Creative Process

Writing The Outsider Teenage Character

By June 7, 2014 15 Comments
Elephant Bullied Girl

Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant”. A phenomenal film.

As I edit my work-in-progress YA novel, I’m reminded of the following quotation from Philip Pullman:

“I think we can all sympathize with someone who doesn’t fit. Someone who doesn’t feel like they’re in their right place in the world, who doesn’t know what everybody else knows and doesn’t know how to behave… and [gets] into trouble because they don’t know how to behave.”

I look at my main character, Nash Moor, and laugh.

My biggest challenge with writing a teenager that exemplifies The Other is my near neurotic need to tone down the dramatics. While much of Nash’s personality is derived from his status as an outsider among outsiders, I’m slicing out the extraneous histrionics. Having started writing seriously during a time when Twilight was first peaking into popularity, I’ve developed an aversion to writing and reading about trigger happy acts of teenage heroism and self-sabotage.

But maybe I’ve been doing it wrong.

I’ve been playing it safe.

A teenage character is supposed to be stupid, naïve, and misguided. He or she is supposed to overreact and cry at the blood on their hands. There’s supposed to be real hurt at their core, and it’s up to them to get into trouble to make it hurt less. And if you’re an outsider, be prepared to squeeze that comfort from a stone.

Why does time fly as you get older?

Because nothing is new anymore.

Adolescence is about discovery and self-affirmation. Everything is brand new, and overreaction is almost a prerequisite.

It’s chilling how easy that is to forget.

Do you have any insights as you edit your writing?

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • kvennarad says:

    I’m lucky inasmuch as when I read my own stuff I can’t believe I actually wrote it. So five minutes later I can look at it like a first-time reader. So I am able to say “That stinks… That’s really good… Why didn’t she say such-and-such?” Yes, I get insights.

    “… A teenage character is supposed to be stupid, naïve, and misguided…” I think you will get closer to a teenage readership by realising this, than you will by creating some kind of teenager they can aspire to be but never get to be.

    As outsiders go, I think there never has been one like Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’. I realise now that I could never have created Ashe Sobiecki if it hadn’t been for Haddon and Christopher Boone; I should have included an acknowledgement.

    • Millie Ho says:

      How much of your content is derived from real life?

      • kvennarad says:

        Essentially, all of it, inasmuch as I can remember vividly what it’s like to be a teenager, like it was yesterday. I believe this is the why, the how, and the where from of my writing, the reason it flows, and the reason I come back and read it and it’s by someone else – if this doesn’t sound too precious. It’s not just derived from real life, but from my own real life, even the fantasy – if this doesn’t sound too contradictory. It’s 4:40am – why would I be talking sense anyway? 😀

  • Writing teen characters is way out of my area of expertise. I do however LOVE to paint teens. There is so much in their faces and gestures, and it all changes dramatically from moment to moment. Strangely, I remember my own teen years very well. I think Pullman did it beautifully because there is a respect for his young characters that prevails despite inexperience.

  • steve says:

    Write to the eyes of that fox and then write to me. That was the advice I got from a friend and maybe I missed his point, but I took it to be write from my experience. I did bump into a fox on Mt. Royal and it dropped my stomach into my knees. And I did write to my friend who has since passed away. The characters may be fictional, but they come from scraps of real people. It’s more like reporting or painting a picture of who they were than inventing or imagining their details and sometimes, many times, reality trumps fiction and so I say let the critics say shit like “Amelie (from the movie Amelie) is not realistic” and let them say Sam from the movie Garden State is a male fantasy and not real. Let them say what they want. It’s a free country, but hell if I’m gonna change because of some critic stuck in their own head of wars ignoring the bizarre realities happening right now; the never before realities that can make it into our stories and do. If they don’t believe the characters or if they tell us to create characters more catered to the audience, that’s marketing nonsense to me.

    • Millie Ho says:

      I agree, Steve. There’s nothing more life-affirming than working on something you are personally invested in. Ignorance be damned!

