I write thrillers for young adults, and I’m 53. How can I, who didn’t own a mobile phone until I was in my mid-twenties, write convincing teenage characters? (And if I’m writing from a teen perspective, I should know that they would call it a phone not a mobile.)
It helps that I’m a secondary school librarian, my children are in the cohort known as Gen Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, and I’m a good eavesdropper.
Language is the obvious signifier of a Gen Z – the speech patterns and the vocabulary. I’ve made it my business to know if something’s basic, boujiee or peng. I note how I use words differently to my children – for example I might be keeping an event low-key while my daughter might be low-key hoping someone doesn’t call her. I understand ghosting, being aired or left on read. I’ve always loved teenage slang; it’s so inventive, but it moves on fast, so I have to be careful what I use. It can also be regional, as my eldest daughter discovered when she went to Glasgow uni and her London slang was lost in translation. My writing “voice” isn’t just about the words though, it’s also content. I have to know the issues my characters feel strongly about from climate change, racism, LGBTQ+ rights to the latest TikTok dance.
When I write my characters, I tap into the emotions that I remember so clearly as a teenager, because although everything else has changed, those haven’t. I remember embarrassment and shame, disappointment and occasional joy. I wasn’t a cool teenager. I was quiet in school, although louder out of it, uncomfortable in my body, worried I’d never meet anyone who properly understood me. As an author of young adult thrillers, I imagine what it’s like to feel all these things but to have access to ruthless social media twenty-four hours a day. Empathising with Gen Z isn’t difficult.
Social media is part of my plots – it has to be because I’m writing contemporary fiction. For my debut book, Lying About Last Summer, I made up an app and had to think around the logistics of that. I wanted to avoid being too specific about social media because I was advised that it would date the book, but I realised they date quickly anyway if you’re writing contemporary fiction. It’s important to get it right for the time of publication though. When I was writing the first draft of my latest book, I Know You Did It, I avoided mention of TikTok because at the time Donald Trump was trying to ban it but when that didn’t happen, I slipped it into a later draft.
When I first started writing my young adult thrillers, I was married and I had to quiz my children about the rules of Gen Z relationships, refer back to my awkward past for the emotion, and watch a lot of brilliantly written TV (End of the F***ing World, Sex Education etc). Then, in a plot twist in my own life, I got divorced. Last year I started dating someone at roughly the same time as my eighteen-year-old started seeing someone and we talked more about expectations. I understand better how her generation is comfortable with more variety around what a relationship might look like, and how exclusivity can be more important than a label. I’m still not sure what the difference between a thing and a fling is though (even though it’s been explained several times to me). I’m inspired by the amazing women speaking up now and Generation Z is hopefully understanding they don’t need to be as people-pleasing as my generation was. There is still a long way to go but they are pushing feminism forward and not putting up with as much shit.
The struggles and worries of Gen Z are changing. I’m seeing more anxiety about the future as a result of the pandemic and the resulting situation with GCSEs, A-levels, uni and jobs. They are facing enormous challenges, but they are also opening up the mental health conversation. There is an appetite for living large as we emerge from lockdown, and to make up for lost time.
Not only has Gen Z influenced my writing, it also continues to influence me as a person. Despite the polarising nature of social media, this cohort comes together to support each other, and stands up for what they’re passionate about.
I Know You Did It by Sue Wallman is out on 6th May 2021, published by Scholastic
About I Know You Did It
There's a murderer at Ruby's school. It's Ruby.
On her first day at a new school, Ruby gets a message saying 'I KNOW YOU DID IT'. She's terrified that someone knows she caused a girl's death when they were both toddlers - a secret that has haunted her for years. But when students at the school start dying, Ruby realizes she's being framed by another murderer.
That, or she might be next.
About Sue Wallman
Award-winning author Sue Wallman has been a sub-editor, letters page editor and deputy features editor, and today works in a secondary school library. LYING ABOUT LAST SUMMER was selected for the Zoella Book Club in Autumn 2016 and won the Worcestershire Teen Book Award 2017. SEE HOW THEY LIE was a Tesco YA Book of the Month and won the Lancashire Book of the Year award in 2018.
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