The teen years are a formative time for many people. Young adults need to grapple with maturity, newfound independence, and a deepening sense of self, all while surrounded by stressful environments both at school and at home. These conflict-rich situations are ripe for storytelling, and there’s no shortage of authors eager to capitalize on them.
Unfortunately, pop culture abounds with unrealistic misconceptions about what it means to be a teenager. Not only does this risk promoting harmful representation that can affect teens who see themselves in these stories, but the tropes themselves are boring and uninspired. As new undergrads fresh off the slopes of the teen years ourselves, we’re here to put the record straight.
1. Teens Are Obsessed With Romance
In stories, it’s commonly taken for granted that every teen is searching for, in, or lamenting the loss of a romantic relationship; romantically unattached characters are often presented as needing a partner.* While this is true for some teens, not everyone is obsessed over whatever cute new student talked to them in physics class. A lot of stories imply that said cute new student’s opinion of the protagonist is just as urgent a matter as the Lovecraftian monster hanging out under the school’s basement.
What’s more, this trope implies that platonic and romantic relationships cannot coexist. Stories act like the protagonist’s best friend will be aghast if the protagonist starts going out with anyone, as though that new connection will infringe on the one they have with the best friend. While balancing romance and friendship can be difficult for those without much experience, not every romance will be a test of friendship, and we’d like to see more supportive friends and balanced relationships in YA fiction. Loving one person in a certain way doesn’t mean that your appreciation for anyone else is automatically compromised, and it’s easy for this framing to slide into devaluing platonic friendship or ace erasure.
Historically, this trope has also been highly heteronormative, a problem which extends far beyond YA but is often exemplified here. Close friendships are rarely depicted between anybody but those of the same gender. If a friendship is heterosexual, the pair will probably end up together by the end of the story. The default state of any relationship between a man and a woman is assumed to be romance. Sometimes these stories add an element of “denial,” having the soon-to-be lovebirds claim to be “just friends” while dubious onlookers smile indulgently. Physical proximity or affection is also used as romantic shorthand; god forbid a female and male friend embrace for any reason!
Relying on the mere proximity of the opposite sex for romantic buildup is not only a lazy way of setting up a romance, but it also overlooks the fact that heterosexuality is not the only type of romance.* With same-sex relationships getting more and more mainstream, ship energy flows in all directions. Acting like heterosexuality is the only option sends the message both that members of the opposite sex can’t be friends without their relationship warping into romance and that people can only be real friends with someone of a gender they’re not attracted to.
The overabundance of friends-to-lovers stories between male and female characters also leads to increased suspicion about the nature of opposite-sex friendships in the real world.* Among young adults, this is compounded by the assumed centrality of romance in high school. Anyone for whom romance isn’t a major factor in their life or who engages with it in a non-normative way is presumed to not exist.
What to Do Instead
High school is a time where many teens are figuring out their romantic inclinations, and that can still provide effective drama. It’s hard to fight Lovecraftian basement monsters with your heartthrob watching!* But that heartthrob shouldn’t be the only driving force in your character’s life. Any high schooler will have a network of important relationships in their lives, not center their whole experience on one person. And that’s assuming they even have time for romance between home life, homework, sports, hobbies, clubs, and friends. If your story is not specifically of the romance genre, it should have sources of drama beyond the protagonist’s significant other.
What’s more, having a significant other shouldn’t be presented as a necessity. We need more stories prioritizing the platonic friendships that make up the vast majority of teen social circles. If your protagonist does explore their sexuality, make sure it’s an exploration, not just an automatic assumption that they’ll be attracted to whoever the culture says they should be.
This exploration doesn’t need a definitive end. For many people, sexuality is a process in development, and having your character come to grips with uncertainty could be a much more meaningful arc than hooking up with the physics cutie. That network of platonic friends could be a powerful emotional support for your protagonist during that exploration.
2. Teens Are Fixated On Social Standing
Many stories about teens seem to have a scene where the protagonist sits scowling at the popular kid from across the lunchroom while moodily munching a half-baked baloney sandwich and lamenting the empty seats beside them. They bemoan how the whole student body will shun them for their burgeoning acne, in contrast to the popular kid, whose unblemished face attracts awed gazes from crowds of admirers.* This type of scene sets up the cliché popular/loner dichotomy that’s milked endlessly as a source of conflict in many YA stories. Often, the popular kid’s only character traits are narcissism, disdain for those lower on the social ladder, and having rich parents.
