Thursday, January 7, 2010

Teens Don't Talk Like That! On Vocabulary in YA Lit

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been listening to the Shiver audio book during my short commute to work, lunch break, and any other small stretch of time I have. (Totally unrelated to this post, I am liking it more, but still not loving it.) A day or two ago, I was parked by the water, munching on my turkey and pepperjack sandwich and listening to the book, when I heard Grace say the following sentence:

"I poured the odoriferous milk down the drain."

Later, when my car died, I had to rewind a bit to find my spot, and found myself replaying parts of the book I'd already heard. And that word, odoriferous, bothered me just as much the second time as it did the first time.

Why? Don't get me wrong; it's a great word, and totally appropriate to the situation. But Shiver is told from a first-person narrative, and, well...teenagers just don't talk like that! (Seriously. Have you ever been to a high school? Or the mall?)

"But wait a minute Heather!" I can hear you all saying. "Grace DOES talk like that. She's intelligent and likes to read non-fiction books, so it's totally in her character for her to use a word like that!!!"

Sure. Except the whole I'm-an-intelligent-teen-so-I'm-going-to-use-big-words-when-I-narrate has been done before. Over and over and over and over.

The first time I read a book where the teenaged narrator's vocabulary was noticeably beyond the level of a normal teen was actually my favorite book of all time: Youth in Revolt (coming out in theaters tomorrow, where I'm sure Hollywood has totally destroyed it. Even if it does star Michael Cera.) Youth in Revolt is told from the perspective of 14-year-old Nick Twisp (in fact, he's 13 when the novel opens), and yet he uses words so advanced that I literally found them on my SAT (I'm not making this up. I was re-reading the book for the 18,000 time the morning of the SATs and found no less than three words on the test that I had encountered in the book. I even wrote my college entrance essay, which was supposed to be about a book that changed our life, about Youth in Revolt, and mentioned the SAT thing. I got in with a scholarship.)

My copy is currently out on loan so I can't quote any passages, but I remember Nick using words like "nebulous," "sobriquet," and "torpid." He also uses phrases such as "wank your winkie" "more than usually horny" and "T.E." - short for thunderous erection, so he loses a little credibility in the intelligence department. But the entire book is written in the form of Nick's journal entries, and I never for a second doubted that Nick used those words every day. C.D. Payne told me he was intelligent, so I believed it. End of story. (This is still one of my favorite books of all time, and seriously hilarious.)

Then I started reading more YA, and found the phenomenon of teenagers using vocabulary well beyond their years was everywhere. Twilight's Bella uses some ridiculous words to descirbe Edward - but it's OK! She learned them from Austen and Bronte. And even my beloved Jessica Darling (and the sexy Marcus) uses some words she probably shouldn't know, but she's a writer, so it's justified. (admittedly, most of the people around her are pretty stupid and talk/act that way. Ohmigod, OTB!) 

This is the problem with writing a YA first-person narrative. If you want to use advanced vocabulary, you have to make the readers believe that your character would know that vocabulary. You can't have your character be the stupidest person in school, failing all their classes, then have them describe the myriad challenges of being an oafish dullard. Their voice has to remain constant not just when they talk to other characters, but when they talk to the reader, as well.

Of course, if you want to get around this problem, write in third person. I prefer first person because I love to get inside one character's head, but that's just me. I guess then I'll always be stuck with the wise-beyond-their-years type, or at least smart enough to have good vocabulary. Because no one wants to read a book that's, like, totally OMG, the best book EVER about my bff Jill!!!! J/K. I totally, like, would never write a book like that. (Of course it's possible to write a first-person narrative that isn't like this, but still makes you believe the character could really be a teenager. I was convinced by Katniss, and by the few passages I read of Ever. Still, Katniss doesn't really count, because she lives in the future, and since I haven't read all of Ever's story I don't know if she ever slips into some unbelievable vocab.)   

What do you think? Does it bother you mean teens use vocabularly that seems too good to be true? Or do you just suspend your disbelief and keep reading? 


