Crafting Teen Characters with Respect and Authenticity: Part 2

Making Peace with the Adolescent Pre-Frontal Cortex: Crafting Teen Characters with Respect and Authenticity

Part 2: Teen Traits (5 through 8)

By Jessica Denhart

Risk and RewardIn the part one of this article I talked about the teenage brain and the common teen traits of spotty memory, poor impulse control, the desire to do new things, and spending less time with family and more time with friends. Today we’ll talk about the last four traits that will help you craft authentic young adult characters.

5. Heightened Emotions

The one thing that is working completely in the teen brain is the limbic system, which deals with emotion, and is the part of the brain responsible for “pleasure seeking”. This seems to explain a lot about all of the heightened emotions that we deal with in our teen years. I remember feeling as though the entire world was ending when I had a fight with friends, or didn’t get asked out by the boy I liked.

6. Weighting risk and reward differently than adults.

Journalist David Dobbs points out that “Teens take more risks not because they don’t understand the dangers, but because they weigh risk versus reward differently. In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do” (Dobbs 54).

Not all teenagers try drugs and alcohol. However, because many teenagers will have to handle situations involving drugs, alcohol and sex it is a realistic part of many teen’s lives.  When crafting a character, a writer should ask:

  • Why does my character choose to try this?
  • Why does she choose not to?

Not every teen character has to try these things, but the question should be asked of them.  Not only is the chemistry in their brains screaming for them to try new and possibly dangerous things, their environments are too. For many teenagers these questions will come up, and that is where the writer has to come in and answer the why’s and how’s, otherwise the writer is not being true to her teenage character, nor her teenage audience.

7. Teenager’s brains are wired to go to bed later and get up later.

It is scientifically documented that teenager’s melatonin levels do not start working until up to two hours later than everyone else.[1] Therefore asking a teen to go to bed early and rise early is messing with their brain chemistry. If you have teenagers in your stories consistently waking up early and loving the sound of birdsong, there had better be a really good reason to back it up.

Every human being is different; therefore every teenager is different and deserves to be treated as an individual. We should treat our teen characters as individuals as well. Though steeped in research, these traits are not hard and fast rules. I suggest them as guidelines, something to test your character against for authenticity.

Try examining your teen character through the lens of this knowledge. Ask yourself if you’ve been authentic not only to the character as an individual, but to your character as a teenager. Your teenager should exhibit at least a few of these traits, and if your character seems more adult than teen, ask why. Perhaps there is a good reason and you can back it up in the story. Perhaps your character has had to grow up incredibly fast due to circumstances at home, such as living with a single parent or in a foster home. Consider ways in which some teen traits can still seep through. Perhaps an otherwise very responsible teen decides impulsively to just once sneak out of the house to spend time with friends. There are many ways in which you can be certain to remain true to a teenage character. Maybe your teenager gets bored and decides to take a late night drive, or climb into a boy’s window at 3 a.m. For some teenagers this can be an every now and again thing, for other teenagers they are made of impulsivity. Choosing how much impulsivity to add to your character is part of what makes your character an individual. The same goes for emotional reactions or risk taking behaviors.

8. Rise in compassion and awareness of the feelings of others.

While the brain is re-wiring, it is also making some changes that allow for compassion, understanding and empathy. Teens truly begin to understand the pain of others. It’s important to recognize that while teenagers can be difficult, they can also be understanding and empathetic.

Remember no one person is exactly like another; therefore one cannot really distill the essence of what it means to be an adolescent into a bullet list.

I hope this gives a touch of insight into the teenage psyche and perhaps as a result you have a few more tools with which to imbue your characters with a more authenticity and believability.

Jessica Denhart PhotoJessica Denhart has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a proud Dystropian. She writes Young Adult fiction and middle-grade, which varies from contemporary, to magical realism and “near-future quasi-dystopian”. When she was little she sometimes wanted to be a nurse or a fireman, but always wanted to be a writer. She ran away once, packing a basket full of her favorite books. She throws pottery, loves to crochet, and enjoys cooking and baking. Jessica lives in Central Illinois.

