the teen-character ... so much the better.
Any other ideas about getting that reader-character synergy? Experiences where you got it right on ... or way wrong?