      • steve says:

        There’s always being attacked by a tree and surviving. That seems to be outside the self and as a result even more life affirming, to me anyway.

  • elmediat says:

    As an old guy , with a background in education & English literature and a bookish youth that belonged to the previous century, I remember when there was no teen-lit or massive young adult novels marketing machine. That is all a recent invention with along with their publisher-marketing mandated tropes. I read Andre Norton ( she was the true forerunner of Hunger Games), Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, and Mark Twain ( Tom & Huck were true outsiders). There were the Hardy Boys( created by a Canadian), Jules Verne adventures, loads of comics and the discovery of mythology, folklore, the pulps & Victorian ghost stories and mysteries.The grade nine English teacher introduced us to Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth ( forget the film) and Moonfleet ( first published in 1898).

    I know there is a masculine bias , except for Norton, who hid behind a male nom de plume to sucker in the boys. There is also C.L Moore’s Jirl of Jory tales and Leigh Brackett’s science fiction tales ( hello Star Wars).

    I guess what I am saying is that you need to write true , not formula. The forerunners had to create/invent their own formulas/magic spells.Some of them had the extra challenge of the constraints of a male dominated culture and still they became Grand Masters of Science Fiction & Fantasy. They all understood the hero’s journey and that the hero had a thousand faces.

    If you want couple successful modern writers who create their own voice & formula, consider:

    L. E Modesitt Jr. – The Spellsong Cycle, Magic of Recluse Series and Imager Portfolio
    Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus ( they tried to market it as a cross between Harry potter and Twilight – it is neither, closer to Neil Gaiman’s fantasy than anything else, She created her own formula & voice and the result is superb).

    take care and keep writing. 🙂

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thank you for the exhaustive list of recommendations, and the reminder to write true instead of formula. It’s a paradox in a lot of ways: if you don’t write formula, your readers won’t be comfortable. But then again, do you want them to be? I’m reminded of Philip K. Dick and his (earlier) inability to convey ideas to his (what would later become) large readership. Writing is a balance of honesty and convention.

      Your comment about Night Circus was spot on—I saw more Coraline in the story (hello alternate world) than Harry Potter or Twilight. I’m going to revisit my Jules Verne. : )

  • This makes me smile, and reminds me of Lorde’s lyrics:

    “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air. So there!”

    Goodluck to channeling the younger you! Maybe you forget the histrionics, but the emotion behind them. That’s what counts.

  • Eliza says:

    It’s just very recently that I’ve discovered my stories mostly fit in to the YA category, due simply to the age of my protagonists. This threw me for a loop as I (a) didn’t want to write to a genre and (b) haven’t been overwhelmed by the protagonists of well known YA fiction.

    I thought about what I read as a teen and wondered, is The Earthsea Trilogy YA fiction? What about that terrible but irresistible nonsense from Virginia Andrews, flowers in the attic. At least she didn’t worry about making sure her 17 yos were married before they had sex, she sure as hell wasn’t concerned about ruffling a few feathers.

    Take a look at the movie Kids, I can guatantee you Larry Clark wasn’t thinking about any formula when he wrote that amazing piece of teenage realism.

    I don’t want to write YA fiction just for an audience I define arbitrarily, I just want to write a good story no matter how old my protagonists are.

    • Millie Ho says:

      I think Earthsea Trilogy is YA fiction given its theme of growing up and teenage heroism/discovery. You had good taste as a teen. As for what constitutes YA, I think anything that communicates a sense of metamorphosis (emotional, physical, or even socio-economical) with young protagonists would do. Because of this, I would consider The Chrysalids part of the young adult genre even though the protagonists are on the cusp of puberty. It’s a phenomenal book, by the way. Read it if you haven’t already!

      And I completely agree with you on writing a good story regardless of how old your protagonists are, Eliza. Forget the labels when we’re writing—there’s just no substitute for a great story.

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