Friday, October 29, 2010

The Teen 'Voice'

Any writer of YA fiction knows that one of the things - if not the thing - editors look for in a manuscript is an authentic voice. Voice encompasses the whole of the book, it gives a reader a 'feel' for the characters and story. A writer's voice infuses the entire story and one of the ways to demonstrate that voice is through dialogue. However, when your main character is a teen many writers feel that they need to write the dialogue in a certain way - like there's a 'typical' teen voice or something. Well, we all know that there's no such thing as typical. There are stereotypes for sure but no writer wants their character to be a stereotype. Yet I've noticed some writers who want to write YA seem to fixate on the dialogue and mannerisms of teens by asking themselves or other writers whether they think a teen would say this or do that. My response to the question? "I don't know about whether a teen would say this or do that but what would your character say or do?"

I write fiction that, for the most part, has older teens as the main characters. But it's not like there's a template that says what all 17-year-old girl protagonists sound like. I have the privilege (or is it the curse?? :) ) of being a parent to two teen girls. Those two girls sound, look and act nothing alike. Their friends sound, look and act differently as well. They are all individuals. Some of them sound extremely mature and adult, others more child-like and innocent. One 16 year-old-girl could say "Like, I totally can't deal with her drama." while another would say "Drama queen. She better grow up." while another would say "Well, she seem kind of emotional. Don't you think?" They're all conveying the same point about another character but saying it in different ways depending on their maturity level, personality type and style. The voice comes from the character. Always.

What really bugs me is how fixed so many people seem to be on making sure that voice 'sounds' teen enough. Maybe it's because I'm embedded in the YA world but I don’t hear nearly as much chatter about whether your sixty-five-year-old grandmother character sounds 'senior' enough. Yes, we as writers have to make sure that we don't make a teen sound like she's a neurosurgeon when she's only taking basic Biology in high school (unless she's some kind of super-genius or something. But then why would she be taking basic biology then? I digress.) but your manuscript is filled with a variety of characters with a variety of ages and backgrounds and you have to create several unique, realistic voices.

So the point of my semi-rant? Worry about the character and making the dialogue true to that character. Don't write what you think a teen should sound like. There is no typical teen voice. There is only emotional honesty. Once you nail that, everything else is gravy.


  1. AGREE 100%!!! I write primarily YA as well (which means I read a lot of YA) and the characters are always so vast and varied. When writing, I (try to) stick with how my character is and not agonize over my word choices...but when I send out to betas, the first thing I ask is "please make sure my MC sounds 17, not 31!" LOL :)

  2. Hmm... Good advice!

    When I was writing SEND, I wrote Dan's voice the way my sons speak, which is heavily peppered with words like dude, jerk, moron, you get the idea.

    I obsessed more over whether Dan sounded like a male. There's one pivotal scene where the object of Dan's affection watches him tend a toddler's skinned knee and changes her opinion of him. I'd originally written that the baby "made me melt" and both of my sons just about fell on the floor giggling at that. "There is NO WAY, Mom, that a guy would ever say that, even if it were true."

    Great post, Nelsa!

  3. Hey, Karla: Absolutely - it's important to remember that your character is a teen, after all. But that is not - or shouldn't be - the sole thing that defines him/her.

    Hi Patty: Thanks so much. Oh, yeah, that whole male vs. female way of speaking is a blog post onto itself. My DS is only 11 so I can't quite use him as a test subject yet! :)

  4. What a great post! And so true. One that I'll remember starting my first YA. Teens sound like people. I think it's when writers try too hard to sound teen that it sounds forced!

  5. Thanks, Laura! Trying too hard is the kiss of death with dialogue. Write first, read it out loud and you'll see if it sounds stilted or not. Good luck on your YA!!