When I teach writing to adults, I frequently hear a version of this question: “How do I know if a teen character would use this word?”
My answer is always the same. You’re not asking the right question. The real question is: “Would my character in this book use this word?” Because that’s the key. Creating someone you know inside and out. And yes, you have to tap into your inner teen. And yes, you need to observe the world around you. And yes, if you have no sense of what you were like at fifteen or sixteen then maybe you need to rethink who and what you want to write. But after that, you need simply to stay authentic to the truth of the character on the page. If you can do that, then your writing will be relevant because it will be an honest insight into what it’s like to be human on this planet. And all the pop culture references in the world won’t achieve that for you unless you know that person whose story you are telling.
Plus, pop culture and slang go stale fast. The less the better unless you feel a true need. The very talented Becky Albertalli talks about this oh so thoughtfully HERE in a post about her 2015 debut novel. And of course my guru of how to tell a story, Joss Whedon, solved the problem by creating his own slang and language rhythms for his characters in the now iconic Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. Which, btw, is a grand thing to do and is why we all can recognize Olivia Pope-speak on Shonda Rhimes's Scandal.
All that said, if you haven’t walked in a school in twenty years, I would say that maybe you should. As someone who still subs frequently in public high schools and does a fair amount of school visits, I can definitely say that while the basic emotions of being a human teen have not changed, the particulars of school—the lockers and schedules and policies-- have. So if you’ve got a very school-centric story and you haven’t been inside a school lately, then it’s like anything else. You better research and get it right. Interestingly, Hollywood loves to stick to ancient, outdated school tropes, which often drives me crazy. For what it’s worth, in my entire teaching experience, I’ve never—and I mean NEVER—seen any student fight tooth and nail for things like student council president elections or Homecoming Dance themes. And cliques aren’t like all those John Hughes movies. Seriously. Nope. It’s never that simple in real life. So if that’s your only frame of reference, likely you are getting it wrong.
So dig deep, my little writers. And the dig a bit deeper.
And then just for grins, pick up my SWEET DEAD LIFE series and see how main character Jenna talks. Then re-read this post.