In 1951, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye changed the face of teen fiction. The book's protagonist, Holden Caulfield, became the archetype for the young adult hero for generations to come. But the landscape of young adult literature nowadays has changed. It's evolved into one of our most popular genres.
Some may think young adult (YA) novels are easy to write. After all, what's so complicated about a hero within the age range of 12 and 18? Their lives seem simple enough. Even writers with very little experience can produce a novel worthy of praise. Right?
Wrong. It's never easy to create a character you can root for. Take Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games for example. We wouldn't care about her survival if she didn't have that perfect blend of courage, resourcefulness, and yes, even weakness.
If you want to create a young adult character as timeless as Holden Caulfield or Katniss Everdeen, consider these five tips.
1. Read Tons of Young Adult Novels
You've probably read your fair share of YA novels. But you can always read more! You'll find there are cross-genres in YA literature. It's often mixed with dystopian themes, supernatural concepts, and even science fiction. But the general running theme in all cross-genres is the lead character's coming of age. Familiarizing yourself with the usual characterization of YA heroes will give you a better idea of what to embrace and what to avoid.
If you're looking for somewhere to start, why not check out our Young Adult essential reading list?
2. Do Your Research
If you're in your 30s, you probably don't interact much with teens. Start by reading books and studies focusing on the complications and complexities teens and young adults deal with on a daily basis. With the mentality of an adult, it's probably difficult to understand them. Getting insight from researchers can help. At the same time, braving social media never hurts when it comes to understanding what teens are into today.
Teenagers have been behind some of the biggest movements of our time - the climate strike was driven by young people. Don't play to stereotypes - find out what your audience are really interested in.
3. Talk to Actual Young Adults
Devoting time to technical studies and published materials isn't enough. You need to understand young adults to write about them. Observe their interactions. Knowing them is the first step to understanding them. You were a young adult once, but that was years ago. You've changed and so have the things around you. It's critical that you see things from the perspective of an 18-year-old if you want to create a believable 18-year-old YA hero.
4. Remember, It's Not Just About Angst
Eighty percent of the time, it may seem like the only thing they do is brood. But angst is merely one of the many things a YA character will experience. Give your characters layers. Tons of them. Give them everyday worries, and give them something to brood about. There must be a reason behind the angst!
5. Define a Motivation for Your Character
An essential detail some YA writers seem to forget is backstory. For character development to happen, you need to give them a motivation, a reason why they do the things they do. This motivation is the reason behind their reaction to situations. Don't give them good dialogue just because it sounds pretty. There must be a motivation for why they say the things they say and why they do the things they do. A character can't say they're complicated simply because it sounds good on paper.
6. Show, Don't Tell
I know, I know. You've heard it before. But show, don't tell really works!
A great way to check whether you're showing and not telling your reader what your character is all about is by checking for dialogue tags. Take a look at these examples:
"You never listen to me!" Samantha cried pitifully. "You never listen to me!" Samantha shouted. "You never listen to me!" exclaimed Samantha reproachfully.
These are distracting and have little real value. Using dialogue tags and adverbs tells your reader what your character is like instead of showing them through their actions.
If you want readers to learn more about Samantha and her situation, lose the dialogue tags.
Samantha looked down at her shoes, letting her bangs cover the tears beginning to fill her eyes. Her voice dropped low. "You never listen to me."
The above show-don’t-tell version doesn’t use a dialogue tag, but we know that Samantha is speaking - and we know much more about her.
Trawling through your whole novel looking for these would be a nightmare, but fortunately ProWritingAid can do it for you!
The dialogue check will highlight stray dialogue tags so you can find areas where you can add depth to your character by showing, not telling.
Get to know your characters. In young adult novels, they're the foundation of a wondrous story. It's the characters that define the genre of young adult literature, not their circumstances. So before you pick up your pen and create your great story, thoroughly understand and embrace your hero first.