My friend Nicole Winters has a new novel, The Jock and the Fat Chick, coming out on October 13. She’s been kind enough to talk about the challenge of writing for contemporary teens in their rapidly-updating world.
Writing for teens in an ever-changing environment; It’s not as scary as you may think
You know that saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? I find this true when thinking about and writing for the teen audience.
We can all agree that the environment we grew up in as kids is vastly different compared to today, especially with the advent of new technology and the information super highway. Kids can also be under an extra set of self-imposed pressures, like thinking they’ll grow up to be famous, or they must make millions on their YouTube channel, or feeling like they have to resemble their favorite celebrity.
But this doesn’t mean that your approach to writing for this target audience has to become more complicated just because things were much ‘simpler’ when you were their age; it doesn’t. Even though modern kids might be texting, tagging or snapchatting in truncated language, or faced with the pressure to succeed bigger, better and faster, a young character’s hero’s journey will remain the same.
Your teen hero will always reside in that unique place between dependence and independence, community and self, and connection and disconnection. It doesn’t matter if they’re a farmhand from the 50s or wired into technology 24-7, their struggles are universal. Being that age is an intense time, emotions are raw and malleable based on never-ending new information and experiences. They’re constantly exploring relationships between self, peers, family and the larger community. Couple that with the fact that one moment they’re treated like a child and the next expected to think and act like an adult and poor decision making is bound to happen. (Plus, it’s the author’s job to throw the hero head first into problems that are too big for him/her to handle.)
Compare Ponyboy from The Outsiders with Ender from Ender’s Game or Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars: three completely different characters in vastly contrasting environments, right? What all these authors have done successfully is create an intimate world between reader and hero that is intense and emotionally scary. All three heroes are thrown into situations so big that at times not even they know how to process what they’re thinking or feeling, let alone be able to express what they want or even make good decisions. Your teen reader is going to relate to this. Young people don’t want to make mistakes anymore than we do as adults. In a way, reading fiction allows teens to live vicariously through the hero who must face the consequences of certain decisions. Ponyboy, Ender and Hazel are trying to find out who they are and are constantly reassessing relationships with self, peers, family and the larger world.
In my romance novel, The Jock and the Fat Chick, my hero Kevin, is a nice guy, but he is so oppressed by what his buddies consider acceptable when it comes to dating, that I force him into a situation where he makes fun of the kind of girl he’d love to go out with. Falling in love is new to him and knowing that Claire is unacceptable to his peers suddenly places his world on shaky ground. If Kevin were an adult with a wealth of experience, I’m sure the novel would go something like this: Shut your face, this is the type of girl I like, I don’t care what you think. The End. But it’s not. He resides in the area of new experiences and decisions and his mistakes will also be new. He’s fresh in the adult world and trying to control of his own destiny. Who will he be, the guy who caves, the guy who hides, or the guy who confronts? He has no prior experience to draw from and for sure he’s going to cope in all the wrong ways and end up making his life more complicated than it needs to be, but that’s his journey.
Life for teens may have changed since we went to high school, but the challenges of being a teenager remain the same. They’re still people who experience feelings of love, loss, joy and disappointment as they constantly try to navigate through a complicated world.
Nicole Winters was told that C-average, learning-disabled students couldn’t possibly grow up to be writers. Nicole proved them wrong. She has an English B.A. from the University of Toronto, loves cats, books, horror films, globe hopping and home-baked cookies. She has once been spotted wearing a sundress. Her previous book is TT: Full Throttle.