Writing the Teenage Perspective

NOTE: I am looking for reader feedback. The three best responses will win copies of Cory Doctorow's book Little Brother.

Fifteen-year-old Matt (names been changed to protect me from angry family members) ramped his skateboard off the roof of his house. "It's his ADD," the parents said. "We can't trust him to go down the block to the park on his bike. We know he'll do something stupid."

Just another three years and that 15-year-old will be on his own. Maybe at college. Maybe at his job. What will those parents do then? Spy on him? Follow him around campus? Ask his boss if he's behaving? In my opinion, it's the desperation to experience life that made him do something so crazy. If everyone wasn't breathing down his neck—don't do this, don't do that, don't get dirty, don't be dangerous and wild and free, and you can't do anything worthwhile because you are just a kid—he wouldn't feel the need to almost kill himself just to feel alive.

I may be 34, but my rebellious teenage angst still motivates much of my life philosophy. Even though I am a parent, I don't believe that one person can ever control another. Parents / teachers / authority figures who try to control only destroy the soul. And I believe it is wrong, wrong, wrong for schools to subjugate students into mindless, empty robots. That's why I home school my kids.

Truth is I don't really feel like I've changed since my teenage years. However, today it's not my parents & teachers but rather responsibility, society, & money that keep me from true freedom. Now I have three little persons who depend on me. Mouths to feed and rent to pay.

I enjoyed Cory Doctorow's book Little Brother. A friend of mine complained that it did not accurately portray the teenage mindset. But what really is the teenage mindset? How do you write it? How do see the world through the eyes of a teenager?

I am looking for reader feedback. I want to hear some thoughts from teenagers and adults alike. As stated above, the three best responses will win a copy of Cory Doctorow's book Little Brother.

Some possible questions to answer:

What makes teenagers different from adults?
What makes them similar?
What motivate(s/d) you?
If you are an adult, writing YA books, how do you accurately portray your characters?
If you are a teenager, what is it that you yearn for?
What books best portray teenagers today?

14 comments:

  1. The difference between a teen and an adult is the teen sees the world as an oppurtunity. The young think they own the world, they're full of lif vigor and see each day as a chance; a chance to be something great.
    The young think they're invincible.
    Age and time run down our dreams and make us accept what life has given us. Old dreams and hopes are pushed back to make room for a simple, pleasing life that sustains you, but can't ever really fill that gap. The young person hasn't seen the world. They're blinded by beautiful illusions while the elderly see through these. And who is to say that the knowledge is the better path? They young person always is happy, spiritful and lively while the elder is tired, put down and skeptical. They've seen the hardness of the world; they can't trust or believe. The young person has faith.
    The difference between the two is innocence.
    I embrace each day, fighting the changes I can see. I cling to my dreams and try to remember the person I was two minutes ago. My dream is to hold on to my youth. The people closest to me are my biggest supporters. They remind me of my past and give me hope for a future.
    As a teen, what I yearn the most for is similarity. To know that people accept me for who I am and that there are other's like me. I want to be differentiated, but at the same time, see eye to eye with my peers. I yearn for belonging.

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  2. I got goosebumps just thinking about your words. Spirit and vigor, yes. Something that is often stomped out of me and I fight hard to keep.

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  3. I've spent quite a bit of time mulling this blog post over. I'm sorry I can't offer any good books from the perspective of teenagers; most of what I've been reading lately is NOT YA fiction. Last book I read with teenagers involved is the book in question, and I have to disagree; I think Cory Doctrow nailed the teenage view pretty well.

    I'm 37 now. 20 years ago, I was 17. What's the difference?

    I had not yet loved and lost.
    I had not yet discovered I am not invincible.
    I had not yet had my metabolism slow down.

    I was less experienced.
    I was less able to handle the stresses of rejection.
    I was still fueled by the dreams of a perfect world.

    In short, the difference is this. My mind is no different in attitude and perception, I feel. What has changed in a word is: EXPERIENCE.

    I have now loved and lost. I have been hurt. I have been physically injured, forever reminding me that I can actually be crippled, or killed. I am more inured to the stresses of the world, such that when bad things happen I can better deal with the emotional backlash.

