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Mature Voice for the YA Market

Heather asked this question in the comments a few days ago:

I’ve been thinking a lot about and practicing different YA voices. I know what my friends and I were like as teenagers (dry wit, sort of like Juno – “older than our years” due to divorce and other challenges) but I think the perception is that most teenage girls have a more young-sounding “voice”.

From a personal standpoint, I totally relate to the older, jaded, sarcastic, witty, dry, Juno voices in YA. That’s the kind of teen I was. I thought I had it all figured out and, even when I didn’t, I pretended I did. It was a defense mechanism, of course, but isn’t everything a defense mechanism during high school?

The thing is, this isn’t the only kind of teen voice. And that’s a good thing, because there are lots of publishers and lots of editors (and agents) out there with lots of different teen sensibilities. And sometimes, one agent or editor can fully appreciate both the younger and the older teen voices.

I would say that if you write the older type of teen voice, the story needs to match up, and so does the age of the character. Make your character 16-18 and give them a story that fits the voice in terms of depth and darkness. Part of the fun of Juno is that the story is really pedestrian, and Juno’s voice carries her through a pretty average, white bread, middle America teen experience. But I feel like this is hard to pull off in a novel. The voice, first of all, will have to be pitch perfect, and then it will have to completely carry the novel. (I can hear the editor in my head saying, “Yes, the voice is great, but what happens? Something needs to happen. What’s the hook?”)

When you want to use this voice, match it to a romance, a paranormal, an urban fantasy, or a really strong contemporary realistic coming of age, where the voice isn’t the only thing the manuscript has going for it (think Sara Zarr). My favorite recent example, which you haven’t read yet but will, and should, is WILDEFIRE by my client Karsten Knight, which is slated for release summer 2011 from Simon & Schuster. The voice is killer, dry, witty, sarcastic, and the plot is explosive and killer, too. It’s kick-ass urban fantasy.

I say this all because one of the biggest mistakes writers make in YA usually has to do with this type of voice. I know this is true for my own reading, and I’ve heard lots of editors say this, but biting sarcasm alone does not a story make. Neither is sarcasm appropriate for sarcasm’s sake. A lot of hopeful YA writers (perhaps those with snarky teenagers at home?) make their main characters so dry, so sarcastic, so acidic, so unbearable…that I don’t want to spend a book with them. And then there’s nothing else in the book that would play along with the sarcasm (like, for example, a kick-ass urban fantasy plot) and make the manuscript a cohesive story. Worse, the main character is so acerbic that it turns the reader off and you lose that connection. (To see pretty sarcastic, mean, horrible characters who actually manage to win the reader over, try BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver or the upcoming REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly, out in September from Delacorte/Random House.)

Just like a fondness for math does not make an Asian-American character more realistic (ask me how many times I see the annoying and insulting cliche about an Asian-American best friend with wicked math skills and “brown, almond-shaped eyes” or “straight black hair”), and a fondness for donuts doesn’t flesh out a fat kid character (puns all intended), the addition of biting sarcasm to your voice doesn’t give you “Instant Teen Protagonist” for your novel.

As I said in my first paragraph…there was something behind all my sarcasm, then and now. Sarcasm, just like voice, is a very multi-faceted thing. So sure, your teen main character can have the Juno voice. And they can be mature for their years. The market will, of course, bear it, like it will bear a younger YA protagonist with a sunnier voice. But all of the sarcasm and voice and maturity considerations have to be there for a reason: they have to have both depth and a thematic tie-in to the rest of the story.

And if you can pull all that off, then sure, I’ll read it. I guess. Whatever. :)

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  1. Laura Pauling’s avatar

    I love sarcasm when it’s not being used to hurt people. But sarcasm usually hides the real person underneath. And I think in a story, it’s important for the reader to the see real person underneath their self defense. What happened or happens in their life to make them sarcastic. And then I’ll care about the character. Thoughtful post.

  2. Bee’s avatar

    Thanks for this post, Mary. There are a lotta snarky MCs in the current crop of YA lit, which makes them seem like a winning formula..but yeah, like you said, it can’t stand by itself.

