Friday, May 6, 2011

You Think You Know Me?

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 clich├ęs 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?


Riley Redgate said...

"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."

*raises hand meekly*

Thank you for writing this, RC! So important. Honestly, people could get a feel for what high schoolers are like just by hanging out for an hour or so in a high school. You know, get one of those visitor badges or whatever, lurk in the halls during a class change... :P

Richard said...

Like me, you're a member of Webook. It seems like most of the members of Webook are teens. I'm following one in particular who writes amazingly well for a fourteen-fifteen-year-old girl. By reading what they're writing, I think you can learn a great deal about what interests them, and maybe the kind of YA writing we adults should be aiming for.

R.C. Lewis said...

Riley, it's funny. In some ways I'd recommend that (and it's certainly how I get a lot of my own background knowledge). But as a teacher, if someone actually did that at my school, I'd think it's creepy. Somehow it's just not the same as, say, authors going on a ride-along with cops for research. That's part of what makes it tricky.

Richard, really? I haven't been too involved in WEbook for a while now, but the members I interacted with were always adults. Seeing what kids write can definitely be educational, but only to a point. They're not always skilled enough yet to accurately portray their own peers (Riley being a phenomenal exception). ;) Also, teens who are themselves aspiring writers are only one perspective among many of teenagedom.

Ooh, here's one awesome strategy: Read the Perspectives series on Riley's blog. (What are you up to, 4 parts now?) Here's the first one:


Mindy McGinnis said...

Great post RC. You and I are very lucky to be surrounded by our target audience for 40 a week. Without that, I don't know that my writing would have any "truth" in it.

R.C. Lewis said...

Maybe not, Mindy. (Pretty sure mine wouldn't.) Or maybe you'd just have to wait until your little ones became not-so-little. ;)

Richard said...

They definitely have a lot to learn about the craft of writing, but what they write about is what they're interested in, and there is a wide variety of interests. I'm thinking in terms of what they're interested in emotionally. What is it they think about all day long and into the night. Knowing that can give us a lot of insight. But you're right, teenage writers are just one source of information. The vast majority of teenagers are not writers, so they may be more concerned about other things: sports, jobs, school, drugs, whatever.

MarcyKate said...

Awesome post RC! I'm not so lucky as to be surrounded by teens all day like you and BBC - I work from home and only have my pugs for company :) Needless to say, teen character and voice has been my biggest challenging in writing YA. My new year's resolution for 2011 is to READ MOAR YA. So far, I'm up to 48 YA books - and it's definitely helping. So yeah, reading stacks of books is excellent advice!

Exmoorjane said...

I ponder this a fair bit, Rachel - but I tend to think that teens are not a different country per se, just that their nerve endings are maybe a little closer to the skin...they live life amplified x100.
I write predominantly by *channeling* my teenage self and then check out the results with the real, here and now, target readership (I'm lucky to have a willing bunch of beta readers in RL and I have, in the past, also put my stuff on inkpop to gauge response there).

I used to believe that one needed to read tons of YA in order to be able to write YA but now I'm not so sure of that either... the danger there is that you might lose your own voice (or maybe that's just a danger for me as my ego boundaries are way too permeable!)... but I do agree that, if you're starting out, it's a valuable exercise. Amazes me that people don't read it tbh... Nice blog, btw... Janexx

R.C. Lewis said...

Good points, Jane. I think part of what inspired this post is that over the past year or so, I've seen a lot of work by aspiring YA authors who seem never to have picked up a YA novel in their lives. Where you get this feeling of the grown-up author writing *to* teens, rather than letting the teens in the story really live.

Voice permeation is definitely an issue to worry about, too. I'm careful about reading a lot of books that are close to my own style/genre when I'm in the middle of a first draft. But since my characters usually feel like a mix of various students I've taught over the years, maybe I don't need to worry too much. ;)

48 books, MK? Yowza! My reading time is mostly limited to the required 20 minutes the kids have at school each day, although once in a while I'll get sucked in enough to bring a book home for the weekend. :)

Voodoo Spice said...

I wrote my first novel when I was a teenager - a couple of mainstream publishers loved it, even asked me to write a sequel, but told me it was too adult and needed 'toning down'. I found this mystifying, and a little patronizing, now I look back.

But at least their encouraging responses told me I could write, and teens and young adults still like my stuff whatever I'm writing - so I guess I'm cursed with a glitch of personality that keeps me stuck in that twisted-meets-sophisticated sense of humour, that was what I was told my strong point was in the first place :)

I've since put Living Hell on Amazon, and if I write specifically for YA again, I'll probably stick with the same voice I used at the time - seeing as I WAS the target audience when writing for it :)

Keep up the good work & research - it all pays off xx

Joyce Alton said...

I think setting and demographics need to be considered too. I've lived in many places and teens can be very different in how they say things to what their interests are from one place to another. Sure, some attributes fit teens everywhere, but not always the things everyone assumes. Most current YA novels I've read feature urban teens. They have urban interests, can swear up a storm, and are caught up in the events and past times of city life. Teens in the country tend to be different. Teens in the suburbs are different too. Plus the cultural side of things. How does the teen's cultural background or setting affect their beliefs, their motivations, and their goals? In some places, there are religious factors too, where language, interest, and even activities are influenced by the predominant religious culture. So setting related to the modern teen is something else that needs to be remembered.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear! I don't actually write for teens, but I read a lot of YA (my Stepson and I have a lot of the same favorite books), and there's nothing worse than reading a novel written for teens and realizing that the author knows NOTHING about his or her audience.

I think many writers make the mistake of thinking it's easier writing for kids and teens, thinking the under 18 crowd will read anything. I think that's just insulting. And it's probably the reason I went straight from reading kids books to reading adult books; when I was a teen there wasn't a lot out there for my age group.

I think I've officially started rambling. I'll stop now. But, great post!