Follow Jessica on Twitter: @jdenhart


[1] Carskadon, Mary A., Christine Acebo, Gary S. Richardson, Barbara A. Tate, and Ronald Seifer. “An Approach to Studying Circadian Rhythms of Adolescent Humans.” Journal of Biological Rhythms 12 (1997): 278-89. Sage. Web. 7 Feb. 2012.

For more information:
Strauch, Barbara. The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us about Our Kids. New York: Anchor, 2004. Print.
Dobbs, David. “Beautiful Teenage Brains.” National Geographic Oct. 2011: 36-59. Print.
Johnson, Sara B., Robert W. Blum, and Jay N. Giedd. “Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy.” Journal of Adolescent Health 45 (2009): 216-21. Elsevier. Web. 4 Feb. 2012.
Music, Graham. Nurturing Natures: Attachment and Children’s Emotional, Sociocultural, and Brain Development. Hove, East Sussex: Psychology, 2011. Print.
“NIMH · Brain Basics.” NIMH · Home. Usa.gov, 10 Feb. 2012. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. <http://www.nimh.nih.gov/educational-resources/brain-basics/brain-basics.shtml>.
Steinberg, Laurence D. Adolescence. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.
Frontline Documentary “Inside the Teenage Brain”: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/view/

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Blog Series. 

March Dystropia Madness

Crafting Teen Characters with Respect and Authenticity: Part 1

(Ingrid’s Note: Yup, it’s April. But I’ve still got three fabulous Dystropian posts to bring you. So it’s now April Dystropian Madness! )

Making Peace with the Adolescent Pre-Frontal Cortex: Crafting Teen Characters with Respect and Authenticity

Part 1: Teen Traits (1 through 4)

By Jessica Denhart

NatGeo_9.2011 coverAs writers of young adult literature, many of us are in an interesting position of no longer being a teenager. We don’t understand what it’s like to be a teenager in today’s world. We’re not cool anymore, we don’t get it…

How can we write about teenagers and get it right, especially now that most of us are no longer on the inside? We can rely on memories. Memories fade and change over time. So I chose to research the psychology of the teenage brain, because that’s where the way we think and feel starts, in our brains.

We were all teenagers at one time. If we try, we can remember what it felt like to have been there, in the thick of adolescence and all of its turmoil.

In my research I discovered that the teenaged brain is still changing, developing and hardwiring. There are so many changes going on in the adolescent brain that often, like an electrical connection that is breaking down, the brain cuts in and out on a teenager at critical times.

1. Spotty Memory

A teenager may have trouble with their memory when it comes to lists of things to do, or directions given to them by their parents or teachers. It can also relate to the ability to remember what to do for homework. What seems like lack of attention or inability to focus is something that can be specifically traced to the, as yet unfinished, wiring of the parietal lobes.

2. Poor impulse control

Teenagers may not be able to hold their emotions in check and scream at or hit someone in an overreaction to a minor incident. They may say whatever comes to their mind first, even if it’s cruel or blunt. They may do something risky due to a lack of impulse control.

3. The overwhelming desire to do new and exciting things.

Teenagers may do crazy things, like diving off of cliffs into water 75 feet below as one of my friends did (and still does). Some drive incredibly fast, which is something that I heard over and over again from friends. Some love the thrill of video games; others enjoy a good scare through ghost stories and scary movies. Some teenagers sneak out of the house to do forbidden activities, like tromping through a graveyard in the middle of the night. Some drink and experiment with smoking and drugs.

4. Teenagers want to spend less time with their family and more time with their friends.

You may recall this part of your own teen years. I remember this time in my life. I didn’t really fight with my parents much. My rebellion against them wasn’t so overt. It was more subtle. It was a slow moving away from caring about their input in my life and spending more time with friends, caring more what they thought. This is very common in the teen years and is a direct result of brain chemistry. The neural hormone, oxytocin is prevalent in the teenage brain making social interactions more desirable.[1] Basically, teenagers want to hang out with their friends and avoid their uncool parents.

Coming up next – Part 2: Teen Traits (5 through 8).

