Most published authors writing characters in their teens and twenties are much older than that — that’s just the reality of how the industry works. As a result, writers often end up relying on their own memories of what that age range was like instead of doing research (or thinking they can skimp on research because after all, everyone has personal experience of what it’s like to be a kid). My suggestion, as someone who is still considered a “young adult” by most people, is to tread very, very carefully.
I can use my own childhood as an example: That picture above was taken when I was 14, in 2006. Velour sweatsuits were in fashion for some reason, and I had about six of them. I usually wore a matching Southpole shirt underneath, which was the only somewhat acceptable brand available at JCPenney, where my family always shopped.
I have not seen a single teenager wearing a velour sweatsuit since. Is Southpole even available in big box stores anymore? Would a 14-year-old recognize the name, let alone seek it out in a store? I have no idea, but I’m guessing “NO.” Themes are universal, but the application of those themes is always changing. There will always be fashion-conscious teenagers, but what is considered “fashion” changes at the drop of a hat. The devil’s in the details.
During my time as a fiction editor, I’ve often come across portrayals of teens and college-age adults that have sent my Spidey Senses tingling. Sometimes it’s so subtle that it’s even easy for me to overlook at first, but you don’t want your readers to pause for even a second because something seems off. Even if young adults aren’t included in your target demographic (FYI, a book is not necessarily Young Adult because it has young characters), you should put forth the effort to make sure you have authentic young adults in your fiction, because all of your characters should feel authentic. Here are just a few things that you should pay special attention to:
I occasionally read contemporary manuscripts where young characters are using iPods or CD players, and my first query to the author is always: “Wouldn’t they just use their smartphone?” I use a first-generation Zune as my primary music player because I hate music streaming and I don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for a 64+GB smartphone. So it’s not, you know, impossible for teens and young adults to use antiquated technology. But unless it’s a crucial part of their character development or backstory that you plan to explain/justify, better to just stick with whatever is currently in use. (That means you have to know what is currently in use.) “I’m 40 and high fidelity is important to me, so I’m sure my cultured teen character would rather own a record player too” probably won’t pass the suspension of disbelief test for your young readers.
Whether your novel is written in first, second, or third person, you’ll need to adapt the tone of your narrative to fit your young adult character’s worldview. What do they want? What do they care about? What resources do they have access to? I see tone issues crop up a lot in romance, where the author is typically a middle-aged woman writing 20-something characters from the perspective of what middle-aged women want in a relationship or a love interest. Nope, nope, nope.
Cursing, drinking, smoking, and premarital sex are common among young adults, y’all. So common it’s banal. Do all college kids do keg stands? No, but when an author goes out of their way to avoid even an offhand mention of these things, it feels forced. When a young woman doesn’t bother to ask about condoms or consider other forms of birth control before having sex, it feels not only unrealistic, but dangerous. And when she gets pregnant and “abortion” is never mentioned, let alone considered, I get the impression that the author doesn’t really approve of, or spend much time around, young people.
Virgins exist. Religious people exist. But I guarantee both of those subsets have at least a basic understanding of sex, attraction, and masturbation, even if they’re not doing it themselves. Embrace impulsiveness and irresponsibility in your characters — we’re really good at those, but we can also be pretty worldly, too. After all, anything and everything we want to know is literally just a Google search away.
Use contractions. Please. Let your character stutter or stumble and use improper grammar. Don’t overdo it with slang, though, because it changes so often that whatever words you use will probably be out of use by the time your book comes out. My suggestion is that if your only frame of reference for any word or phrase’s usage is simply “the internet,” then axe it from your character’s vocabulary. You probably don’t have the context and cultural competency to use it appropriately, because nine times out of 10, it has its roots in AAVE or another subculture among marginalized folk.
Pop Culture References
A recent novella sample I read as part of an editing test featured a 28-year-old man referencing The Love Boat, which ran from 1977-1986. The sample was contemporary, so the events were happening in present day, i.e. 2017 or so. He would’ve been born in 1989, three years after The Love Boat ended. When the series was in syndication, he would’ve been in diapers. And the only reason I, someone only three years younger than the character, knew it was a Love Boat reference was because it was oddly specific enough to make me decide to Google the phrase. The chances of this hypothetical author being in their 40s or 50s and remembering watching The Love Boat as a teen or adult are extremely high.
This also comes up a lot in regard to music and movie references. Now, young adults don’t live under rocks — just because a significant piece of pop culture was created before we were born doesn’t mean we’re unaware of it. That assumption is condescending, but how likely is it that a 20-year-old woman in 2017 is going to immediately pull up a Johnny Cash song on her iPod when she’s feeling blue about a breakup? The chances are very low.
Keep in mind that this is also culturally bound. I couldn’t tell you the name of a Johnny Cash song even if you put a gun to my head, but I know Nat King Cole, the O’Jays, and the Temptations. They’re still not the first songs that pop into my head when I’m in my feelings. Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, or Sade, though? Absolutely, and that was true even when I was 13 or 17 or 19.
There are some media that truly transcend generations; there’s no one alive who doesn’t know where “Luke, I am your father” comes from. But that doesn’t mean your character would automatically care about it enough to reference it in everyday conversation, or that it’s even appropriate for the scenario. Don’t just pull from the pop culture that comes intuitively to you — think deeply about how your characters engage with media and how it will naturally differ from your own relationship with it. Your 17-year-old’s ideal man is probably not George Clooney.
When all else fails…find a teen or young adult and ask. Happy writing!