7 Tips to Writing Teenage Protagonists

TMNT

This is going to be tougher than I expected.  After all, I haven’t been a teenager in decades, so I’m kind of out of touch.  Even at work, I realize that teenagers of today aren’t like the ones when I was growing up in the 90’s.  So, let’s get to it and see how lame these tips are going to be.

  1. If you are writing a story that takes place in modern days, you really should research teenagers.  The workaround of having your protagonist not be into the same stuff as their peers while loving ‘vintage’ things can only go so far.  It’s pretty lazy and can cause some story issues, especially if you don’t want them to be a social outcast.  Just try to find out what teenagers are into in terms of pop culture, clothing, and slang to make the character seem more real.
  2. Try very hard to avoid making your teenager as mature and wise as an adult.  We tend to forget this mistake when we get in the zone, especially at first.  Once the character is locked into our minds, we are less likely to have them act beyond their years.  Still, an author can forget that a teenager is prone to making bad decisions from time to time.  They are in a big learning stage of life here, so they shouldn’t be perfect.
  3. Not every teenager has an interest in romance.  Even if they want to be with someone, they won’t necessarily be making that a fixation.  Some teenagers are more interested in friends, a job, classes, and their future in general.  Hormones do play a factor, but it doesn’t mean every teenager is a lustful horndog.
  4. Emotions are not always stable or perfect for the situation.  Teenagers can get frustrated, excited, depressed, and other extremes more easily than most adults.  So, you can have them overreact to certain stimuli.  For example, they may get loud and celebratory when they achieve a goal that seems minor to an adult like getting a B+ or parallel parking successfully.  You have to think like a teenager and have them react accordingly.  Not all the time, but enough to make sure the reader doesn’t think they’re really reading about an adult who is lurking in a high school.
  5. If you are writing about teenagers in other historical eras, you need to do your research.  It’s the same as #1, but you can’t talk to a teenager from that period.  You need to read up on things.  They will always have different skills, world views, and experiences than modern teens.  After all, child labor and marrying young being legal weren’t as far in the past as we’d like to think.
  6. Teenagers in fictional worlds can be seen as more malleable than those of Earth.  You have to make everything from scratch there.  An author can even have them act more mature than one would expect from that age.  Maybe they’ve seen enough death and horrors to erase their innocence.  This does mean you’re working with a traumatized teenager though, so looking up mental health in that age range should be done.  One thing that is always true is that teenagers always have some level of immaturity even if it rarely turns up.
  7. GROWTH!  I saved the big one for last.  Teenagers are in a stage where they are rapidly growing.  Not only physically, but emotionally, socially, and mentally.  More so than adults, they need to change as the story progresses.  It can be in leaps and bounds or oozing ahead, but they cannot go back to their original form.  This is because people see teenage protagonists as symbols of maturation.  If they don’t grow then they failed and there goes the connection.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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18 Responses to 7 Tips to Writing Teenage Protagonists

  1. L. Marie says:

    Great tips, Charles! Teen characters are challenging. The tips you provide will indeed help. I would encourage authors to know the market they are writing for. I’ve read books for the adult market that featured teens as main characters also (i.e., Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind series). Authors can push the envelope more in adult novels than they can in novels specifically marketed to young adults. (I’m going by traditional publishing standards here where the opinions and suggestions of editors and other gatekeepers like librarians, parents, and teachers hold sway in young adult literature.) I’ve witnessed a number of authors complaining that they wrote a novel for adults only to have their editor tell them the book will be marketed to teens.

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  2. These are great tips, Charles. Your advice about the research is very accurate.

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  3. It is definitely easy to think that we know what’s up with young people, when we don’t! I guess if you have younger kids or relatives, you can ask them to check your deets.

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  4. V.M.Sang says:

    An excellent and valuable post, Charles. You make some very good points to bear in mind–especially the last one.

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  5. More great stuff on this topic. I like the aside about once we’ve written a character for a while it gets more locked in. This must be true for all characters. Certainly happens to me.

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  6. Good stuff. One thing: “teenager” wasn’t a thing until the 1940’s when it became a marketing concept first in the US and then in GB, after which the effort began to clarify what it meant to be a teenager—again, until the 40’s a “teenager” wasn’t a thing, and while have come to commonly equate adolescence with being a teenager, teen age does not provide accurate boundaries for adolescence with puberty beginning today in girls as young as 10, with some “experts” suggesting that adolescence can extend to 25 or 26 years of age. For me, looking back over 7+ decades, the biggest generalized change is the lack of competence regarding independent responsibility of today’s teens compared to that which was commonplace a half century or more ago.

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    • I don’t think teenager really deals with physical puberty these days. It’s become a lot more of an emotional and mental category. Not to mention the association with explorations of relationships and sex, which isn’t done with children.

      I grew up in the 80’s, so I don’t see a big difference in competence of responsibility with teenagers. One thing I noticed is that the teenagers who do have those issues have parents and grandparents who let them get away with everything. They’ve learned that they don’t have to take responsibility. Oddly enough, I’ve met a lot of people of every age group who refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Makes me think it’s a general shift in society.

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