  1. Haha! I was just thinking about this.
    When I saw the title of this post, I immediately thought of Twilight when Bella said this word I KNOW starts with an "i" but I just can't remember it. Anyways, it was when she was describing her love for Edward (as per usual). I was just thinking this because I'm currently writing a diary type story and I made my MC say "Sorry for all the expletives" and then I crossed it out and put "cursing" because I know teenagers and they don't say that. Actually, I'm a teen, so I'm pretty surprised I put that down myself.
    I also read a book where a teen used big words, but her hobby was collecting all these big words to make people frustrated that they didn't know what she was talking about, so I accepted those big words too and actually learned a few.
    There was this funny FRIENDS episode when Joey was writing a love letter for a girl who was smart and he wanted to sound smart to her and I think it was Chandler who gave him a thesaurus. Let me just say it was a pretty bad letter.
    I always get annoyed when I'm reading YA books and they have big words I'm too lazy to look in my dictionary for. But if the author can do it in a way that's believable (like what you said for Youth in Revolt) then I think it's okay.

  2. It bothered me when Bella used it because she always claimed to be so plain but then her vocabulary was so good, and she didn't need to study, ever (save for once). But I tend not to mind, or notice, though if I do it does bother me. The thing is I'm a teen, and I do talk that way. Maybe not with the words Nick used, but with a vocabulary that is advanced for my age group, and I use it in day to day sentences. It's the same with some of my closest friends Of course it does drive some of my friends nuts but, I do it anyways. So if I notice, and it annoys me I just keep going. But most of the time, I'm cool with it.

  3. a la, I know EXACTLY what episode you're talking about! I think it's when Joey writes an adoption recommendation letter for Monica and Chandler, and he wants to sound smart so he uses a thesaurus, and he ends up changing his name to "baby kangaroo" and other ridiculousness. The adoption agency thinks a little kid wrote it, LOL.

    Hayley, I think you're getting to the heart of what annoys me. Bella's character was such that was supposed to be so "average" - well read, yes, but otherwise a relatively normal teen. Not a genius who would realistically use the kind of vocab Meyer used when she talked. I can't remember if she changed things for Jacob's POV (I tried to block the memory of Breaking Dawn), but if she did that would have been a huge mistake. As long as it fits the character, I don't mind it when authors use advanced vocabulary. I just see it so much now that I think a lot of adult authors use the "intelligent teen" as the excuse to flex their vocabulary skills. I am NOT saying authors should dumb down their vocab for their books - not at all. But they need to stay true to characters, and like you said, most people in your age group don't have a super advanced vocab. They would probably choose "cursing" over "expletives" most days.

  4. I know I've been guilty of this with my own writing. When my family read an early draft of my MG novel (written in first person) they kept commenting that, though my MC spoke like an eleven-year-old most of the time, she used some really big words. I hadn't even realized. I scaled it back on the next draft (when my writer's group caught a dozen more), so eventually she spoke with an age appropriate vocabulary. It was really hard to give some of the words up though because littler words just didn't have the meaning I needed, but I did it anyway :)

  5. I soo agree with you on this point! It irritates me to no end when they do this!

  6. That's so funny! I also pretend Breaking Dawn doesn't exist! But Meyer didn't change the language when Jacob was narrating all that much. There were less adverbs for sure, but he still used pretty big words for a 17 year old male, at least as far as I remember. But I get what you're saying, just because the character is intelligent they use it to flex thier vocab skills, one of the reasons I like writing in third person because I can write the way I talk, and watch how my characters talk. So I don't run into that problem often. I also don't refraine (did I spell that right?) from using bad language. It is the way teens talk (sadly), because like you said most teens use swears and other profanities as sprinkles on their sentances. I loved this post by the way, it rings very true! I forgot to mention that earlier.

  7. I enjoyed Shiver. But it is funny, I remember her using that word, odoriferous. I guess I kind of like the use of intelligent words. Maybe part of me figures bookishness belongs in a book so let's revel in it.

    And kudos to another first person POV lover!! I just posted about that! Yay!!

