Sounding Real

I wasn’t eavesdropping…at least not intentionally. But this lady (mother of another teenager, maybe?) was talking so loudly to this group of kids that I couldn’t help but hear.

She was really pretty, mid-thirties, well-dressed.  And the boys were…you know…floppy-haired, sixteen-ish, typical. 

I’m not sure about the context of the conversation, but I hope she was asking for the boy’s phone number for her daughter, not herself. 

The lady patted the least-pimply (I don’t dare say cutest…ew) of the boys on the arm and giggled.  Then she said, “I mean, seriously!  Awkward.” The last word was in a sort of high-pitched, operatic vibrato. 

A couple of boys at the back of the group exchanged looks and their shoulders started shaking with silent laughter.

The conversation went on for a few more uncomfortable minutes that I did not stick around to overhear.

As I drove home, I couldn’t help but think about how hard the Cougar/Mom was trying to sound like a teenager, to speak to the kids on their level.  And failing. Miserably.

The effect was both creepy and forced. 

Luckily for readers, the creepy-factor doesn’t usually carry over — I try not to imagine the unshowered bathrobed-wearing, over-caffeinated author who wrote the hot make-out scene between two sixteen-year-olds (again with the ewwww). 

But sometimes the voice of a character sounds similarly forced or inauthentic. The writer’s mistake can be obvious because of poor word choice or vocabulary.  Other times the character’s tone is off or their knowledge/outlook isn’t appropriate for their age category.  

What do you do make sure the voice of your characters are right for their age and background?

To try avoid cringe-worthy mistakes, I try to stay on top of trends, music, movies, media.  But when my efforts fall short, I turn to my siblings who have recently left their teens. They are a great source for voice-confirmation. (The conversations with my brother are hysterical!  Thanks Joel!)

Some of my writer friends have teenage betas, besides their kids, nieces and nephews, or neighbors. I might have to get one of those; someone who isn’t going to protect my feelings because their afraid I’ll take it out of their Christmas present/babysitting fees. 

Then there are, of course, my wonderful CPs.   Even though some of us have very different styles, they never hesitate to call me on the carpet when something doesn’t ring true.

Lastly, I read my entire ms out loud.  If stumble over sentences or phrasing, it’s usually because the wording is wrong for the character or situation.

I’m certainly not a pro in this area, and would love to hear your ideas about how you make your writing sound real. 

9 Comments

  • Taryn

    *waves hand around violently* I’m a teen, I’m a teen! I would love to be your voice-checker.

    That’s an extremely awkward conversation you overheard . . . if it were my mom, I would be cringing. My mom would never do that. Hopefully, haha.

    Honestly, as I edge toward 20, I keep getting scared I’ll “lose” my teen voice all of a sudden. We’ll see. As for right now, I’ll continue to pile up MSs so I have something to pick through if my voice ever dries up 🙂

  • Matthew MacNish

    Thanks for the follow on Twitter, Becky! I stopped by to follow your blog as well.

    As to your post, it’s hard. I have a 15-year-old daughter, but she can’t be bothered to read my writing. There are great sites like YA Confidential that can help though. Check it out.

  • William Kendall

    My ex-sister (not speaking to her anymore) used to try to talk younger then she was. It was something that was very cringe-worthy.

    Though my writing doesn’t go for a younger character sort of feel, I do tend to have characters from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities. I find reading novels or watching films, even if it’s just getting a taste, featuring characters from those countries, helps to give a more genuine tone to the personalities of characters I write afterwards.

  • Carrie Butler

    That is all kinds of creepy! Of course, being the people-watcher that I am, I probably would’ve been highly amused by the exchange. 🙂 You make a great point about age/voice. (Though, did you have to dwell on age on my birthday? Geez!) I use many of the same methods you do. 🙂

  • Trisha Leaver

    Your vocie is usually spot on! I didn’t know you read your manuscripts out loud. I have this vision of you walking around the house, baby on one shoulder, sputtering as you come to a line that just doesn’t sound right.

  • Laura C.

    This is my weakest area. I really have to struggle to make my characters sound teenish and sometimes resort to slang dictionaries. *cringe* On the other hand, I don’t want to sound too trendy; that’s not the audience I’m going for. I just get feedback and keep revising, keep revising, keep revising..

  • Tracey Neithercott

    Oh man, I so would have stuck around to see how it all turned out. Like watching a train wreck. That’s actually very disturbing though. But then again, you see all of these middle-aged women wearing clothes made for teens and it’s not so surprising.

    I think what makes teen speak sound inauthentic to me (aside from when a character is overly eloquent and not a genius in the story) is when too much slang is used. There’s a happy middle there, between spouting off SAT words and saying words like ‘dogg.”

  • Carol Riggs

    I’m always afraid of sounding like I’m trying too hard to “talk teen” in my novels. I HOPE my critters catch them for me. I wish I had a better internal radar for my overkill though. ;o)

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