    But I'm still a boy at heart. I love the adventure. I want to fly. I want to climb mountains. I STILL want to be an astronaut. Those things did not change. What changed is that unlike 20 years ago I have a much better understanding of just how much harder it is to do those things. Which is not to say I won't try to do them; it just means that I've gained a bit of restraint.

    The difference between being a fierce, dangerous man, and a man who has been jaded, the difference between a teenager and an adult, is that a teenager still has his dreams. Few men (and women - I apologize for sounding sexist but I must speak from the perspective of my gender) can reclaim their youth by jumping full force back into the world of dreams and daring to ask, why not? (in my mind it's more like "why the **** not?" because I hear the angry, crazy teenager in me clamoring to leap out).

    I'm not an author in the truest sense. Yes, I've written but I'm not pursuing it as a goal of mine. What I can say is, as a reader, what would really do it for me is to see a character who charges ahead, recklessly. Who has trouble being angry, sad, happy, whatever. Teens are more emotional, more brash, and less experienced. They will do things regardless of the counsel of older, wiser people... ESPECIALLY because of the counsel of older, wiser people. Who wants to listen to some old person anyway? WE ARE THE YOUNG! WE KNOW WHAT WE'RE DOING!

    I hope these words help. Now, I have to go find something crazy to do.

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  4. It is such a shame that there is a division between teenagers and adults. There is so much that we can learn from each other.

    I remember in Cory Doctorow's book the concert in the park where they shouted their motto, "Don't trust anybody over 25." But it was trusting his parents and the path they led him that eventually gave him a solution to his problems.

    Yes, I agree that Cory Doctorow's book got it right.

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  5. As a 16-year-old, a teenager myself, I am always craving understanding. I want to know, to experience. I question everything. The world is like on huge mystery. I think adults sometimes lose some of that curiosity as they spend more of their life in this world. The little things start to matter less. As you experience more, the need to have experiences diminishes, and as the obstacles in your way start to disappear and new ones come up, it can be hard to keep overcoming them. People tend to start accepting the way things are instead of fighting them, or they turn their attention to one thing specifically and ignore everything else, letting opportunities pass them by without a glance.
    What makes teenagers different is that they rebel, they want to be different and at the same time they want to belong. Teenagers are always pushing the limits, seeing how far they can go. They are much more in the present than adults, not trying to see “the big picture” all the time. As they get older they start to worry more and find less excitement in the things they do every day. Events start to seem more and more similar, people start to blur together and act in predictable ways. There is less fun.
    Of course, it is not always like that. Some people keep some of that enthusiasm and awareness through their whole life. There are people who grow up in a freer environment, who don’t get bored with the world around them as time goes by. Or some people keep rebelling, keep stretching the limits, and never give up.

    I’ve read hundreds of books, probably most of them have been YA, yet I am not sure which ones really portray teenagers best. When I read, I become the character whether they are the average teenager or not. I do know that I have related with characters that arew girls like me as well as boys, adult characters as well as teenage ones, and sometimes it is just the person that I connect with, not the age or life experience. I don’t go to school, live in a city, or many other things many teenagers have in common, so maybe I am different. But then, everyone is different.

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  6. Ilana, you said, "As you experience more, the need to have experiences diminishes..." That is a very true statement.

    I remember when each of my children were about a year old--all of them had a fascination for things on the ground, like rocks, feathers, grass, leaves or sticks. I would take them for walks so I could get some exercise and then get so frustrated because the only thing they wanted to do was sit down on the ground and explore.

    I had lost the awe of experiencing something I had seen every day for 34 years, but they remindeded to look at the world through the eyes of wonder. I had lost some of my curiosity.

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  7. What makes teenagers different from adults? Teens don't know where they're going yet. They're impressionable - for better or for worse - and view the world according to how they're brought up. They're on the verge of striking out and following their own thoughts and ideas instead of those in authority over them - but they're not quite there, yet. That doesn't mean their independence isn't bubbling underneath, though.

    What makes them similar? Anyone - really, most people - are shaped by the people and lifestyles around them. You see them in both schools and workplaces, people who will shape themselves according to the company they keep.

    At the same time, in both places you'll see people who refuse to blend in.

    When adults can fall into routine and responsibility, when you're a teenager, the world is sprawling and open. Anything can happen, any choice can be made. Anyone who reads the news will know - for every teen who performs some heroic ask of rescue or charity, there's another assaulting or even murdering people.