Jessica DenhartJessica Denhart has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a proud Dystropian. She writes Young Adult fiction and middle-grade, which varies from contemporary, to magical realism and “near-future quasi-dystopian”. When she was little she sometimes wanted to be a nurse or a fireman, but always wanted to be a writer. She ran away once, packing a basket full of her favorite books. She throws pottery, loves to crochet, and enjoys cooking and baking. Jessica lives in Central Illinois.

Follow Jessica on Twitter: @jdenhart 


[1] Dobbs, David. “Beautiful Teenage Brains.” National Geographic Oct. 2011:

36-59. Print. (55)

This article was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Series.

March Dystropia Madness

Teens in Turmoil

Not all teen novels are about popularity and dating, some novels delve into darker themes like death, suicide, and war. In fact, darker issues have become more an more popular in recently published books. Death was on the forefront of the Teens in Turmoil panel at the LA Times Festival of Books where three daring young adult authors Gayle Forman, Jandy Nelson, and Cynthia Kadohata all discussed how they handled such delicate subjects. The following anecdotes where shared:

  • It is a misconception that writing a difficult or heavy book will not be a pleasant experience. Even if a book revolves around a difficult theme the process of writing the book is often very joyous. Some even felt a sense of joy and transcendence in the process.
  • Writing is about re-writing. Jandy Nelson went through 10 drafts of her novel The Sky is Everywhere before she even submitted it to agents. Cynthia Kadohata has gone through at least 7 drafts on all of her novels except Kira Kira. Gayle Forman wrote 12 drafts of the current book she’s writing before showing it to her editor. Write! Write! Write!
  • “I don’t believe in writer’s block!” – Forman. Writing is about momentum. Writers block doesn’t exist. Just write something, the energy of writing will transfer. The more you write the more the momentum builds. Momentum breeds momentum. Inertia breeds inertia.
  • “This is the golden age of young adult editors right now!” - Nelson. Young adult novels are getting a lot of attention right now, and there are amazing editors in the field!
  • “I didn’t know how the book would end, or what decision she would make.” - Forman. Sometimes characters have to make gut-wrenching decisions in books that deal with death. In Forman’s, If I Stay, her protagonist must decide if she wants to live or die after she’s lost all of her family. Indeed, the author herself didn’t know how the story would end. Sometimes the characters have to make those decisions for the author.
  • When writing for teens be careful of your adult voice. Often times authors can’t make the jump from adult literature to young adult (or vice versa) because their voice for one genre is so strong. Some of the authors present felt like they actually couldn’t write an authentic adult voice.
  • The difference between an adult book and a young adult book (other than the age of the characters) is a sense of hope and redemption in the end of the novel. Young adult books often have that hopeful quality, where adult literature can have a dismal or dark outcome.

Gayle, Jandy, Cynthia

Gayle Forman is the author of the young adult novels If I Stay, and Sisters in Sanity.

Jandy Nelson has just published her debut novel The Sky is Everywhere.

Cynthia Kadohata is the Newberry Award winning author of Kira Kira, as well as other novels for young adults including A Million Shades of Grey, and Weedflower.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun

Young adult authors Lisi Harrison, Amy Goldman Koss, and Robin Palmer all spoke at the LA Times Festival of Books back in April. Each promoted their current books and shared some insight into writing, teen readers, and their process. The following are a few quick tid-bits from their half-hour panel:

  • Robin Palmer writes books that re-tell common fairy tales, and with this genre she’s discovered that her heroines need to be strong: “Your prince isn’t going to come out of the woodwork and save you. You have to save yourself. Be your own hero!”
  • A common theme in young adult literature is the struggle to be accepted and liked by your peers. We all do this. Even in our adult lives. It is a universal theme.
  • The more serious a book is the funnier the book can be. We often mix comedy with tragedy. Tragedy + Time = Comedy.
  • “I like to read books with a lot of sugar. It takes the edge off. It helps me to enjoy life more.” - Amy Goldman Koss
  • “I don’t like to work within the normal rules of science fiction.” - Lisi Harrison
  • When writing for younger teens it’s important to say away from S-E-X. This is because this audience doesn’t have it. It’s not something they worry about yet.
  • Be sure to self promote! Have a blog and post chapters on your blog.