In reality, the size of the school is a major determinant of whether “popular kids” even exist. Large schools are too big for everyone to know one another, much less rank each other.* Most students won’t have a reason to interact with anyone beyond those they meet through classes, clubs, or mutual friends, much less develop a socially competitive relationship with. The biggest basketball star can just be some kid you see in the hallway every Tuesday.
When students do have broad social circles, and are therefore more well-known, it’s specifically because they’re not jerks. People want to spend time with them because they’re pleasant to be around. Range of interests and general likability are more important to “popularity” than unblemished skin.
Especially at large schools, public shaming is exceedingly rare. Outside of their own circles, no one knows who flunked the last math test or who got turned down by the (nonexistent) popular kid, and even if they did, few would care. Students only have the brainspace to worry about how their friends are doing. If someone does become notorious at a large school, it’s likely because they’ve done something seriously bad, and even then, offenders often go unnamed.
While a student will have peers they hate, very few have an archnemesis on the lookout for a chance to spill milk on their shirt or trip them so that they face plant into their spaghetti. More likely, the student will take lengths to avoid interacting with the other person if possible. Without extremely extenuating circumstances, that kind of petty rivalry will never be enough to divide an entire class or school.
What to Do Instead
The social ranking system so many stories employ is generally used to make the protagonist an underdog character, but this can be done without requiring any sort of hierarchy. Maybe your character is shy and wishes they were less nervous about joining new clubs. Maybe they’re unhappy that their friend circle is so small because they don’t have time to join the sports team between the vampire clan wars and their part-time job at the corner store.
Archnemeses become more complicated when you introduce supernatural conflict, so if you include one, be sure it’s for a greater reason than general dislike. Maybe your main character is part of a peaceful vampire house, but students are disappearing from the school and now the protagonist is certain the kid from the vampire hunter house is involved – but they can’t be too overt in their suspicion or else the careful truce between the two houses will fray.
While there is a latent pressure on teens to look good – as there is with everyone – pimples (or lack thereof) will not make or break your social standing. If your character prioritizes fashion, it should be a personal decision made for their own enjoyment. If they make a point of presenting it to a group of people, it’ll be to a small circle of friends whose input they actually value, not the school at large. Not to say teens never worry about social acceptance, but that concern is primarily reserved for groups or individuals who they care about.
3. Teen Emotions Are Novelties
When stories depict teen emotions, they tend to either sanitize them or exaggerate them. The sanitization most often applies to female characters and love interests and results in a romanticized version of whatever emotion a character feels. Sadness becomes fragile beauty, anger becomes either “feistiness” or heated passion,* awkwardness is cute and endearing, depression is tragic-but-noble suffering. The exaggeration applies across categories, depending on the story. Teens throw tantrums, react with melodrama, roll their eyes at everything, and spout some version of “You just don’t understand me!”, all of which are normally played for laughs.
These caricatures are explained as teens being “hormonal,” a patronizing blanket term that invalidates teen emotion. Hormones are not the sole factor driving emotions. Teens have to deal with ideological maturation and increased responsibility, coming into personhood, and emerging independence from adults. It’s disingenuous to think that anyone would go through their teen years without substantial upheaval, but no one’s life is in turmoil all the time. This upheaval doesn’t automatically translate into irrationality, and using “hormones” as an excuse for illogical character behavior is both underwhelming and harmful, since it erases their agency.
Real teen emotions are complicated, unlike the romanticized or parodied versions. Most of all, they are valid. With suicide rates among teens at all-time highs, treating adolescent or young adult pain like a joke is more harmful than ever.* Maturity is a process, just like exploring one’s sexuality, and real character development builds up over time. Lots of authors understand this when it comes to adult protagonists, but they expect teens to make or reverse major life decisions on a dime or change their entire personalities in an instant.
When teens’ experiences are handled so dismissively, real conditions are treated as ephemeral or as if the teen is just “going through a phase,” which makes it less likely that they’ll get professional help if they need it. The aforementioned pressure on teens to look good can lead to serious body image and self-esteem issues, and sometimes specifically eating disorders. These problems, which often manifest in fiction form as an already thin character eating comically little or lamenting their size, shouldn’t be overlooked as funny quirks or endearing habits.* When these conditions are normalized in books, teens are more likely to treat their own struggles as trivial and are therefore less inclined to report them.
