Teenage Characters in YA Books (and other things that annoy me about most YA)

On 2014-04-21 by Karen M. Dillon


This post I’m writing as a YA reader and not a YA writer. This one is me as a reader rambling about things I dislike when reading YA books. So those of you who read YA books, feel free to comment and contribute to the list, and those of you who write or are thinking of writing YA books, get a pen and take some notes.

First off I’ll start by talking about teenage characters in YA books, and how they’re becoming increasingly unrealistic.


1) Unrealistic teenage characters:

As I’ve mentioned in pretty much every other post in this section, teenage characters in most YA books are toned down to an unrealistic level when it comes to their behaviour. And although some writers argue that you shouldn’t go over the top with teenage characters especially in YA books because it leads to controversy or is too much for the age group. You’re writing for the age group of the MC (usually), meaning that anything your MC can do or say, your audience has been there and done that. Probably a few years earlier too.

Although some authors like to tone down their characters because they don’t want to feel as though they’re condoning (or condemning) certain types of behaviour.

As someone who read the majority of the YA books I read as a teenager I can tell you writers that you’re not doing yourselves any favours when toning down character behaviours. Because when teenagers read YA books what they expect to find is a character who is or has gone through experiences similar to ones they’ve experienced. And what they generally get is a writer’s cleaned up version of what they think teenagers are like. Which can sometimes be disappointing.

Not that I’m saying all teenagers are mad who go around behaving over the top, doing anything crazy that comes into their heads. Because they’re not like that either. So don’t think I’m saying you should go completely over the top.

What I’m saying is when you’re writing a teenage character try your best to not actively clean them up for your audience. And don’t consciously try to make them over the top crazy children who don’t have any sense whatsoever. Find the happy medium. Try to remember your own teen years (not through a filtered rose tinted memory, but as it really was, how you felt about things, what you wanted, what you thought.) And if you can’t do that then find a group of average teenagers and ask them some questions about stuff. Get a good sense of what they’re like as people and then start writing about them.


2) Describing characters every time they walk past something shiny:

I can’t speak for everyone who reads YA, I can only speak for myself, but when I’m reading a book one of the things that throws me out of the story and makes me sigh and roll my eyes is when you have an MC going about their day when all of a sudden they walk past a shiny surface then they spend the better part of two pages describing how they look at that particular moment. I’m not sure why writers do it, if you want to describe your MC from their own POV then do it when they’re at the mirror in the morning getting ready to go out. And only describe them in full detail once.

When I’m reading a YA book there’s nothing that irks me more than when the MC describes themselves every single time they walk past a shiny surface. I’m sitting there thinking, “No one does that! No one walks past a shiny object and spends AGES thinking about what they look like in the 2 seconds they spend walking past it.”

If you walk past a car and you catch sight of your reflection you have time to maybe think, “God, my hair is a mess right now.” And before you even have time to finish that sentence in your head you’ve already walked away and have no more time to look at yourself and observe every detail.

Not only is it unrealistic and jarring, it’s annoying.

I know what the character looks like, I don’t need to be told all the time.

If you’re describing them to try to convey and emotion, you could simply say. “I felt so drained, emotionally and physically, and I knew that it showed on my face. Even now I could feel my eyelids drifting sluggishly between open and closed. My back was starting to hurt from my shoulders being slumped. etc…” See what I did there? I said how a character was feeling without having them look at themselves in a shop window describing every detail of how they look in the few seconds they walk past it.


3) I know what happened, I just read that one:

There’s two kinds of book series:

– the non–continuous story

– the continuous story

A non–continuous series is a book series which may contain the same characters or be set in the same universe but each book is a self contained story. Kind of like a TV show, there’s no single enemy that the characters must work towards defeating over the course of 3 or more books. In each book there is a new enemy, a new job to get done. (Think Nancy Drew) In this type of book series the MC may be introduced at the start as if you’ve never met them before, because the series is non–continuous, the author works under the assumption that the reader could pick up book 10 and start reading from there. So they won’t write it as if you already know who the characters are. Which is good.


What’s bad is when you’re reading a continuous story, you just finished book 1 and now you’re starting book 2 and the first chapter or so is filled up with character introductions and a short retelling of everything that just happened, five minutes ago when you finished the first one. What’s worse about this information relay is that if it happens in the second book, the odds are you’ll have to put up with it for every other book in the series. (I add this one in because I’m currently on book 4 of a continuous series, and yet again chapter 1 was spent giving me pointless information on who the character was, who her boyfriend was, who her BFF was and what she’d done over the course of the last 3 books)

Every time I read an information relay in a continuous series I get irritated and I usually skip past it, because like I said, it’s unnecessary information. People don’t usually pick up book 3 in a continuous series and read on from there, because even with the information relay at the start, they won’t have any clue as to what’s going on, because there will be major and minor plot points that will have happened in previous books that will help the characters get to where they’re going and the reader will think “How the F**K did she know to do that?”

