How should teenage characters speak? Engaging Janet Reid, Gossip Girl, and 90210

In a query letter critique, Janet Reid says:

If you’re writing a 14-year old character, you need to know how they talk: “Threatening us with violence” sounds like a sociologist; “told us he’d mess us up” sounds like what the kids on my corner say to each other.

This might be true in many instances, but I’m reminded of something this Salon.com review of “Gossip Girl” and “90210” says:

Where Blair and Serena’s lines snap, crackle and pop with wit and cleverness, the soggy stars of “90210” stumble over one cliché after another. “Awkward!” Annie blurts at Ethan after they encounter Ethan’s ex Naomi, then Annie does her best impression of the cynical teenage eye roll, as Ethan mutters, “Good times!” Oof.

But every scene is filled with such teen-bot tripe: “Whatever works for you.” “Helloo-ooo?” “Shut up!” “Me and Ethan? Not so much.” Maybe real teens sound like that, but real teens are repellent and worthless, remember? Plus, nothing’s worse than shoving such drivel into the mouths of a bunch of airbrushed anorexics and overgrown child actors.”90210’s” Annie has more in common with Broadway’s Annie than a real human being. Putting teen lingo in her mouth is like dressing a cat in a little nurse outfit. It’s sort of cute at first, but then it just gets sad.

“Repellant and worthless” is overstatement, very. The characters from “Gossip Girl” are more interesting because they don’t speak like teenagers, or like regular ones. If they did, they’d be boring (or, depending on your view, more boring than they already are). I suspect that’s why so many teen narrators are “precocious.” The alternative is dull. If you have a normal 15-year old, even 15-year olds will find them boring and insipid on the page. So you need a precocious 15-year old who adults can tolerate, and perhaps enjoy, while 15-year olds will imagine themselves to be equally witty even if they’re probably not. But your precocious 15-year-old still probably shouldn’t sound like Umberto Eco. That’s the challenge: giving a character enough of a voice and enough intelligence to make them interesting while not overwriting them. This challenge might explain why so many books starring teenagers are told from a distant, adult future recalling events from the past.

The first season of Gossip Girl, by the way, is pretty funny. I referenced it in class one day because, being a West Coaster, I had no idea what “cotillion” was until an episode featured it. That allusion elicited shock from students. Apparently I come across as a very hard core literary type. Which, of course, I am. A friend and I watched a few episodes and the last one from the second season, but it was so repetitive that we gave up.

On another note, the rest of Reid’s advice on the query letter is typically accurate. If you’ve ever wanted to try and get a literary agent or publisher to read your manuscript, take a couple hours to look through Query Shark first.

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