What to Do Instead
Given the complexity of most teens’ emotional situations, it’s surprising that so many authors have taken to downplaying their characters’ feelings. There are lots of stress factors, changes, and decisions going on, and for storytellers that means plenty of opportunities to give a deep and nuanced depiction of growth. That said, no teen is experiencing emotional upheaval all the time. For example, if they deal with a heartfelt breakup in one part of the story, they should get a pleasant afternoon playing video games with their best friend in another part.
By that same token, stop sanitizing teen emotion. If your character was forced to slay their demon mother, don’t waste the reader’s time describing how they shed a few tears while narrating the tragic depths of their poetic suffering. Instead, allow them to have the messy emotions that come with loss and betrayal. Let them ugly-cry until their face is red and their lips snotty.* This is especially true if the character experiencing extreme negative feelings is a love interest, because beautifying their emotions can seem like fetishization of their suffering.
If your story includes characters with conditions like anorexia or depression, be prepared to do a lot of research. With all the negative examples in current pop culture, it’s possible to import harmful internal assumptions without realizing it, no matter who you are. This doesn’t mean you should shy away from these topics per se, but know what you’re signing up for if you want to address them in detail.
4. High School Is Heaven or Hell
Authors’ nostalgia about high school often leads to a depiction that’s either an idealized, rose-colored heaven or a cynical, scorched-earth hellscape. In the former, teen characters are rarely, if ever, seen doing homework. They rely on their parents to handle everything, and the greatest source of drama (heh) is who gets the lead in the high school play.* In the latter, the entire student body is composed of hoodied party-goers whose textbooks are old and crumbling and whose classrooms are staffed with put-upon just-graduated-college student teachers and geriatrics who snap to attention only when a student steps out of line.
Along those lines, the magic school genre also has to deal with the paradox of wanting students to fight dangerous monsters in extreme situations but also acting like the school is still a fun place to learn magic. If safety protocol is so loose that you opened a portal to literal hell in your magichemistry class, it might not be safe to come back next semester, but everyone comfortably ignores that. This lingering danger, when combined with overly sunny framing, can come across as the magic school being a hell wallpapered over with heaven.
Sometimes, both heaven and hell high schools will be present in the same story in the form of school rivalry. The hellscape public school may face off against the posh, uniformed private students in the ultimate dodgeball match, for example. The villainous side, usually the ritzy private school, has a massive edge in funding and parental aid and probably cheats along the way to make extra sure. The public school underdogs are down on their luck and need to pull off a miracle to succeed.
While these stories can have worthwhile drama, they default to side A versus side B and rarely show further character complexity. The rich private students are all greedy, unscrupulous, and whiny, while those attending the public school claim a perfect moral high ground befitting of their underdog status. Some romance novels take this to the extreme, where star-crossed lovers are eternally separated due to the insurmountable distance of a few city blocks and slightly different cultures. While those cultures will influence how students at a certain school behave, it can’t dictate every facet of their lives.
There is a place for idealized, exaggerated versions of high school in our stories. Many people enjoy the over-the-top, tropey cheese that narratives like this offer. However, if you’re attempting to create a realistic setting, the vast majority of high school experiences are neither heaven nor hell. Instead, they’ll have some combination of these traits dependent on things like location and student body. Where is your school’s funding coming from? What academic strengths does your school boast? How effective and/or influential is the student government? How asinine is the admin?
What to Do Instead
Writing what you know can be a useful strategy. However, hindsight and nostalgia can warp memories of what it was really like to be in high school. The longer it’s been, the fuzzier your recollections are likely to be. This is another reason why talking to present teens is a valuable way to fact-check.
In speculative settings, danger at school can still be a point of conflict. Instead of everyone shrugging off the demon invasion* and heading back in next year, perhaps:
- The school will conduct a rigorous analysis of the situation, asking involved characters for input and putting new safety measures in place.
- The only magic school in the area is vastly underfunded, leaving few other options if your character wants to learn magic.
- Maybe your demon-summoning protagonist goes to a normal high school, which naturally wouldn’t have measures against demons.