    Robin, Lissi, Amy

    Robin, Lissi, Amy

Lisi Harrison is the author of the Clique Series, Alpha Series, and Monster high.

Amy Goldman Koss is the author of The Girls, Side Effects, and The Not-So-Great Depression, among many other books for teens.

Robin Palmer is the author of Little Miss Red, Geek Charming, and Cindy Ella.

Libba Bray’s Ten Insights for Writing

“What I want to talk about is the ways in which we open ourselves up to the process. Writing is a discovery to develop and reach new places with our work.” Young adult author, Libba Bray, began her presentation at the 2010 SCBWI Southern California Writer’s Day with the above call to arms. She followed with these ten insights to push your work to new heights.

1. Some Days Your Writing Will Suck! This is normal. Do you have a perfect hair day, every day? No! The work will get better! Trust it. The work will surprise you with the answer. No one ever died from a day of bad writing!

2. Name Your Inner Critic. We all have an inner critic who sits over our shoulder and makes comments like “Wow, that is suck-tastic.” “Derivitive.” “You’re a fraud!” Name your inner critic. This way you can tell them to leave the room! You don’t need them in the room. You need that freedom, particularly when you are working on your first draft. They will trip you up keep you from getting the work out. So let the mad man go (inner critic), and then later invite them back in when you are ready to edit.

3. Writing Should Scare You. If what you are writing doesn’t scare you, even a little bit, then there are no stakes. This means you haven’t pushed far enough. This means you are too comfortable and you aren’t pushing your own limits.

4. Read! Yes, you must read! Make the time! It is a pleasureable part of your job. Read everything. Make your synapses go nuts! Let your brain get excited and start making connections. It will influence your work. Author Linda Sue Park once said that “you must read one thousand books before you can write your first word.” So get reading! (Libba Bray admit’s that she is still catching up.) Read! Know what is possible.

5. Don’t Write Cheerios. Don’t be lazy. When ever Bray is too tired (or lazy) to make dinner she will eat a bowl of Cheerios. Yet a half hour after she’s eaten it she feels unsatisfied. “Did I eat?” She asks herself. Don’t write fiction that is soggy and forgettable!

Stories are about people, and real human experiences. Characters and their relationships are what matters. Develop and understand your characters and create and an emotional connection. “Plot is the footprints left in the snow after your characters have run through.” – Ray Bradbury. There is no fake altruism. There is nothing that is un-earned.

“Good” is a reletive term. Characters, like real people have flaws and problems. Beware of trying to create “good” people/characters. Beware of protecting yourself, by protecting your characters. Take off the armor! You do your characters a disservice if you try to make them “good”. They will become flat. Root around in the murky places to find your characters.

The personal is universal. The more specific you are, the more you let the audience in. Don’t always go for the joke – show the vulnerability, and give it room to breathe.

6. Remember. You are not writing for today’s teens.You are writing for your inner teen. Remember the emotional language of being ten, thirteen, and sixteen. Remember who you were then? Remember what it feels like to be foreign in your own body, longing for a meaningful kiss, that electric moment that could change your life forever. It might happen now, or in five minutes, or in five days. Things are immediate. Remember how you created nicknames for your friends. Remember the fashion statements you made, or using your fake ID, or driving away from home just to see how far away you could get before you felt the need to turn around and come back. Remember the strangeness, and the emptiness. This is a language that never leaves you.

7. Find Your Own Voice and Honor It. When Bray was younger she tried to be Raymond Carver – a sparse, deoressed, male, alchoholic. Then she tried on a bunch of other writer’s styles as well. She was afraid of the inner critic that thought her own work, her own voice, would be boring. Bray had a breakthrough in a writing workshop when after an in-class exercise the teacher came up to her and said “I love what you wrote today. I love that your writing had so much anger in it.” This was a revelation for Bray, and awakening. It freed her to open up and find her own voice. There is no one else who has your voice!