  3. Tamsyn Murray’s avatar

    I love my snarky teen MC but she also has a vulnerable side to her. She’s written exactly as she appeared in my head and her journey is an especially painful one, so it’s her wit that carries her through it. Sarcasm for sarcasm’s sake risks turning the reader off. I glad there’s such a variety of voices in YA lit – it means I’ll never get bored of reading and writing it.

  4. Kelly Andrews’s avatar

    It worries me when writers describe their character by invoking another character, like Juno. Sometimes it comes off like fan fiction or a parody — as if they are using someone else’s character or voice instead of an original creation.

  5. Heather T.’s avatar

    This was a great post. I’m a very sarcastic person, so it’s easy for my characters to become sarcastic. But I have to restrain myself because it’s not always the right choice. Sometimes they’re funny in a more innocent way, and sometimes of course they’re not funny at all. I did recently read a book that seemed to have a character who was snarky just to be snarky, and it really turned me off. I couldn’t stand being in her head and I just didn’t want to read the book.

  6. Indigo’s avatar

    I use the old stand-by – there is a reaction for every action. Works great with determining voice. If you have an angst riddled character, there has to be a reason that character is that way. I’ve found it also helps to show, consequences for certain behavior.

    Great post! (Hugs)Indigo

  7. Shveta Thakrar’s avatar

    Terrific post, and thanks for the laugh. :)

  8. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    I love the sarcasm and snark of younger characters. But what I like most to watching them come out of a little as they grow throughout the story. That’s most fun for me.

    Fun post. I’ve enjoyed the comments, too. Happy Friday, everyone.

  9. Steph’s avatar

    “It worries me when writers describe their character by invoking another character, like Juno. Sometimes it comes off like fan fiction or a parody — as if they are using someone else’s character or voice instead of an original creation.”

    Agents compare their clients’ books to other already published books or other already published authors in their pitches all the time. Reviewers do the same so the person who’s never heard about said author can get a feel of whether they’d be interested or not. I don’t think they mean a story is lacking in originality or creativity most of the time – it’s just easier to paint a picture in someone’s mind. Like Mary uses the same device on her wishlist on the sidebar.

    I don’t think this is a bad practice if it’s evocative to the gist
    and not the substance. I’ve even seen some agents suggest it as a resource in query writing so long as it’s not name dropping every bestseller ever. :)

  10. Heather Kephart’s avatar

    Like, I LOVE the way you ended your post. *seriously over-rolls eyes* ;-)

    Mary! Thank you so much for answering my question! I heart you heart you heart you, pant pant, lick toe. Seriously, you’ve been a tremendous help. I’ve started and stopped about 20 YA novels over the course of the last oh… three months. What almost always trips me up off the gate are the internalized voices of my fabulous crit partners – “Oh Dear, that voice is MUCH too old for a 17 year old. Shouldn’t Jinglebottom be off vanquishing the reigning teen queen and her minions, as a prelude to storming the Homecoming float?”

    Hmm… Now that I’ve written it out, I’m thinking they would probably never say that. See? Kidlit.com is better than a shrink’s couch. I’ll be writing a post about this soon, and linking to this post! Again, THANK YOU for taking the time to answer my (and our) questions. You’re helping a lot of people.

  11. Robert M.’s avatar

    I love this topic! Here’s my two cents: Your characters can say anything you want them to say, and they can say it in any voice you choose for them, but until you give them an ACTION, until you make them DO something, we don’t really get a sense of their character. Sarcasm of itself isn’t enough to make a person interesting. If your character stands up at her mother’s funeral and delivers a sarcastic eulogy, say, or if she only uses sarcasm when we know she is absolutely terrified, that tells us something about who she is. Placing your characters in challenging circumstances and giving them bold actions will justify the witty repartee you place in their mouths. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of talk.

