Talk The Talk by Patty Blount

The very first presentation I was ever invited to deliver was on just this topic -- writing the young adult voice.

It marked two realizations for me -- first, that I must be an actual author because people are asking me to do authorial things like deliver presentations (gasps) and second, that something I'd taken for granted is something other authors might struggle with.

That was an important realization for me. (The second one, I mean.)

My fellow bloggers, Mary Strand and Joy Preble each made valid points. Mary feels voice comes naturally. And Joy thinks voice is something authors can hone.

I agree with both.

I'm told I write authentic teenage boy characters. Probably because I've raised two and spent so much time around teenage boys, their mannerisms, the topics they discussed, the lexicon they use -- it all sort of soaked into my brain, steeped there. You've heard that old adage, You are the company you keep ? Perhaps there's more truth to it than first believed.

But I've also honed that voice. I had to learn to keep the adult Patty and the wisdom of those experiences out of my characters' mouths. I had to learn that not every teenage girl says "like, totally" and not every teenager uses foul language.

I've been doing a lot of mentoring and guiding other authors lately. Multipublished authors like me have something we can pass on to those just starting out -- experience. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I've gotten comfortable with those I do know. One such answer is that voice needs to start with the character, not the genre, not the author, not the plot.

Character drives voice. 

In one of my novels, I created a squad of teenage volunteer firefighters. (Yes, this is a thing. Some are called Junior Squad. Other towns call them Explorers.) On the surface, any teen willing to volunteer strikes me as one unafraid of hard work, and willing to take orders. So all of my characters had those traits.

So how could I make them different?

I began examining cultural distinctions. Some were the children of immigrants. Others were there because of strong family traditions. Both manifested as PRIDE in their speech.

Next, I looked at birth order. Which were the eldest in their families? Which were the babies? I looked for ways to bring out those traits. For example, the eldests tend to be bossy. Bossiness and questionng authority were things I could show in their voices.

I looked at their current situations, too. Were any struggling in school? I made sure to show their frustration with their inability to grasp concepts in their interactions at the firehouse. Lack of confidence is something else I could show.

When I scoped all of this out for each member of my junior squad, I aligned it with the adults in that world -- their teachers and mentors and supervisors. And I remembered that although these teens may look, sound, and act grown up, they're not. Not yet.

If you saw this line in a novel, would you know immediately who said it?

"Fascinating, but highly illogical." 

You don't need a speech tag on this because this character (Mr. Spock) is iconic. 

That's my goal. I want my characters' personalities to be so well-drawn, so highly developed, that you can HEAR them. You don't need me to tell you "He said" at the end. 

Funny story... in THE WAY IT HURTS, my rock-band novel that released last year, I'd written a line of dialogue that my son flagged as Unlikely To Be Uttered By A Teen. I countered and said I'd heard him use words like that all the time. He retorted, "Yeah, maybe when I was studying for a vocabulary test."

"Anna's table manners are deplorable." 

It became something of a joke so I ended up writing this: 

A giggle burst out of me. “Deplorable? What, is there a vocabulary
test with breakfast at the Hamilton residence?”
He laughed, but I noted the slow crawl of red making its way up his neck and onto his cheeks...

Although teens may not all use vocabulary words or profanity or certain slang in their speech habits, some do. And although not all teens have experienced the things they often talk about, please don't assume they have no feelings on the subject -- or worse, no right to express their feelings. 

Teens can see straight through that bullshit a mile away. 

Teens DO have strong feelings on subjects -- any subject. What they lack are the tools required to express those feelings in ways that penetrate an adult's thick skull. For proof of this, I turn your attention to the Parkland shooting survivors. Read their tweets, listen to their interviews. Are they using the ten-dollar words? Sure are. Are they using profanity? Yup. Can you label the emotion(s) they're expressing? I sure as hell hope so. But most important, can you tell they're teens? Yeah, I think you can. (And if you actually believe they're crisis actors, I've got this bridge here I'm trying to sell....) 

When you're developing your teen characters, your authorial voice develops organically, but you can and should hone it so that every character sounds and thinks uniquely. I hope this helps. 

If you're are teen outraged by what's (not) happening in government today, I urge you to register to vote. Your voice DOES matter. 


  1. Spot on and I'm glad you encouraged teens to register. At 70, I have left my comfort zone to run as a democrat in a very republican rural house district in Maine. I'm going to do everything I can to get anyone turning eighteen to become part of the process of change.

  2. What a great post! My boys have given me a boy voice I'd never thought I'd have either. My comfort with it currently sits at the MG and PB level, but it's getting older as they do LOL!

    1. My sons were a great source of inspiration when they were younger. I think now that they're grown, I have to find new sources. *ponders* It would be weird to hang out at the mall and eavesdrop on teens, right? Don't answer! I'm kidding.

  3. Great post, Patty! Agree with all of the above, including that voice can and should be honed ... and that everyone should register to vote!

    1. It's extremely challenging to create characters that sound unique. You have to really dive deep into their back stories to discover what drives them, what shames them. I'm the oldest of two girls and my sister was such a difficult child, I became almost perfect because my being "good" was the only way I got attention. As a result, I found it difficult to talk to people as I grew. Writing literally gave me my voice.


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