YA and the Sarcastic Teen Girl Voice

| Friday, January 7, 2011
Today's Tune: Use Somebody

I don't really keep this a secret, but in case you weren't aware: I watch YA discussions pretty closely. Mostly because I'm intensely interested in the genre, but also because I write it, and keeping an ear to the ground on your potential future career is generally considered an intelligent thing to do.

There's something I've seen come up in discussions from agents and editors pretty regularly, and I thought I'd bring it to the table.

Here it is: the Juno-esque sarcastic teen girl voice is getting way old. Some feel the voice is just too common -- it seems aspiring YA writers tend to fall back on it as the "expected" voice for a teenage character. Others feel it's an unrealistic voice. Yes, teens can be sarcastic, but the cynical, lightning-quick quips sound scripted, not real. They're more jaded 20-something and less teenager.

Okay, so, yikes. What does this mean for YA writers? Do we need to reel in the sarcasm and make sure our characters don't sound like we pulled them out of the Dawson's Creek pilot? (Aside: seriously NO ONE TALKS LIKE THIIIIIISSS but I still totally loved that show, not going to lie.) Does this mean we have to nix witty dialogue? ALL THE SADFACES.

My take: yes and no. Yes, I think there is definitely a valid point in the opinion that the Juno-style is overdone and trying too hard. Part of the teenage experience is that they can't always think of the scathing quip at just the right moment, even if they'd like to. And the appreciation of sarcasm and dry wit does have a limit. If we're too heavy-handed with it, it grates.

But does this mean no sarcasm or wittiness at all? I definitely wouldn't take it to that extreme. We just have to learn 1.) moderation and 2.) how to explore different voices. Every teen character doesn't need to be a whipcrack smartass who views everything through the I Am So Worldly And Jaded At Sixteen filter. The issue with this voice is that it's just too cool. It's almost a throwback to not making your character perfect: don't make them the perfectly confident superior kid who has a comeback for everything.

Let them stumble. Let them get embarrassed and stressed and pissed off and tongue-tied and awkward. Don't try to make them into a polished, witty adult-in-a-teen-body. Doing so causes you to miss out on one of the core tenants of teenagerdom: we had no idea what the hell we were doing. Talking back and being a smartass were defense mechanisms, not our core personality.

Characters, not caricatures. Something we'd all do well to keep in mind.


{ Amparo Ortiz } at: January 7, 2011 at 6:48 AM said...

Awesome post! I do agree that there are a few Juno-esque YA girls out there, but I also see the point in their existence. Bottom line: your character needs to speak how they should speak in your story. It's all about who they are and why they are that way. Not about what authors think teen-speak is.

{ Meredith } at: January 7, 2011 at 7:26 AM said...

Love this advice! I definitely think teenagers can be sarcastic, but it's usually tempered by insecurity and a wit that's not quite as quick--it's a balance. And I love Dawson's Creek, even though they all talked like naval-gazing 40 year olds!

{ Susan Kaye Quinn } at: January 7, 2011 at 10:11 AM said...

Exactly! I think you nailed it with not being too-perfect. Make them real people, and the audience will be along every step of the way.

{ Matthew Rush } at: January 7, 2011 at 11:14 AM said...

I think it's like anything else, as you point out, it's all about balance.

Luckily my YA MC is a boy, so he can be as jaded and irreverently sarcastic as he wants.

{ Marie } at: January 7, 2011 at 11:45 AM said...

DARIA has ruined more YA novelists than teaching and grad school combined.

{ Marie } at: January 7, 2011 at 12:01 PM said...

Okay, on a less flippant note, I was just reading a great interview with Johnny Dale, who--for my money--probably handles teen characters as well as anyone else out there. (I've edited this a little for space, FYI):

"Writing teens is a constant balancing act. You don't want to make them too young, of course, but a big pitfall that some writers fall into is treating their teenage characters like little adults. The truth is, teenagers are neither children nor adults, they're stuck in this awkward halfway point. They're adult-sized and they have adult emotions, but they don't know yet how to be adults. They know what they want, they just have no idea how to get what they want. Or they know how to get something, they just don't know if they want it.

"To me, a big part of writing realistic teenagers is remembering that they're not adults yet. It's a matter of loving your characters enough to let them be immature sometimes, or inarticulate, or bratty.

"The other pitfall is writing idealized teens, role models that you think teenagers can look up to and emulate. I'm talking specifically about all those "snarky jaded sarcastic" girls that litter YA. I think a lot of these characters are written because the author thinks this is something teens need to read about and aspire to be, or they're written because it's what the author wishes they'd been like as a teenager. But so often it just comes across as phony and forced and tone-deaf."

I find it really interesting that he identifies the source of this trend as adult authors creating "aspirational" characters for teens. I'll have to give that some thought...

{ Old Kitty } at: January 7, 2011 at 2:03 PM said...

Awww Dawson's Creek!! :-)

Oh so agree! Balance and variety are everything especially with dialogue.

I for one love Darla - the cartoon from MTV? She was such an antidote to the squeaky teenspeak around her! Take care

{ Vanora } at: January 8, 2011 at 7:48 PM said...

Love this! Very good point.

{ aspiring_x } at: January 10, 2011 at 6:57 AM said...

great point! i tend to write awkward teenagers instead of quick-quipping ones... but i do enjoy reading juno-esque voices too. but you're right- it can be overdone.

{ Vampires and Tofu } at: January 11, 2011 at 8:01 PM said...

I personally despise that voice, both in books and movies. I know a lot of teenagers (am mom to one) and NONE of them talk that way.

{ karl } at: December 11, 2011 at 2:19 PM said...

I found your site by googling teen girl voices. What happened to this generation? I used to teach jr hs and half the girls had that whiny, nasal valley girl voice. They seem like caricatures of themselves. It seems so narcissistic, smarmy and self satisfied. Maybe that is not the voice you are referring to. I am thinking of some hannah montana wannabe with sunglasses, cell phone who says "whateverrrrr." I guess I'm with vampires and tofu. If this is all I'm hearing in 10 years, I may consider emigrating.

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