Latest News

Do As I Say, Not As I Do...Err Did

I've noticed a recurring, and interesting pattern lately on a couple of forum boards that I frequent.

YA writers who post questions like, "Is this believable?" in relation to how teenage characters are acting, talking, interacting, or, "Can my characters fall in love in a week?"

The questions themselves aren't really the interesting part, it's the answers that make me wonder. If you show teenagers being irresponsible and stupid, whether it's drugs, sex, love or general behavior, a lot of people will chime in that you really shouldn't do that or that's not how teenagers really act.

But the thing is, being a *coff* over 37 *coff* writer of YA, I am pretty removed from my high school days. I have conveniently forgotten my stupider moments and find my characters make more mature decisions based on what I know now, not on how I was them.

Because let me tell you, I did some pretty dumb things when I was 16. Things I would kill my own kids for doing. Things that could have killed me. Looking back as a mom, it makes my stomach hurt, but back then, I was going to do what I wanted, when I wanted and the hell with everyone else. In other words, I was the typical rebellious teenager.
And love. Pffft. People will say, "Don't have love at first sight in your book, its so cliche." But you know what? I remember my first real love and OMG it was intense and dramatic and heart breaking. I ate, slept and dreampt about this guy. I drew his name in hearts in my notebook and told all my friends he was "the one." I would stare at him in study hall all dreamy eyed then turn red if he looked my way. And he ended up breaking my heart and it was the most devastating moment of my life that far.

I remember crushing on guys from afar based on their looks alone. Then losing interest and the next week, moving on to someone new. Some friends changed boyfriends like people change their underwear. They slept with a guy for love, for practice, or just because they wanted to. They gave in to peer pressure or they didn't. Some drank, some smoked pot, some did other things. Some worked hard to get into college and others slacked off because they didn't care.

The thing is, our teenage years are all about intense emotion and stupid choices. In other words, finding out who you really are. For me, I realized how much I had forgotten when I closed my eyes and put myself back in high school, walking the halls with my friends, and really thought about it. It brought back a lot of memories, good and bad, but it also made me realize how I tend to shelter my characters from the "real world."

So my question to you is: Do we tend to gloss over the bad parts as adults writing YA, maybe not even intentionally, but because we have the advantage of wisdom and maturity? Do you think it clouds your perception at all?

disclaimer: I know there were some teenagers who were responsible and mature as 14 year olds, but for the sake of this post, I am drawing on my own teenage-hood memories, and I was definitely not! (Let me just add how grateful I am that there is no cell phone, Facebook or internet evidence of it out there either!)
Lee Bross

Lee lives her happily ever after on the coast of Maine where she has written Tangled Webs, her historical YA debut, and fantasy YA books Fates and Chaos under pen name Lanie Bross. She also writes contemporary books for New Adult under the name L.E. Bross, debuting with Right Where You Are.

Posts by Lee

website twitter

  • Blogger Comments
  • Facebook Comments


  1. Awesome post! I love writing teens because I love the intensity of first love. And I certainly did some foolish things in high school my mother would kill me for.

  2. Love this post. I think we have to let our characters make stupid choices - both the ones we made ourselves as teens and the ones we didn't. And I think having key moments we remember helps with the writing teen characters authentically, rather than trying to shelter them from the storm. :)

  3. Ha ha, I know what you mean! :D

    What I usually try and do when writing teenagers is mixing who I was then and what I've found out since. For example, my characters will do some stupid, immature things, but eventually realize they might be wrong, and why.

    This way, I can both recognize the validity of teenagers' actual behaviour, while bringing in a more distanced reflection on it.

  4. Yay! Awesome post. YA authors seem to edit themselves and their characters for many different reasons, but being in denial about what teens are really like shouldn't be one of those reasons.

  5. My MC is reckless at times I think we need a mix of characters to make our stories work. It's the same as in real life. Some of our friends are wild while others are a voice of reason.

  6. Funny and insightful post! I do think sometimes we gloss over the bad, but not so much in a bad way. Ugh, I don't know what I'm saying.

  7. I love this post, Lee! I was just thinking the other day about all the irresponsible things I did in high school, and how tame some of the contemporary YA characters are in comparison. I absolutely think that as adults we're writing a kind of revisionist history.

    And it frustrates me when people discount character choices because it was "a dumb decision." Well... yeah. People make dumb decisions all the time, certainly not ONLY teenagers. The question is, what's their motivation for the decision? As adult readers/writers of/for/about teenagers, we have to remember that a crush was motivation enough to do some CARAZAY shiz. Similarly motivating: doing something to prove you could, doing something to fit in, doing something just because you were told not to and you want to assert your individuality.