    In YA fiction, I hate when authors try to make teens easy to relate to by making the narrative riddled with slang and shallow topics like fashion and high school crushes. They even sugar-coat it - trivializing a time that was so key, and certainly far from a happy life as homecoming queen who got all the boys.

    I want to read about teens who are thinking; who make choices and rebel under the pressures of authority; who go to all the darkest places and come out changed and sometimes dangerous; who embrace the violence around them; who break out from the system smothering them; who prove to themselves just how much potential they have.

    I want to read about teenagers doing what I've done, and what I wish I could.

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  8. Yes, it can be sad to think about sometimes... I can understand a little why Peter Pan didn't want to grow up.

    There is a typo I noticed in my last post, where I wrote "arew" instead of "are". Sorry. :)

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  9. I'm a teenager. A young one, certainly, but a teenager. I've always found it funny to read books that were intended to be to deep, too mature for a 14 year old. Adults tend to speak of what they classify as "teenage angst" as though they never experienced it themselves. They've forgotten what it feels like, treat it like a disease that all teenagers go through. But they don't really know why.

    Teens are different from adults because they are going through what is probably the biggest change they will experience in their lives. I know from experience, we're stuck in the middle- not quite children anymore, but not adults either. Too many people don't recognize, or forget, the unique perspective this gives us teens on life. We see both sides of the story. We still hope for everything that can be- but we've realized, by the time we hit the teenage years, that our parents, our teachers, adults in general- are nowhere near infallible. And we are still trying to find out exactly what we can get from life, and enjoying the process.

    So many adults think that being older than someone else gives them power, or mysterious wisdom. Teenagers can think that way too- I personally know, we can be cocky, we can be arrogant, we can naively believe that the world revolves around us. But what authors often forget to capture is the fact that teenagers are much more than a tumble of rebellious emotions. We're people too. And the world might not revolve around a single person, but their world does.

    I may be confusing even myself, waxing philosophical, but the point is that too many authors do not portray teens as anything more than angry young people who don't know a thing. The best portrayals of the teenage mindset are those which treat it not as a separate entity, almost alien-like, but simply as a group of real people with a slightly different perspective. To write a teenager, you must remember being one.

    I think that the book Little Brother by Cory Doctorow portrays the teenage mindset well. Marcus is written as a person with their own mind. I think that books like Maximum Ride by James Patterson and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, as well as many others, do the same. As long as the teen in question has their own opinions, thinks for themselves, and is not hopelessly childish or is portrayed as completely ruled by their hormones and group mentality, many authors write well from the perspective of a teenager. The angst may be there, but so is the mind.

    "If you are a teenager, what is it that you yearn for?" I yearn for many things, from good grades to friends, to understanding of others and of my convoluted teenage mind. I even hope for things I know are impossible- I was highly disappointed when my eleventh birthday arrived and I received no letter from Hogwarts. But I think that many things that people yearn for, when they are young, never really change as they get older. I don't know, but I think, at least, that 20 and 30 and 40 year olds still dream of impossibilities, still hope to do well at work, still want and need friends and knowledge of life. Our perspectives just change, a little.

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  10. I have to disagree with E.Maree's opening statement. "What makes teenagers different from adults? Teens don't know where they're going yet." Unfortunately, I know all too many adults who still don't know where they are going yet.

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  11. (I am 16 years old, and this is my perspective...)

    -the inexperience vs. experience, the worry of perception vs. material worries

    -surroundings affect us all, if in different ways; we all have the ability to love and hate and live, even if we choose not to

    -curiosity (the kind that killed the cat), knowledge, and adventure

    -(n/a)

    -I am always yearning for wisdom, excitement, comfort, and a better relationship with God

    -Books with heart, with depth, with truth. Books that are not afraid of reality, but have strong characters that can overcome that reality when it threatens to drown them.
    Books with characters whose lives don't fall apart when a
    boy
    won't
    kiss
    them.

    I want a book with a protagonist that I know.

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  12. I loved this article because I feel like you made a very good point.

    Let me introduce myself. I'm Emily Mitchell and I'm 14 years old. I am a very self motivated teen and I have always felt strongly about this topic.

