There’s nothing more exciting than opening up a brand new document, typing ‘Chapter One’ across the top of the page, and starting fresh with a new story. New characters to meet, a new plot to hammer out–it’s challenging, and at times overwhelming, but it’s a lot of fun, too. I love getting to know my young adult characters, even though it isn’t an easy process for me. So….how do I do it?
I’d like to say that I use a character questionnaire of some sort. I know that many writers find them useful, but for me, especially in the early planning stages, it feels forced. I’m better served filling out a character questionnaire after I’ve allowed the story to percolate in my mind–after I’ve started writing, even.
The first thing I need is a good mental image of the character’s appearance. I need to truly see them in my mind’s eye. Once I can picture them, I start trying to identify what it is that this character wants more than anything. The one thing that they’ll fight for, or work for, throughout the course of the book. This will help shape their goal, motivation and conflict (GMC), and, ultimately, the plot — because I’m a character-driven writer. So the characters come to me first, and then I structure the plot around them. Other writers who are more plot-driven will have the opposite task–figuring out exactly what kind of young adult characters work best within the plot they’ve imagined.
Next, I try to tap into an emotion from my own teen years that seems to “fit” with this young adult character, and decide how they would deal with it. Maybe it’s shyness or a sense of feeling ‘different’ or out of place. Maybe it’s the feelings that accompany an unrequited crush, or, conversely, that awkward feeling when someone else is crushing on you, and you don’t return the feelings. Whatever the case, I like to find some emotional point where I can connect with my protagonist.
Since I’m writing young adult characters, there are other factors to consider, too. Let’s say my protagonist is a girl. Hold old is she? What is the character’s level of romantic/sexual experience? Does she curse? What kind of student is she? What is her relationship like with her parents? Is she a reliable narrator? What are her strongest traits? Her weaknesses? How does she cope with pressure? All these elements will help direct the plot, and figuring them out beforehand helps assure character consistency as I write.
Once I’ve completed these steps (and trust me, sometimes it takes weeks of banging around in my brain), I can then start rounding out the character’s details in my mind–I give them hobbies, mannerisms, habits, attitudes. Oh, and families, best friends, and pets, too. At this point, they start to come alive in my mind. Sometimes they even start taking over my story, moving it into unexpected directions. When that happens, I know I’m doing something right.
An Exercise for Developing Young Adult Characters:
One exercise I often give my writing students is to pick out a memorable character from a book that they’ve read and enjoyed and break down the character into the elements listed above. Notice the character’s complexities. Generally, when we do this, we notice that the most fascinating, enduring characters are the least stereotypical–or if they are stereotypes, there’s some element turned on its head.
Make your characters real people, not archetypes.
Most real people don’t fit into a neat, tidy descriptive box, so neither should your characters. Don’t be afraid to make them flawed (in fact, make sure they’re flawed!).
Lastly, I’ll leave you with a list of some of my favorite YA characters, flaws and all. I’d love to hear some of your favorites, too!
Some of My Favorite Young Adult Characters:
Katniss (and Peeta) from The Hunger Games trilogy
Etienne St. Clair from Anna and the French Kiss
Tris from Divergent
Samantha from Before I Fall
Todd from the Monsters of Men trilogy
Micah from Liar (a great example of an unreliable narrator!)
…and, okay, I have to say it: Edward from Twilight (but don’t get me started on Bella…)
Kristi’s YA debut, HAVEN, was released by Simon Pulse in Feb. 2011. She also writes adult fiction (historical romance) as Kristina Cook and Kristi Astor. Visit her online at www.kristi-cook.com.