In my great quest for writing advice, I came across the book Writing Great Books for Young Adults, by Regina Brooks. The first time I read it, I was within its recommended young adult age range of 12 to 18. (An age range I find completely arbitrary since a good number of my favorite books are YA and to this day I struggle to find ‘adult’ books in my preferred genre – an issue that might have something to do with my local library’s collection or might be an issue in general. It’s hard to say.) I wanted to write about subjects I was familiar with, and what was more familiar than being the teenager that I was? I skimmed the book and could hardly recall what it was about before I picked it up again to write this article, so I don’t remember whether I noticed this particular section the first time, but the book’s introduction talks a lot about making your books contain realistic teenagers.
Sure, you may think that’s a given, but what even is a realistic teenager? Even as a teenager myself, that wasn’t something I thought I could accomplish. I was probably the world’s worst teenager, in that I did absolutely none of the typical movie teenager things like rebelling or going to parties. I stayed home, read fantasy books, and wandered outdoors alone for no apparent reason. Would people read about me and say I wasn’t a realistic teenager? I see the advice “write what you know” around constantly, but how was I supposed to operate when what I knew didn’t seem to be the norm? The “write what teenagers can relate to” advice felt a bit like a slap in the face and made me wonder whether I can ever write relatable characters is something I still struggle with.
I’m fairly against any rules that try to generalize, but is this actually a generalization, or am I reading too much of my own woes into it? At a later point in the book, Brooks writes that YA writers shouldn’t talk down to their audience. Maybe this is a better example of what this rule means. People shouldn’t write teenagers assuming they are children or poor stereotypes, but as actual human beings like themselves. Brooks writes that YA writers should be authentic, which I chose to interpret as avoiding stereotypes about teenagers unless your book has a very good reason for including them. You can’t watch one teen movie and think “hm, yes, the essence of being a teenager” and never write about anything else.
Brooks also adds in her section about creating characters that a great way for authors to do so is to look back on their own teenage memories, implying that potential writers’ experiences are valid and can be used to make great fiction. This helps ease this fear of mine somewhat, as well as just being good advice in general. You could probably write anything and have at least one person relate to it and feel great about seeing themselves in a book. But then it becomes an issue of marketability, of success, and that’s where I begin to feel stressed.
To bring in another potential ‘con’ of this rule is the apparent assumption that teenagers are greatly different from adults. Perhaps I am again reading too much into this, but for me, personally, teenage me wasn’t all that different from current me (except perhaps a bit chiller), though I haven’t been an official adult for long. Most of the young adult books I read have characters I can still relate to despite the age difference. Teen novels are often about growing up, but growing up doesn’t end when you reach an arbitrary age. I’ll probably keep learning and growing my entire life. I assume it’s the same for everyone. In my adult years, I can find something of myself in books from any age group because there are some parts of my experience that are just universal. Who are we to say what constitutes a ‘real’ person?
Maybe this is why I read and write fantasy because if people accuse me of being unrealistic, I can just point at the fantasy label and tell them it comes with the terrain. It’s a shield from people accusing me of not knowing what I’m talking about because I’m the one that designed the world, the rules, so it’s mine to interpret. But in the end, it’s up to readers to judge it and deem it worthy. I suppose there’s nothing I can do to soothe my fears; I’ll just have to wait and see whether, whenever I finally manage to finish a book, it’s accepted. In my experience, at least, I don’t have to completely relate to characters to find a book interesting, so why am I worried about being perfectly palatable? I should take heart in the knowledge that it won’t happen, but that people read books that aren’t perfect mirrors of themselves anyway.
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