Letting Life Lead
Because I’m feeling cheeky and super confident today for no particular reason, I’d like to open up a dialogue on the subject of dialogue.
In particular, the subject of making teenagers sound like cookie-cutter morons without any grasp of the subtleties of basic human communication.
I won’t name any books in particular, but the Young Adult fiction genre is rife with…problems. How teenagers talk is one that has driven me crazy since I was a pre-teen and it has gotten worse not better.
If you are new to this blog, character dialogue is my thing. I love to read it and have always loved to write it. It has been noted that while my plot skills tends to need work and my world-building can be too broad, the way my characters speak to each other is on point, relatable, and real. I write the old, mature, men, women, the polyglot, the hearing impaired, children, teenagers, and young adults. I a always experimenting with character voice — who are they, what do they want, what do they say and why, where are they from, who do they like, who do they hate. On and on and on. It’s an endless dossier in my head.
What I always do first is focus on who they are as people. Contrary to what Disney shows and certain books would have us believe, teenagers and children are FLUENT.
Young adults are already masters of what words to use in certain groups (the same way most adults do). They may not have experience (and thus screw up more often), but they have a vast vocabulary. Some more than others. However, just because a person may not use a word in daily communication, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t know what it means.
What children and teenagers do well is absorbing information without thinking about it.
Children are more apt to ask what a word means during a conversation and aren’t afraid to mess up the pronunciation when they try it out (over and over and over). A teenager, on the other hand, tends not try out a new word or phrase until they have practiced it in their head and gauged the situation (is this a safe space or potential for social suicide?). They aren’t as likely to throw in “turns of phrase” among strangers or when they are concerned about status or sticking out. They save that sort of talk for close friends and family that they trust. This is the same vocal behavior adults show when they are having a conversation with a boss, grandma, their children, family children, strangers children, other parents, employees, service workers, strangers, ad infinitim.
This can be one of the social realities that makes talking in a group with strangers an exhausting venture for Introverts such as myself.
All of us shift the words we use depending on our environment. The problem is when writing dialogue that only uses one aspect of a person’s “communication library”, such as too much slang and jargon for teen-aged characters.
It’s not that people don’t use slang (some groups more than others), but unspoken dialogue is more important. When one person says to another, “S’up.” That can mean any number of things depending on their relationship and history. It might mean: “I see you, where’s the ten bucks you owe me” or “Hey, haven’t seen you in a while you feeling okay?” or “See you later when I punch you when no one is looking” or “Hi.”
The pauses, interjections, interruptions, and the around-the-barn-and-back-to-the-subject-from-ten-minutes-ago meandering are what everyone navigates in oral communication. Dialogue is more than words. It is interaction, inaction, and the unsaid. Direct translation of any kind of chit-chat among a group of people does not work outside of a transcript. There needs to be a balance of picking the right quirks to sense ratio.
Young Adult fiction dialogue tends to focus a lot on direct translation and has the young character speak in the same way all the time–even in their own thoughts.
It is not just unrealistic. It is unreadable.
I haven’t been a teenager in a long time, but I can tell you with certainty that just because “I don’t know,” was among my standard stock phrases, it had no bearing on my actual vocabulary. I had a firm grasp of the English language. Because I was already a target for being a girl and studious (a nerd), I didn’t use multi-syllabic words in school often because I didn’t want to invite more harassment. Other teens don’t give a crap what anyone thinks.
Adults employ this self-preserving behavior, too. We don’t drop F-bombs in front of our bosses and tell them what we really think about the job in ninety-nine percent of circumstances. Volatile language usually gets you put on probation or fired (unless you are under the umbrella of nepotism). Some people, obviously, have more forward personalities.
Teenagers understand (or employ unconsciously) this communication nuance. They have practiced it every single day since their first words.
Some people, in general, regardless of age aren’t very good with nuance or may lean towards one of the many stereotypes. They do use stock phrases and stick to specific subjects based around their limited knowledge even in their own social group. Even so, I guarantee their inner dialogue is richer that they can show for whatever reason. A jerk’s obnoxious behavior could very well be social camouflage. It’s what is underneath that makes for a dynamic character.
So, can we stop writing teenagers as incapable snots with zero fluency in their native tongue?
Yes, teenagers can be unpredictable emotionally and tend towards impulsiveness. Upgrading an entire brain from a child to an adult is bound to cause misfires. If anyone has EVER installed a new game with a complicated AI and graphics, it is well-known that a range of bugs don’t always make sense. You wait for the patches. Sometimes the patch fixes twenty problems and exposes a dozen more. Teenagers have to deal with those problems and live their lives every day whether they want to or not.
Some are better at coping than others–just like every single adult.
I find it helpful when writing a character’s dialogue to take into account their age and experience together. In this way, a young child can be more articulate than usual but still behaving in typical ways. A teenager not fluent in a second language will make very specific mistakes and feel social clashes together with the emotional blips. An individual may even fixate on a subject with an impressive single-mindedness and be confounded by social requirements, but that does not encompass all of who they are.
Break some rules. Experiment with ramblers, grunters, posers, neutral chatters, the facial expressionist, and the kid slinging coffee after school.
Write people, not just their words.
Do you think Young Adult fiction portrays teenagers fairly?
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