On writing the teenage character

by Asiya Haouchine

YA Lit Section at Target (Flickr/ theunquietlibrarian | Creative Commons)
YA Lit Section at Target (Flickr/theunquietlibrarian | Creative Commons)

People give J.D. Salinger too much flak about his ability to write when it comes to Holden Caulfield of Salinger’s most famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye. When adults (and students) complain about Holden and discuss how annoying he is, I get why they might think that—Holden is whiny at times and disillusioned about life. But what people don’t realize is that most teenagers have gone through a time in their lives when they were annoying, odd, or completely full of angst. These critics seem to have forgotten what their adolescent selves were like (perhaps on purpose). Holden is the embodiment of a teenager who finds he does not belong in the larger world: one, because he’s young and thinks he’s so much smarter than those around him, and two, because he is unable to process the fact that not everyone is out to get him (due to some suggested past molestation). The lack of sympathy towards Holden is quite startling. Unable to talk to anyone about what happened to him—even though he says the affection shown to him by Mr. Antolini has happened a lot in the past—he shelters himself in a world where everyone else is phony so he does not find himself in a situation where he may be molested once again. It is very likely that Mr. Antolini showing affection for Holden is innocent and Holden simply misinterpreted it, but it does not detract from the coping mechanism Holden has developed to continue with his life.

But let’s say for a minute that Holden is just an angsty, annoying teenager—that shouldn’t mean that Salinger becomes discredited. He wrote a character so true to being an adolescent that people refuse to identify their young adult selves within the protagonist out of embarrassment or self-loathing.

Enter the difficulty of writing a genuine teenage character who is not overly sappy such as ones found in Sarah Dessen’s novels or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, or oddly grown-up and sophisticated like John Green’s protagonists in The Fault in Our Stars. Most young adult novelists are no longer teenagers. Many seem to be out of touch with what it’s like to be a teenager today, especially when the span of years between their adolescence and that of their character(s) is more than five years—more than enough time for trends to have come and gone, and slang to have evolved into an unrecognizable language. It is tough, then, to write a believable teen character when the author is apt to romanticize adolescence (ignoring acne, body hair, or “non-ideal” bodies) or simply misses the mark entirely on what it is to be a teen.

Meyer bypassed the struggle of writing a young adult character by completely glossing over Bella’s personality and looks so the young adult reader could insert themselves into the story—a very lazy method of creating a character. Sarah Dessen’s novels always have a neatly wrapped happy ending, even though life rarely concludes in such a manner. After all,  in a teen’s life their so-called “happy ending” is really just naïvety and one chapter of their existence. It seems then, that YA romance novels tend to make the mistake of having “unrealistic teenage protagonists.” Perhaps the authors are looking to give hope to real young adults who have complicated lives and aren’t perfect.  However that’s not an excuse: their protagonists are unbearable. Rainbow Rowell on the other hand…

Her YA novel, Eleanor and Park, is a romance and has a happy ending, but it is a believable teen love story. Eleanor and Park both struggle with their day-to-day lives instead of struggling with a love triangle (as is dragged through many other YA novels. Yes, even in The Hunger Games). Rowell uses very flowery language, but it is always true to the characters and does not feel out of place. Eleanor and Park are two teens uniting against the world of abusive households, bullying, the pressure of performance in school and sports, and every other struggle of actual teens’ lives.

Adult authors looking to write for a younger audience should take a page out of Rowell’s book and re-learn what it is to be an actual teenager—they may be able to connect to an older audience who enjoys reading the occasional YA book and is tired of worn-out tropes of romance, the supernatural, and dystopias. Many YA authors seem to lose sight of the authenticity of adolescence and thus gain a wider audience because their characters are the “ideal”—the teens that many young adults aspire to be: popular, pretty, intelligent, and infallible. Holden may make some readers annoyed, but they should not deny his authenticity as an adolescent, nor should they write Salinger off as a lousy writer.

Asiya Haouchine is a senior English and Journalism double major. She is the online and blogs editor for the Long River Review.

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