If you want to write a story about the class differences between the rundown public high and the immaculate university prep school, make sure to show complexity on each side. Students in the private school might have misgivings about their public school counterparts, but some would be willing to reach across the figurative aisle. The story could show those characters working through those biases and finding what unites them. The public school students could organize a successful funding drive or the private-school government might help raise awareness for the financing discrepancies that their parents would rather ignore. In a romance, it’s even more important to ensure both your leads have complex personalities. If the moral goodness is all on one side, so is the growth, and it’s boring if only one character has to do any internal work.
5. Teens Are Fine With Existing in Boxes
Tragic underdog protagonists aren’t the only characters in stories who spend time glaring across lunchrooms. Often the “nerdy” kids are described as sitting apart from the “sports” kids, who sit apart from the “delinquent” kids, and so on. If these groups interact, it’s sometimes more akin to cats hissing at each other than a reasonable conversation between peers. Each clique makes efforts to solidify their members’ commitment and hamstring their enemies whenever possible. Crossing the aisle from one circle to another is a betrayal worthy of complete exile from the former group. The transgressor is caught in the crossfire, helpless to halt the hostilities. Even the adults might take sides, never mind whatever administrative tasks they should be focusing on.
It’s assumed that the box a person falls into is predetermined, and only a certain “type” of person will fall into a certain category. Due to this exclusivity, demonstration of preference for one group is taken as a slight against another. In real high schools, it takes a lot more than making new friends for your old ones to snub you.
Some stories also assume that party-goers all belong to one tribe, a tribe that’s usually responsible for tempting or corrupting the protagonist with drug use and bad behavior. While the prevalence of drugs among teens is a very real and much more complicated problem than can be fully examined here, doing drugs does not automatically make someone a horrible person. Similarly, parties can be drug-free. People who attend them are looking to have fun, which can mean anything from playing chess to hooking up.* Stories often also make an association between partying and academic failure, as though everyone who parties is a dropout-to-be who will wind up a criminal. The truth is that there are as many types of party-goers as there are types of parties to attend.
Avoiding social boxing has particularly important ramifications because many people in fiction are boxed according to stereotypes. Boys are jocks, girls are obsessed with fashion, and LGBTQ people are snotty activists that everyone brushes off (if they’re present at all). If the only representations of a demographic adhere to a normalized version of how they should act, those people will feel less secure in breaking from those norms.
What to Do Instead
Most teenage characters will probably exist in multiple social spheres at once. For example, there might be some familiar faces at the debate club that the protagonist knows from the soccer team. If they broaden their social circle, students will have to balance old and new friends. While that could create conflict in your story, teens are unlikely to experience outright antagonism over it. What’s more, no one limits themself to one hobby. While students with the same interests do cluster together, those clusters overlap. An athlete might be part of film club, robotics, and the student government and have good friends among all of these.
It’s also possible to write a party scene without glorifying or demonizing those involved. First, decide why this party is happening. This will determine what activities would go on* and who might attend. Is it a celebration? A birthday? A last hurrah before finals (or after)? A ceremony? An excuse to get drunk? A showcase of all your glitzy new magic spells?
Most importantly, what story purpose does the party serve? Parties are ideal locations for strange and unprecedented events to occur. This is especially true if the party is supposed to be covert. If one student is secretly a werewolf and they forgot their wolfsbane, the protagonist will encounter some entertaining difficulties in concealing the student’s transformation. Similarly, the solstice party for the school’s coven of secret witches will be really awkward if the parents come home in the middle of the annual goat sacrifice.* Even if nothing out of this world happens, make sure your party is relevant to the plot.
Dodging the essentialism of boxing is also important because it breaks stereotypes. If different types of people in fiction engage with a certain hobby, the value judgments attached to that hobby will start to break down. Not only will more people be encouraged to try pursuits that they’re conventionally discouraged from, but the pursuits themselves will begin to lose their negative connotations. Not every character needs to constantly run counter to the stereotypes associated with their identity. If your hunky male protagonist wants to be the captain of the football team, that’s a fine setup for a story. But unless you plan to specifically deconstruct inequity, your stories should have a mix of adherence to social expectations and movement away from them.
The most helpful thing an author looking to depict teen characters can do is talking to some actual teens. Chances are they’ll notice if the characters aren’t acting realistically. The adolescent years hold unique challenges that adult characters might not deal with, which can be great opportunities for story conflicts. At the end of the day, though, everyone is a complex, intelligent being* trying to overcome obstacles. Teens deserve that nuance just as much.
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