Understanding Teenagers

Understanding Teenagers

Recently, I was working on a writing project that needed me to sound like a fifteen-year-old girl and, despite having been one of those only a few years ago, I found it hard to be sure whether I was getting it at all right. How could I strike a balance between writing how I wanted to write, and writing how I would have sounded at that age? I’ve always had a relatively sophisticated writing style by virtue of writing so much, but how could I draw on that without taking it too far in the wrong direction?

I found myself consulting my mum, who works in a secondary school and a sixth form college: do people still use these slang terms? Does this sound like something a teenager would say? Is this horrendously out of date?

That was the moment it hit me that I’m not a teenager any more. I am out of touch with the youth. I no longer know how to sound authentically teenaged without it being cringey.

I was thinking about this a bit while trying to keep order in the school library where I worked. I was dealing with a few students who were being disruptive and disrespectful, but the more I told them to be quiet, the less they seemed to respect my authority. “Stop, miss,” said one of them. “Just stop.” As though by doing my job I was embarrassing myself. It wasn’t until later that I began thinking about this and wondered if it was my language and tone of voice that was the problem. Did I come across as an adult trying to talk to the students on their level?

It’s weird, being twenty and working with students who aren’t much younger than me. These boys were probably around fifteen, but I have no idea how old they think I am. Maybe, to them, I come across as someone too old to sound like they do, to talk like a teenager: young enough not to have a strong grasp of authority, old enough not to be ‘one of them’. Or maybe I’m overthinking how they treated me. Whatever the reason, there was a clear me/them divide, and it got me thinking again about writing for teens when you’re not a teen.

The obvious pitfalls are generational, really. You see it a lot in YA fiction that writers don’t have a clear idea how teens use the internet, and so the portrayal is either stereotypical or completely out of date. It’s probably impossible to keep on top of things, since the internet changes so fast, although I know writers who have used social media in books to great effect. Generational divides happen however old you are, and actually knowing some people of the generation you’re writing about can usually overcome them.

But some things are simply about age, and remembering being that age isn’t the same as actually being that age.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m twenty. Just five years ago, I was a fifteen-year-old girl. I remember vividly what I did at the time, the decisions I made, what I felt, but if I lived that exact same year over again right now, there’s no way it would have taken the same course.

I’m a fundamentally different person to the person I was in 2011. At fifteen, there was so much I hadn’t figured out about myself, to the point where I don’t bear a huge resemblance to that previous version of myself anymore. Oh, I’m still a nerd who reads a lot of books, but in terms of everything else, I’m hugely different.

A lot of the decisions I made at fifteen were because I didn’t know who I was and what I did or didn’t want. My indecision — which was paralysing at times — was usually because what books and society and the media told me I wanted seemed to clash with my actual feelings, and I wasn’t confident enough in my own identity to separate them. While I’ve always been a non-conformist and didn’t want to just be like everyone else, I was still drawn into situations that I wouldn’t have tolerated if they hadn’t been normalised by the world around me.

I’m talking about boys. You can tell, can’t you? A specific boy, actually, but I won’t go into detail. The books I read told me that certain behaviours were romantic, certain situations were normal, and so on. Society told me what I should want (him). My own personality wasn’t firmly enough developed to figure out what I actually wanted (not him). I spent so long paralysed by that confusion, unable to really separate out what I wanted except that it wasn’t what I had, and ultimately ended up unhappy.

If I lived that year over again as a twenty-year-old, none of these situations would have arisen. I know who I am, I know mostly what I want, and I know how to stand up for those things. It would be impossible for me to make the same decisions now that I made when I was fifteen because I’m a different person to the girl who made them.

Or rather, I’m a person. She wasn’t. She was a half-formed bud of a person who thought she was a whole person. Probably, in five years, I’ll have gone through enough growth to think of the same of my current self.

I understand why I made the choices I made. If I were writing a book about someone like my fifteen-year-old self, I could probably convincingly mimic those emotions and thoughts (though a lot of the fifteen-year-olds I know now are infinitely more put together than I was, and know themselves a whole lot more — I’ve written a poem about this in the past). I wouldn’t necessarily want to, because I know that I was miserable. But I could do it.

It wouldn’t be the same, though, as actually living it. Just as I can listen to the teenagers around me (not that they’re meant to talk in the library) and mimic their use of language in fiction, it’ll never be as authentic as if that was how I myself spoke. Experiencing it secondhand through memories is never the same as going through it. I look back at my younger self and even though I know why I made the choices I made, I still want to shake myself and say, “Stop doing that.”

