I think one of my biggest pet peeves about stories written for an MG or YA crowd is when the author doesn’t have their teen-aged characters acting their age. While yes I can understand sometimes a character has gone through certain situations in life that make them seem more mature, have more responsibilities, they are still young and learning about life and love and are full of doubts and insecurities.
For example, yes teenagers can be promiscuous, but sixteen year olds going around sleeping with everyone? Girls throwing themselves at them because they’re on the football team? A little hard for me to swallow. Yes, yes there may be a few like that, but to be picking up chicks where ever they go, getting it on in the bathroom and then walking away? Seems…unlikely in the majority of situations.
Same goes with their manner of speaking. Kids use slang. They curse (or use their own watered down versions of curses). Thirteen year olds should not be declaring their undying love for someone (see previous post Please make romance realistic ). Unless you’re writing a period piece, your characters should not sound like posh upper crust 60 year old socialites. Please please please take the time and read your dialog out loud. Better yet, get someone to read it with you as if you were acting out a scene. Not only will it help you see if the dialog is age appropriate, but it’ll help you to make sure it flows smoothly. Also, if your character is not using contractions, they will sound old. If you don’t trust me, read these sentences aloud and tell me which one sounds more like a teen would say it:
I cannot go to the party. It is too late and I do not have a ride.
I can’t go to the party. It’s too late and I don’t have a ride.
When I say to keep your characters age appropriate, please don’t take it that I’m saying your books should be sex/drug/curse-free, because that is not what I mean. I’ve discussed before how I think those things are acceptable in YA books as teens really are having sex, doing drugs and curse frequently. That doesn’t mean they need to be written like adults. As teens they face all those situations differently and have different kinds of circumstances and outcomes from those actions.
Make your writing realistic. Spend time with teens if you’re going to write about them. Have younger beta readers let you know if it seems like the language and actions of your characters greatly differ from their own. Most importantly, remember that things have changed since you were that age. While we might remember a lot of the insecurities and doubts that plague teens, remember that slang has changed, think about how technology has changed how and what they do, think about how often both parents are working and kids are left alone, or how many single parents there are these days. All those things factor into how a character might act.