If, during your adult life, you have the chance to go back and read your favourite book from your teen years, your reaction is likely to be somewhere between bewilderment and cringe. Personally, I was obsessed with sci-fi romance and my favourite book from that time was set in a hedonistic, illogical world that could only possibly make sense in the mind of a fifteen your old girl. Going back to it now, I can’t even begin to understand the characters’ motives or reasoning. But that’s why I loved it. The world of a young adult novel needs to be believable, but viewed through a completely different lens to the one you use as an adult. Below are some of my tips for staying true to a teen perspective.
It’s rare to meet a teenager who isn’t desperate to stop being a kid. They are at a stage in their life where they are well enough developed to crave the responsibilities and rewards of adulthood, but not yet ready to handle them. So it’s no surprise that many young adults use books aspirationally; to picture what their life might be like in the future.
As a result, teens usually prefer to read about a character who is a couple of years older than them and this is an important point to keep in mind when deciding on the age group you are aiming for. If you want to write a book for 13-14 year olds, your protagonist should probably be 15-16, if you want to write for 16 year olds, they could be 18-19 and so on. This is not an unbreakable rule and young adults will sometimes read characters who are the same age as them, but rarely younger.
This also carries over into the recommended age range of your book. Some young readers will get a greats sense of success by completing a book meant for slightly older readers so try, if you can, to not include anything that completely excludes them (unless such elements are key to the story, of course).
For young adults, a year or two in age difference can mean an enormous difference in the sorts of themes and issues that they value. A 13 year old probably doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on their own mortality, but are thinking a great deal about their ‘strange new feelings’ for the opposite sex. By 15, romance will likely be important, but not necessary a concern and they are thinking about deeper issues such as their future and their responsibilities.
This is not to say that certain themes should be completely excluded from your work; different people develop at different rates and you will probably want to cater for that. But be sure to prioritise your topics based on what the majority of your audience cares about.
When you know what themes you want to address in your work, the next step is considering how to approach them. For this, you will want to view the world of your story through the eyes of a young adult audience and that can be quite a big challenge. Over the years, your values and opinions have matured a great deal – perhaps more than you realise – and it can be very difficult to revert them, even temporarily.
If, like me, you find that the memories of your teen years are now nothing but a blur of hormones, you may find ‘beta readers’ extremely useful. Seek out members of the demographic you are aiming for and ask their opinion on your work. For teens, I recommend only presenting your manuscript once it is fully polished, as they may not all have the patience to trawl through a rough draft. And don’t expect an in-depth analysis on the quality of your prose. Instead, try to figure out where their values matched those of the character, and where they felt lost or alienated from them.
I hope that puts you on the right track for identifying with your teen readers and please join me again next week when I will be talking about the world of self-publishing.