I both can and can’t understand why my younger self, despite being a non-conformist who was never interested in being popular or fitting in with others at school, made the decisions she did. Because she isn’t me. She’s just another person who happens to be a part of me.

As a reader and a writer, I struggle with this continually. If I’m reading a YA novel and the protagonist is too convincing, they’ll probably drive me nuts, because I want them to make better life choices. But it’s hard to make good life choices at fifteen because for the most part, we haven’t figured out who we are at that point. If I’m writing, I have to fight to keep a balance between an engaging and believable protagonist, and one who seems like an actual teenager.

Plus I was probably not the most typical teenager, being a lot more innocent than people I knew at school, and spending most of my time online or reading. At an age where a lot of girls were thinking about sex, I was panicking over my first kiss and whether that was really what I wanted (it wasn’t, because kissing is weird). It makes writing more conventional teenagers a bit tricky!

My point is that the only people who can really express the nature of being a teenager, and what it feels like, are teenagers. It’s a stereotype that they say to adults, “You don’t understand what it’s like!” but it’s true as well. We think we do, because we’ve been teens, some of us more recently than others. But really, we can reflect on it as much as we like, but we’re not that person anymore. Unless we’ve got a seriously good memory, we can’t connect with those situations from the same perspective.

I could go on: how we’re shaped by the world around us, so a fifteen-year-old now who understands LGBTQ issues from everything they’ve seen online will probably figure out who they are faster than someone ten years ago who didn’t have access to that information and grew up on a world that was a lot less open about it.  But this post is already horrendously long, and you’ve probably had enough of my rambling.

I don’t feel like a real adult most of the time. The realisation that I’m in my 20s, if barely, scares me. I can’t look after myself beyond the basics and I don’t even understand the emails that Amazon KDP sends me about filling in tax information, let alone the forms. But when I look at the students I work with, I realise that actually, I’m not a teenager anymore. Not even a little bit.

6 thoughts on “Understanding Teenagers

  1. Eeep I so understand this!! I’ve had the same troubles with writing…but I was NEVER an authentic teenager, so. I’m like doomed from the very start. Although I had a beta reader tell me that my character sounded utterly authentically 15 (and they were 15 when they said it) so THAT was super encouraging.
    I think YA tends to sound a bit more grown up, like the characters tend to be a bit more mature, because of the adult writers forgetting what it’s like. BUT! At the same time, even when I was younger, I distinctly remember liking to read about people who were more mature than me, because that was something to aspire to. So it’s not all bad. Hopefully. IDEK. 94% of my writing is JUST HOPE AND PIXIE DUST.

    1. I don’t know as you can say you were never an AUTHENTIC teenager. Perhaps never a typical teenager, or never a conventional one, but you were still an actual teenager! Heh.

      I have one friend who is fifteen (almost sixteen now), but they’re so unlike I was at that age, and everyone I knew then, that I don’t think they’re typical enough to be able to tell me how real I sound. They just … understand themselves SO WELL. They’re actually the person the poem I linked to is about (‘Younger’ — I added the link after I posted this, so if you read it in email subs it may not have shown up), because they constantly baffle me with their emotional maturity. But yeah.

      It’s true, I want to read about characters who have themselves together. I could never go on an adventure (allergies, man), so it’s not like I expect fiction to exactly resemble reality…

  2. “If I’m reading a YA novel and the protagonist is too convincing, they’ll probably drive me nuts, because I want them to make better life choices.”

    I’ve pointed out this very dichotomy in several reviews I’ve written.

    It’s potentially the strongest reason why I don’t write YA: I can handle reading it once, but writing a protagonist whose primary conflicts are driven by the naivety and intensity of teenage neuro/psychology then reading it over and over while I redraft and edit would destroy my motivation.

    1. I think it’s one of the reasons I can’t write contemporary, where everyday issues are needed to drive the conflict. At least in fantasy they can take a back seat, and I tend to construct worlds where teenagerdom is different from our world anyway. With books like St Mallory’s Forever, it was a lot harder to maintain a likeable but realistic character.

      1. It might be a factor in so much YA being dystopian: it’s easier to capture the immense importance that the teenage mind applies to everything that concerns them combined with the almost pathological disdain for everything else if the challenge they are facing is cranked all the way up to eleven.

        1. That’s true. Everything feels like it could be the end of the world, and every decision feels final, and every choice is going to affect your Entire Life (this isn’t helped by schools trying to emphasise the importance of subject choices and university applications by freaking everyone out) — no wonder so many dystopians start with a rite of passage choice that backfires.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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