8. Change Up Your Game. Just like working out, there is a point when your writing will plateau. You can get too comfortable writing the same book. So change up the game! Play with form, but do it in service of your story. There are all sorts of interesting things you can do – no punctuation, death as narrator, use screenplay format, etc. The fantasy element in Bray’s Gemma Doyle series came from playing with her manuscript.

9. Just Say No to the Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend. Pterodactyl = Vampire. Be careful of trends. There is no sure thing, except for writing the magic of what matters to you. Find that and dig deeper! (Read more about the hot pterodactyl boyfriend in a previous post with Libba Bray: Write with Wreckless Abandon).

10. Earn Your Moments. Go deeper until you hit a vein. Truth should make you uncomfortable. Earn it! Don’t give characters characteristics that they have not earned. We have this moment and then we move one – work with the ambiguity, don’t bail out your characters.

Libba Bray is the author books for Young Adults, including Going Bovine and the Gemma Doyle Series: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. In 2010 she was awarded the Michael L. Printz award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.

She’s All That: Writing for Contemporary Girls

Three YA authors came out the LA Times Festival of Books this past weekend to share their point of view on writing for teenage girls. Authors Robin Benway (Audrey Wait Series), Cherry Cheva (Duplikate, and She’s So Money), and Joanna Philbin (The Daughters) had the following to say:

How are teens different today than in the books you read as a teen?

Robin: The girls in the Sweet Valley High Books (that Robin read as a teen) were nothing like the teenager she was, and she couldn’t believe it. She’s realized that you have to write for the girl who isn’t from Sweet Valley High. You have to address what is inside the character, and articulate what teens feel they can’t say. This will cause them to identify with your voice/book. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was a book that really changed the game for Robin. It was a book that really talked about what is going on on the inside.

What type of issues do you think teens are dealing with?

All three authors address body issues and self image in their books. They all feel this is something that teens struggle with on a day to day basis. The Daughters really explores this with the relationship of one of the characters who is the daughter of a super model, so she has even higher expectations of being beautiful.  All three authors felt that finding self confidence, or testing your confidence is part of the game when it comes to beauty. The struggle to be beautiful is a test to find out who you are and the confidence to think you are worth while.

How do teens talk today? What issues have you had with using swear-words in your books?

Cherry: When she does public readings (like at the festival) she actually puts the swear words back into the text. You won’t actually read them in the text, but she feels it is part of the characters and part of how teens speak. She initially had around twenty instances of the F-word in her book She’s So Money, and if you read it now, there are none. The editors took them all out.

Joanna: She draws on how she speaks with her girlfriends. She doesn’t think that her voice and a teen voice are all that different.

Robin: She had to tone down her book in terms of swears as well. She actually had to change the term “cocaine skinny” because it implied drug use.

Cherry: You also want to consider what a 14 or 15 year old has at their access, as this can limit in some ways what you write about in regards to content.

How do you think writing for teens is different than writing for adults?

Robin: Teens are more fun to write! They have so much joy and enthusiasm for life. It can be really exciting.

Joanna: When writing for a YA audience you are dealing with issues of insecurity, body issues, etc. I don’t think those things go away as an adult. Those issues are still present. But as an adult you are not really allowed to talk about those issues, you are supposed to be past them. There is shame in talking about them as an adult. So I find writing for young adults very liberating. You have more freedom with these characters.

What ideals do you like to emphasize and share with young girls in your books?

All three authors agreed that they are trying to empower young girls to be strong and confident. Be yourself! It is important to find a support system, and surround yourself with good friends who will protect you and allow you to feel safe.

How do you deal with writers block?

Get out of your head for a while! Go watch television or movies. Give your work some space.

Also, carry around a notebook, just in case that great moment of inspiration comes when you are away from your work. Or, if you don’t have a notebook, call yourself on your cell phone and leave a voice message.

How do you avoid stereotypes in your books?

Read your work out loud. You will always hear when something feels fake or untrue.

Robin, Cherry, and Joanna

Again, the authors of this panel were Robin Benway who wrote the Audrey Wait series, Cherry Cheva author of Duplikate, and She’s So Money and a writer for the television show Family Guy, and Joanna Philbin author of the series The Daughters. This panel was moderated by Aaron Hartzler.