    We're not encouraging teens to do stupid, dangerous stuff by including some bad decisions in books. We're recognizing their reality.

  8. Hmm. This makes me wonder if writers really do "gloss over" the irresponsibility of some teenagers, or if it might just be easier to write about a mature protagonist. I imagine if you wrote a truly reckless character, their bad decisions could have a polarizing effect on the plot.

    It also occurs to me that most "bookish" teenagers are not of the reckless, rebellious breed. Perhaps if more books featured crazy rebel characters, we'd have more/different young people reading becuase they could relate.

  9. For me, I love that feeling in my gut when I know that a character is about to do something really stupid, about to make a bad choice, or mistakes infatuation for love. This is exactly what makes me want to keep reading!

  10. Love this post and such good timing b/c I'm struggling with this question right now. My MC keeps doing all these things and adult me wants to tell her to stop!

  11. Great post!

    I try to draw a lot on my teenage memories hen I write YA, thinking of things I did, or my classmates or my sister did. I agree with Susan Francisco that it's easier to write a mature character. It's easier to anticipate where your plot will go, but I've found that when I make characters more immature, the story becomes more surprising and interesting. I'd also like to thank Sarah Enni for stating something I've been thinking for a while. No, we're not recommending this behavior, but it's unrealistic and frankly unfair to portray teenage characters like little adults.

  12. For me, it's not exactly that our teenage years are about stupid choices -- although of course that's relevant. What I love about writing YA is that I get to go back and visit a time of life when everything matters so much, when you CAN fall in love with a guy because of the way he holds his pencil in geometry. Of course it's not forever love. Of course you'll grow up and go on and get over him, but for that time -- for those moments -- it is real and it is important and it means EVERYTHING.

  13. You know, I never read YA fiction when I actually was that age, because I couldn't relate to it. It was upsetting and absurd because it went too far in the wild rebel direction.

    I never smoked, drank, partied, had sex, stayed up late, or got in cars with irresponsible people. Characters who did, they just weren't all that interesting or convincing to me. I played sports and did drama and band and art, and angsted over my gender/sexual identity, and wrote a lot.

    And in a way, it's really hard to be that kind of girl, the one who's good at talking to adults, but not so much to peers, who makes the right decisions because she's never had a chance to make the wrong ones, and the one who doesn't want to read about people who are stupid, because she can see it happening around her: kids dying from trying to surf on the backs of cars, girls she likes getting knocked up or drunk before first period.

    Basically, what I mean is, you can be intense and stupid without being stereotypical (I don't doubt that I was just as intensely stupid as anyone else, I just showed it in a different way). So I agree, I think it's really good to use your own experiences, to be realistic about those extremes. But idealizing them doesn't help either. The sudden awareness of danger is such an important moment. Sometimes, it seems like showing kids partying and drinking and having sex has become so common that it can make the ones who aren't doing that feel upset and left out. Glossing over the danger inherent in some of our decisions can be just as bad as leaving the bad decisions out entirely.

  14. This is such a great question, and you brought back my own teenaged years with such vividness (stupid! stupid! stupid!). I do think we should be showing kids as they are, not as we wish them to be (except at the end, when they learn a valuable lesson. heh.)

  15. Great point, and great post! I think it's good to let our characters make mistakes--as long as we make them realistic and it makes sense at the time, in the story. It's an integral part of a character arc, learning and growing!

  16. Sifting through my starred articles in Google Reader (can you tell how far behind I am?) and came across this. I had to chime in because a recent critique of my work had me scratching my head. The critiquer complained that my main character (a 17 year old girl) was acting irrationally and illogically. The critiquer then listed all of the things my character should be doing in her situation and I thought the same as you did here.

    It wasn't a believe-ability issue. It was that my critiquer was clearly mature and, having the observer bias, could see clearly through the trees of the dark forest I had dropped my character into.

    In some ways, this is good. It means I've definitely made up a noticeable character flaw. On the other hand, it might make my character less relatable to mature folks. But since both are entirely valid in this situation, I've gotta go with my character on this one. She knows what's best for the story if not for her life. ;)


Comments are moderated on posts two weeks old or more -- please send us a tweet if yours needs approval!

Item Reviewed: Do As I Say, Not As I Do...Err Did Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Lee Bross