  8. Oh good post! This is a tough one---just need to have a totally realized character and you have to know your character and then you should be able to tell what their vocab is and use advanced words in a believable way.

  9. I have never, EVER, heard a high school student use the word odoriferous. Not a standard classroom student. Not an honors student. No student. Not in 18 years of teaching.

    It bothers me, too. Can you tell? :-)

  10. 1. I just read a YA book written in 3rd person (Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson) and it was so strange! I never realize that most YA is in 1st person until I read one in 3rd and was totally thrown off. It was so strange!

    2. You don't know how many essays I read where these teenagers of mine stick these ridiculous vocabulary words in their writing, when in normal life, the most complex word they ever use is "like." It makes me laugh out loud on some days and want to throw things the next.

    I know neither of those really had anything to do with your blog, but I just had a bottle of wine, so give me a break here. :-)

  11. If I believe entirely in a character, then I'll accept anything -- vocab, actions, choices -- but it takes a lot of skill on the part of the author to keep absolutely everything in perfect harmony, and so few authors catch every single deviation.

    I write in a very close third person, so I make the vocabulary of the narration match the character. (I have 3 MCs, and chapters alternate focus.) Only one of my characters (June) uses more advanced (but not even SAT advanced) words, and sometimes it's so frustrating to not be as eloquent in description for the other characters' chapters. But it's most important to stay true to the character, and each of the three sees the world very differently!

  12. I think for me tense has a little to do with it. I'm not normally bothered by extensive vocabulary in past tense because I don't really see it as a "real-time" internal monologue. Kinda like in The Wonder Years where Kevin is older narrating about his youth. Katniss is real-time because she narrates in present tense, and maybe I would have been bothered if she used vocabulary too ostentatious for her character. Most books aren't written like in present tense, though, so I don't mind much.

    I have heard other people complain about this trend of advanced vocabs in teens, mostly in movies (i.e. Juno - speaking of Michael Cera). When your MC is a teenager, though, it's hard not to make them intellegent enough to use $20 words in the interest of making a character strong enough to get through whatever conflict you place him/her in.

  13. Natalie - I know what you mean, and I think that's why some authors have this problem. They want to show off their vocabulary but don't realize it hurts their character. Good to know you eventually came through!

    Hayley - I often wonder if the world would be a better place if Breaking Dawn was just never

    M. Gray - "bookishness belongs in a book" - true. But I still think it's telling that you remember that word from Shiver, too.

    Frankie - right. I just think there are too many "smart" characters out there. But I guess reading a book where the MC is dumb would be pretty boring.

    Shannon and ac - LOL, good to know I'm not the only one!

    Jessica - They're just trying to impress you and get a better grade. You should fail them all instantly, or give them a pop quiz on what that word means while you're passing back their papers. If they get it right, they keep the grade, if not, they FAIL. (I would be a mean teacher, clearly.)

    Donna - I think that's very cool and really challenging. I bet it's going to give your characters such a distinct voice, though, to keep their vocab all separate. Great idea for characterization!

    Holly - Ladies and gentlemen, meet my sister! Who brings up an excellent point...I never thought about this. I guess it's acceptable if they're writing in past tense, because you can always say they're telling the story as adults. But I present-tense, first-person narrative shouldn't use overly intelligent words unless the character is supposed to be that way, and I just think there are too many smart characters in YA literature. (Or, maybe it's just the ones I read...)

  14. As an author of a youth fiction book, I find it difficult to write in a teen voice using teen slang. I hate reading "like," "like", "like" every few sentences. Also, it dates your story - you want it to last through several printings and sell a lot of copies, right? Will readers in 2059 really believe teens used "like" all the time? My story is fantasy, so I am free to make up my own slang, which helps.

  15. As an author of a youth fiction book, I find it difficult to write in a teen voice using teen slang. I hate reading "like," "like", "like" every few sentences. Also, it dates your story - you want it to last through several printings and sell a lot of copies, right? Will readers in 2059 really believe teens used "like" all the time? My story is fantasy, so I am free to make up my own slang, which helps.


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