Writing Teens

I have been reading a lot of young adult fiction recently. Mainly young adult mystery novels as I work on a full length campaign for BubbleGumshoe from Evil Hat. The most important thing I have learned is that writing teenagers is difficult. When I find a believable teen in a novel I often realize that I find them believable in part because of details that I would have left out or never thought of.

In her novel, Red as Blood, Salla Simukka creates mysteries for the teens to solve because of their own missteps as much as because there is an actual mystery. The characters find themselves in trouble because of the actions they take, actions which often prevent them from going to the police or seeking outside help. The need to avoid incrimination for their own misdeeds and the fear of adult action is actually what drives the action. Whereas adults often are assumed to be rational actors in mysteries, the teens in the novel have no such default.

Similarly in the Netflix version of 13 Reasons Why, the show comes off as a mystery because of the insular word which the teen characters build for themselves to avoid adult recrimination. In mysteries we often find ourselves asking why the characters don’t go to the police or seek help from someone more “capable”. In Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle mysteries this is because the main character is the most capable person, but in 13 Reasons Why and Red as Blood this is because the teenage protagonists find themselves too afraid and too insulated to consider such a course of action.

As we age past our teenage years by decades we forget that being an adolescent is scary enough without crime and mystery. This fear coupled with lack of fully developed reason can make it hard to write these characters. As I immerse myself in YA mystery though, what I have realized is that it should actually be easier to write. The mystery does not need to be convoluted with arcane details only a master hacker or forensic expert could discern; The mystery just needs to be deep enough that the characters can find themselves in over their head and afraid to do anything but follow the story to its end.

Putting myself in the midst of my mysteries and asking how I would solve them is often my first step in writing new mystery games. However, as I write a game with teenage protagonists in mind I find this approach lacks a fundamental understanding of how my players will approach the story. Yes my teen protagonists will have thrill seeking adults as their brains, but they will also be bound by the fact that they are still adolescents with adolescent skills and ideas. Mystery does not have to be complicated and arcane, it just has to give the Teen characters enough to dig themselves into a deeper mystery.