    What makes teens different from adults is their yearning to express themselves and to be heard. A lot of people misunderstand teens and don't value our opinion just because of some actions that teens have made. We want people to except us for who we are and not who they want us to be. People try to shape us and not let us have enough room to really figure things out for ourselves. A lot of us don't really know who we are yet and when the adults and teachers try to tell us what's right and wrong and make up all of these rules, it makes us mad. We don't want a bunch of rules that are totally pointless or just meaning to control us.

    For example, some rules are way too strict and they try to protect us so much that we don't get to see the real world. We want to be independent sometimes.

    Another thing that makes us different is our emotions. They are stronger when we are teens and a lot of times, we go through things in our teenage years that change us for better or worse. Adults sometimes don't really see what we're going through clearly because they don't feel the same way and their emotions aren't as strong.

    What motivates me is when people are able to put facts out in front of me without sugar coating them and when people treat us like full grown people capable of making decisions for ourselves.

    I hate it when adults try to hide facts from us. They don't tell us the whole truth. We want to express ourselves and hear the whole truth of something.

    I yearn for freedom and the ability to have the rights such as making a difference in politics.

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  13. I know that everything that I am about to write probably isn't what you are looking for, but here goes nothing:
    I am seventeen, in High School and am trying to deal with social and family pressures while trying to write my novel. Every person around me tells me that I am too young and that I should wait until I have some "Financial Security."
    There is really a big difference between adults and teens. It is not something that you notice unless you sit there and listen to everyone around you complain. Adults are the ones who feel as if they should be mature, but then they feel like they are being left behind and can no longer have any fun. Not every adult feels like this, mind you, but it is the general feeling that I get.
    Teenagers on the other hand can see the impending doom of real life about to spit in their eyes and tie them into the electric chair of responsibility.
    We (the teens) want to be successful. We have big dreams and plans. The adults, as a general group, beat us down until we feel that we should do what they tell us or that we should break out and rebel. Some of us feel like the adults treat us like we wouldn't be able to think without them.
    I cannot speak for the adults, but I seem to think that they feel the same way, that same repression from a lack of proper communication.
    We all have story ideas. We revel in the feel of words flowing from our mind and onto the white sheet of paper, forever staining it with our worlds and languages. We all know the feeling of that perfect sentence, of the perfect villain, and the perfect first line.
    Every character comes from our imagination. We all feel the pain and mirth of those same characters.
    We all know how looking at a tree or a building or listening to a conversation can end writer's block, the dreaded disease of any writer.
    Each teenager is different and there is really no ways to put it into a book and have every person in the world understand their own teen, but that doesn't stop them from trying.
    There is a difference between adults and teens, but we all drink from the same fountain of creativity, and we all eat the same ambrosia of joy. Nothing can stop any of us from doing what we want but each other.

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  14. I'm a 16 year old girl, and I have to say, these are some really difficult questions to answer...

    I guess a really tough thing about being a teenager is that everything means SO MUCH. You are IN LOVE with that boy you've never even spoken to, you HATE that girl who always follows you around, you got a D on a math test so now your life is OVER and you're going to be NOTHING.

    That's the way my mind works, anyway. I obsess over things way too much, and sometimes I blow things way out of perspective. I think a lot of people manage to get out of that hyperbolic mindset once they reach adulthood.

    Some adults see teenagers as self-absorbed, impulsive people who just never THINK. Which we are. That's just the way it is. That's why we need special laws on us when we drive cars to keep us from killing people. But it's not all we are. Some people can see past the stereotypical teen, some people can't.

    Rita, you mentioned the way schools turn kids into empty robots. I've been lucky enough to be the kind of kid and go to the kind of school where I don't feel that way. In fact, I love school. I think it's because the teachers recognize that we their students are people. They are able to find common ground and mutual respect with us because they give us a chance.

    So, I'd say the big difference is that everything is so high stakes in a teenager's world. That's how it seems with my friends and me. When I'm telling my mom about something bad that happened, she always says, "Is this the end of the world?" In my head I'm going, YES YES YES, but I always say the obligatory, "Noooo, it's not the end of the world..."

    An author who I think depicts the teenage mindset well is Lauren Myracle. A lot of people would write her off as chick-lit, but who doesn't like some good chick-lit every once in a while? Especially when the way the teenagers think and talk is so accurate.

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