Finding the Voice in YA Fiction
By JG Faherty
My latest novel (The Changeling,
which I’ll talk more about later), is a YA science fiction thriller. It’s not
the first time I’ve dipped my foot into the YA pool (Carnival of Fear, Ghosts of
Coronado Bay, several short stories), but each time I do, it requires a
radical change in my thinking. Because writing YA—effective YA, that is!—presents
certain challenges I don’t normally find when I write adult fiction. Really,
there are two of them:
Finding the voices of the characters
Living in the mindset of teenagers
You might think the first one is pretty easy. Watch some Buffy reruns, or binge
a few seasons of Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, or even Pretty Little Liars or Gossip Girl. But that would be a big
mistake. First off, TV shows and movies use (many would say overuse) current
slang and lingo that, by the time your book is written and published, will be
mostly out of date, leaving you with a book that might as well sound like
Fonzie and Elvis wrote it. Second, look at any successful YA novel today. Most
of them use just a smattering of teen slang.
Slang should be used the same way you might build a character who’s from the
South Side of Boston or the Brooklyn Heights section of New York. How often could
you read sentences like: “Go pahk the cah” and “My fatha don’t botha me,” or
“You, youse gonna finish dat” and “My mutta gots no friggin’ idear of dis
problem heah” before you toss that book out the window?
The trick is to work a few words in here and there, mention that someone has a
thick accent, and let the reader’s imagination do the rest. If you can’t
accomplish that, you might need to take some classes in writing dialog. The
same thing goes for slang, especially teen slang.
Sure, there are certain phrases that stick around for generations. “Cool,” for
instance. My parents said it in college. I said it as a teen, and I still do.
My teenage nieces and nephews say it.
But what about “Netflix and chill?” “Yo, boo?” “Hey, bae?” There’s no
predicting which bits of slang will stick around for the next 10 or 20 years,
and which will be so ephemeral they’re gone before your kids start school again
For me, the best way to get an idea of how my teens are going to talk is to
listen to teens. I listen to my relatives’ kids, my friends’ kids. I listen to
teens at the mall. In the movie theater. In line at the local ice cream shop.
Not only do I learn what are common phrases and what are the ones you only hear
on TV, but I also pick up the nuances. How does an 18-year-old boy sound
compared to a 16-year-old girl? Do they talk different around me than around
their friends? What about with members of the opposite sex vs. their own
cliques? Angry vs. trying to impress? How many different inflections are there
to “Yo, dude” or “Hey, bitch” and what do they all mean?
And you need to have all that in your head in order to really succeed at
challenge number two, living in the mindset of your characters.
Your book is going to flop if your teen heroine sounds exactly like her
college-freshman boyfriend, or if they both sound like their parents. Worse,
it’s not just what they say, but how they react to the things happening around
them. Teenagers have quick tempers, fast reflexes, shorter attention spans. They
don’t have the same years of experience in the real world to temper their
reactions or give them a good basis for making logical decisions. And they have
to deal with so many things we adults have forgotten about. Bullying, social
acceptance, isolation, depression, 24-hour horniness, rebellion.
For each of your characters, you need to be inside their heads and determine
what motivates them. Who is going to break curfew, and why? Who is going to sit
in the back of the class and keep quiet? Who is going to need a sip of whiskey,
or a joint, or a punch in the arm from a friend, to ask the new girl out?
No two teens are alike, even if they’re ‘besties’ and talk the same (“OMG, he
said whaaaat?”) and dress the same. We tend to forget that, to think of groups
of teens as clones of each other, but underneath it all they more different
than adults, because they’ve not yet become conformist or resigned in their
thinking about the world, they’ve not yet come to terms with their emotions.
And, don’t forget, you can’t get caught in the stereotype trap. Yes, we all
know jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, outcasts, dirtbags, paste-eaters, class
clowns, honor roll students, etc. And some of them do conform to stereotypes.
But not all of them. And many of them, again, are only showing you the surface.
In my novel Carnival of Fear, I purposely used stereotypical characters to set
up my story. Jocks vs. nerds. In-crowd vs. outcasts. Stoners vs., well,
everyone. But as the book moved on, I gave them each real personalities, real
problems, real emotions, showed that underneath the plastic they were very
different from how the world saw them, how they wanted to be seen.
It’s called character depth, and all your characters need it, unless they are
nothing but red shirts.
In my new novel, The
Changeling (I told you we’d get back to it!), the main character, Chloe,
is, on the surface, a self-indulgent goth chick. But we quickly see there is
more to her than that. She’s a good student, balances a tight line between
rebellion (drinking, dating another girl) and conformity (she’s obedient to her
parents and tries not to get in trouble). As the story progresses, she has to
shed her rather indolent ways and take on responsibilities she never imagined,
not only for herself but for everyone she loves. And she has to do it in a way
that’s realistic for a teen rather than an adult.
In that respect, The Changeling is as
much a coming of age story as it is a love story or thriller. And if this
interests you, you can check out an excerpt from now until June 24th,
because I’m running a Kindle Scout campaign for the book.
For those of you who might not know, Kindle Scout is a program where readers
are invited to preview books and vote for the ones they feel worthy of
publication by Kindle Press. The benefit to you? If it wins, you get a free
copy of the book for your Kindle and the book gets published. Plus, you’ll have
my ever-lasting gratitude for your support (and maybe another free gift as
well!). Here’s the link:
And here is a short summary:
THE CHANGELING is a YA sci-fi thriller in which a high school senior is the
accidental target of a top-secret weapons test. Afterwards, she develops
amazing powers, including seeing through walls and transporting herself through
space and time. Now the Army has kidnapped her and her family so they can
recreate the experiment and build an unstoppable team of invincible soldiers.
It's up to Chloe to save the people she loves and put an end to the experiment.
But her powers are also slowly draining her life force, and she has no idea if
she'll have the strength to stop her enemies before it's too late.
I hope you’ll stop by and give it a look.