  12. Kelly Andrews’s avatar

    I get that pitches include comparisons, and I like sarcasm and word play more than is good for me. But sarcasm isn’t the same as maturity — the opposite. It’s expected in a teen voice, rather than “too old.” Teens use it to deflect scrutiny of their real feelings, but when writers use it, we still need access to a main character’s true thoughts.

    Also, as readers say a sarcastic voice is off, it’s possible (among a thousand other possibilities) that it’s hyper-articulate and artificial. I often read MG and YA (published and not) where the characters talk more like other characters, rather than people.

  13. Mary’s avatar

    Robert — GREAT point. Action + voice = character.

  14. Lydia Sharp’s avatar

    Good example with BEFORE I FALL. I totally hated Sam after reading the first chapter (to the point of gritting my teeth), but there was a voice in the back of my head saying, “If she’s this bad at the beginning, she *has* to change somewhere along the way,” so I kept reading. And I’m glad I did. That book made me cry, more than once.

  15. Krista V.’s avatar

    “If you write the older type of teen voice, the story needs to match up, and so does the age of the character.”

    Great advice. And it applies to any voice, any story, any character – they all need to fit together.

  16. Hallie’s avatar

    I feel like I’m just saying “me too,” but…me too–getting a teenage voice right is more than just sarcasm, more than just wittiness, and even if it’s right for the character, it has to feel like the character is consistent. It’s always disappointing to pick up an otherwise good book and feel like the characters are 12 on one page and 21 on another, and it’s fabulous when the voice feels like it’s right, even when the characters are feeling the maturity ups and downs of being a teen.

  17. Steph’s avatar

    @Kelly,

    I was just responding to your comment on how it bothers you when writers describe their characters by comparing them to another. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. As to how well sarcasm works, and what you can do to make it work well, and what you can do to make it suck, that’s being covered well enough here by people who are way more qualified than I am. I agree with the general consensus that there needs to be action, along with though, (actions speak louder than words) to make a good character, and that sarcasm alone doesn’t a character make.

    Steph

  18. Renee’s avatar

    I am finding it very difficult to balance likability with snarkiness. I’ve notice (through my kids) the relationship between teenagers determines the amount of sarcasm. The closer the friendship, the more comfortable the kids, the more banter allowed.
    More distant friendship, girls in particular, the friendlier the chit-chat.

    Now I’m wondering if it works the same for the relationship between readers and characters, familiarity allows more comfort with drier humor. I guess. ha ha.

    Very helpful post. Thanks

  19. Suzanne’s avatar

    Great post on something that I’ve been wrestling with!

    Apropos, I can tell from Karsten Knight’s tweets that he’s got a great writing voice. Can’t wait!!

  20. ladysugarquill’s avatar

    Great post! Personally I don’t think you *need* sarcasm to make an interesting character; most of my favourites are really nice guys XD

    But there’s something that I found surprising, specially when reading the comments, and it’s the talk about *choosing* a voice for the character.

    I write fanfics, so I do analyse the voices of other people’s characters; what they would and wouldn’t say, how they think. But I’d never ever thought about *giving* my character a specific voice. But because it’s not something I can give to them like I can a plot-relevant trinket. I find there are some things I can choose or put there to make the plot work, but in the way I write characters just ARE, with their hair colour and their clothes and their voice.

    I can change the tone of the story, or the voice of the narrator; I can *refine* the way I express of the characters, but I can’t change it. If it doesn-t work, then the character doesn’t work.

    But sometimes I feel I don’t create the story; the story happens and I jut tell it (though if I want that scene with the strawberry cake I will put him next to a cake earlier XD).

    Not saying is wrong or anything! It just surprised me, because I don’t think I can’t do that.

  21. Leanne Beattie’s avatar

    My MC is very dry and sarcastic, maybe too much so because I had an agent say the character wasn’t likeable. I guess there is a fine line between being sarcastic and being irritable, even if that voice is what the story calls for–it came naturally and wasn’t something I consciously decided to do.

  22. Mary Ann Duke’s avatar

    I just spent seven days with a 12 yr old and 15 yr old siblings. Sarcasm was the norm.

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