by R.C. Lewis
As writers, we talk a lot about authenticity. Authentic voice, authentic setting, authentic characters. Particularly in young adult (YA), I spend a lot of time trying to make sure my characters resonate and feel real to teens. It doesn't mean all teens are the same, that there's some very specific teen-mold our characters should match. Just that teens should think, "Yeah, I believe a person my age could be like that."
You know what else we talk about?
Slut-shaming. Body-shaming. Rape culture. Misogyny. Hate speech. Pretty sure that's just scratching the surface.
I spend the work-week with about two hundred 14-year-olds. There are things a significant number of them say/do. Call another student retarded. Use the word "gay" as an insult or disparaging adjective. Objectify girls, judge their worth solely based on appearance. It goes on and on, and many of them do all these things without a second thought.
(At least until I give them a hard time about it, over and over and over. *ahem*)
These behaviors exist, and not in isolation. These words are in the vernacular for many (but not all!) teens.
So do we include it in the name of authenticity?
That's where it starts getting tricky, because more questions follow.
Do we only include it in cases where it's clearly shown to be a bad thing? (Either right away for incidental dialogue or by the end of the book where it's an overall theme…)
Do we lose authenticity by always having a character ready to call another out for speaking/behaving in a way we don't approve?
If we leave it out altogether, where do we draw the line? How do we keep from going so inauthentic that we actually cross into "rosy idealized way we wish people were"? (Face it—at the extreme, that lands you with no conflict and thus no plot.)
Is there a balancing point where we can show the authentic without making it "okay" and without getting didactic?
My own thoughts flit around from one side of the argument to another, creating more questions, giving no answers.
I'd love to know what others think.
R.C. Lewis teaches math to teenagers—and frequently tells them to "pick a more accurate adjective"—so whether she's a science geek or a bookworm depends on when you look. Her debut novel Stitching Snow is coming from Hyperion October 14, 2014. You can find R.C. on Twitter (@RC_Lewis) and at her website.