Writers, please don’t read that and think you need to spend more pages relaying more information on the previous book’s events, ‘cause that defeats the purpose of the message I’m trying to get across. That message is stop it all together.

No more event relays. Stop telling me about things I’ve just read. I know what happened, no need to think I’m stupid and didn’t quite pay attention. Trust me to get it and do me a favour, pick the next one up exactly where you left the last one. If anyone gets confused because they haven’t read that one yet, well then they’ll find out there’s another book, then read that one and understand it.


4) Teenage boys do not know what they’re doing! Accept it and move on with your life!:

Back onto the topic of unrealistic teenagers, it’s not just the super toned-down-ness that bothers me, it’s also the over the top unrealistic teenage boys that irritate the hell outta me.

The majority of YA books I’ve read usually follow a female lead and there are usually one or more male guy type things trying in some way to get in her pants (usually). And that’s perfectly fine, characters should try to get into each other’s pants, it’s what normal people tend to do. But I don’t find it believable in the slightest that all of these young males are super confident in their female getting abilities, and general undisputed awesomeness. To the point that they’re basically stalkers following the female MC around, like: I know I’m awesome, and I’m going to be super assertive because I’m one million times infinity percent sure that you secretly know it too and are just playing hard to get… s’cool, I’ll take the lead with no sure signs from you whatsoever. Because I’m male and this is how life words in YA novels.

Also, why are they always described as being super buff, and or strong and unrealistically attractive?

I don’t know how many of you writers have had actual contact with teenage boys, but they’re generally pretty damn awkward. Especially when around people who’s pants they would like to get inside of. (and I will keep mentioning the pants thing until you all start writing it into books, and stop pretending that teens don’t have sex IRL. Because they do… deal with it.) Teenage boys, like teenage girls, are awkward and shy and don’t know what they’re doing or how to approach people, they make stupid jokes that you laugh at because they’re stupid and it’s amusing. Teenage girls have sex with teenage boys because they either a) like them or b) just feel like having some sex.

PS: You don’t swoon at teenage boys. You swoon at supermodels (if you’re the type to swoon… which most people generally aren’t)


5) Seriously… characters need to start having sex… like now. And the other characters need to stop pretending it’s not okay.

The amount of times I’ve mentioned the sex thing, might make people think I’m some kind of sex crazed psycho… which I’m pretty sure I’m not.

In all honesty, I think I just talk about it a lot because of how much it irritates me that like 95% of the YA books I’ve read all have MC’s who are virgins. (After I wrote that I realised that I couldn’t think of a single YA book that I’d read where the MC wasn’t a virgin (apart from my own) and became super sad )= )

I personally spent the entirety of my teen years as a virgin, but in my group of friends, I was like the only one. I didn’t care that they were having sex, they didn’t care that I wasn’t. Because most girls don’t assume that other girls are whores just because they’re having sex. Most girls understand that it’s a natural impulse that everyone has, and everyone will give into eventually. And the only reason I was a virgin is because I was super shy, didn’t really know any guys I liked in that way, and wasn’t the type to go outside and socialise. If I had found someone I liked like that, I would have had sex with them… because that’s how life works. Deal with it.

I find as I get older that the stigma surrounding sex in YA books irritates me more and more. Because it’s treated as though it’s not okay for teenagers to have these feelings or to experiment with different partners, which I feel is wrong. As writers who are representing an age group that are in a vital stage of their life developmentally and socially, the things that the characters have to deal with should be subjects that mirror the average life of the average teen. And most average teens (judging by the conversations of everyone in my year at school, all of my siblings and their friends and every other teen I’ve ever met in my life) are sexually active. By my calculations the average age that they start is 15. Some start younger, some start older and personally I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. And making the teens reading these books feel as though there is something wrong with it, is just… it’s just wrong (for lack of a better word)

Teens are reading books about virgin girls who seem to view the girls who do have sex in a really, incredibly harsh, mean, bitchy and slut shaming way. Amplifying their own ‘purity’ and therefore ‘betterness’ by comparing all the things they haven’t and wouldn’t do, with all of the things their ‘slutty’ friends have.

I think it’s disgraceful and it just needs to stop.

At least 50% of YA books should show MC’s who aren’t virgins and aren’t demonised because of it.

And people reading this will probably say, but there was sex in this book, and in that book, and those are YA.

And I’ll say, fair point. There are YA book series where the MC does have sex… eventually. Probably in the last book of the series, when she’s decided to spend the rest of eternity with this one person and is maybe even already married/engaged to them.

But that’s not the same, because the character starts off as a virgin, and only has sex when she’s found someone to spend eternity with. Which is basically YA’s way of introducing good old fashioned religious morals to teenagers. By telling them, you can have sex, but only if you’re only going to be with that person forever. And that’s the only way you can have sex and not be a slut.

I mention that last part because I recently read a book, which I shall not name because I don’t like to target specific books… anyway, in this book, the MC who is a character with no interest in boys and who is a virgin until she meets the super awesome boy with whom she has sex at the end of the story. And then, after she’s de-virginised, still slut shames her friend. Because she’s not a whore because she only did it that one time with her super special soul mate for all eternity, and her friend has sex with like everyone (even though there’s only really one boy you ever see her doting on in the entire book. He’s a manslut, but that doesn’t really get mentioned, because he’s a dude, so he’s allowed to be)

Anyway, the point is just stop lying to everyone about what teens do and just write it as it is before I have to burn my shelves down and start again.


6) Controlling males are not sexy, and neither are useless females:

This has been quite an issue I’ve found lately. The controlling relationships that are somehow passed off as loving, nurturing and romantic to young audiences. I often find myself stunned by the types of things that are deemed to be okay, when compared with the things that are deemed to be not okay.

Controlling relationships in books are fine, honestly no problem with one or two here and there because they do happen in real like, and are common amongst younger couples where the girls are young and don’t know better.

The problem I have is not that they occur, but how they are written. Because they’re not described for what they are.

The male stalks the female and he’s protective. He tells her to dress to his tastes, and she goes on like it’s good that he tells her what he likes so she can be sexy for him. He calls her and texts her 24/7 and she’s like: he loves me so much! He just wants to know what I’m doing all the time. He gets jealous because he loves me. He doesn’t like my friends because they’re bitchy and he thinks I can do better, and that I don’t need anyone but him anyway. No one knows him like I do.

That is an abusive relationship. It’s not cool. It’s not sexy. That girl needs to drop him and move on with her life. And it’s wrong that this is put across like it’s normal. Like this is what guys are supposed to do if they care.

No… just no. If they care they treat you nice, they respect you and respect and support any decisions you make in regards to your life. And all of these controlling manipulative relationship that aren’t called what they are, need to stop before generations of people are affected. Seriously guys… stop it.

PS: Females can take care of themselves too… you know, they can solve their own problems, and they can live their lives without being in a relationship.

Personal belief of the day: People come together to define a relationship, a relationship should not define the people. (Feel free to quote me on that)


I’ll wrap this one up with my final point…


7) Be serious… you met each other yesterday:

Why is it that characters literally make eye contact and are all: I love you for all eternity, let’s get married and run away together. I’d die for you because I love you so much! *confused expression* … I’m sorry, what was your name? Oh yeah, *laughs a little* I love you so much (insert name here)! I’m gonna die for you right now to prove it!

Just stop it… please… just… stop.

Love is a science. The first stage is lust. When you look at the person across the room and you think I just have to have him/her.

…That’s lust.

You feel lust.

If the next step is a one night stand, that feeling can easily be taken out of your system.

The next stage is attraction. Which means that you generally have to spend time, hearing that person you lust for speak, and have many conversations which include theirs and your likes/dislikes, secrets, thoughts and general feelings on things.

This is the part of the process that can take a while… generally longer than a day. You can decide if you hate someone quite quickly though.

And finally, there’s the obsessional part, when you think about them all the time and blah blah blah… that’s when the love is really happening.

My point is, it takes time. And ‘I’m kinda tired of the whole instalove epidemic. It’s so over done I can’t even stand it.

This is one of those things that I kinda purposely parody in my own writings. Because I know that some people do often (especially if they read a lot of instalove books) confuse their emotional reactions and believe that love takes seconds and no hard work. So I have a character who’s all: I love you!

But I think it’s balanced with the reciprocating character who’s all: whoa there, I met you like a week ago and we had sex that one time. I’m not gonna marry you, don’t be weird.

Which is how I believe that normal people would respond to a sudden declaration of feelings that appear out of nowhere.

I guess that’s it for now. Though I can’t promise I won’t add to it, I’m always finding things that annoy me in books. Most of the little things don’t bother me, but big things like the ones I’ve mentioned do, so much so that it sometimes makes me unable to continue reading. So it’s something to keep in mind while writing.



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