The truth about YA authors is that most of us are *not* actually young adults–at least, not in the teenager sense. Most of us are actually adults writing about teens, and therefore we need to be careful to avoid some pitfalls when creating your young adult protagonist. I thought I’d compile a brief list of some Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to crafting our characters.
Don’t assume that just because you’re female, your young adult protagonist must be female, too (and vice-versa). I’ve read wonderful books where the lead character was say, a male, while the author was female (again, and vice-versa). It can be done. (S.E. Hinton’s classic The Outsiders, for one). Maybe you’re a “she” but you grew up with three brothers and have good insight into the teenage male mind. Maybe you’re a mother with a teenage son, surrounded by him and his friends, ambushed by their by male-teen-speak on a daily basis.
Do make sure, however, that your voice is authentic. There is nothing more distracting than reading a book with a female young adult protagonist (by a male author) where you’re constantly thinking, “He does not understand girls. At all.” Or a book with a male protagonist (by a female author) where you’re repeatedly thinking that a girl would never say or think or do the things the character is thinking.
Don’t make your young adult protagonist a “new and improved” version of yourself in high school. Just don’t. I can’t stress this enough. Readers can spot the “Mary Sue” a mile away (where the author basically creates a “proxy” of him/herself with no discernible flaws). I know it’s tempting–especially when you’ve been told “write what you know.” So you think…hmmm, okay, I was a clarinetist in the high school band who wore glasses and loved gardening. Thus, I will write a protagonist who is a clarinetist in the band, wears glasses, and loves gardening. But, I’ll make her super-smart, popular, *and* first-chair in the state honor’s band, something I never accomplished myself! Again, just don’t. You are not writing about an idealized version of YOU. You are creating a three-dimensional, fictional character who is not you. Don’t ever forget that!
Do, however, finds ways to connect to your protagonist. In regards to the above “don’t,” I’m not saying that you can’t have traits in common with your protagonists. You can. And, okay, if you were active in the high school band, then it is okay to write a book centering around band life, drawing on some of your own experiences. But that still doesn’t give you free rein to write a “mini-me” protagonist. Maybe your character is very different from you, but has experienced a profound loss. You’ve experienced a profound loss. That’s part of the beauty of writing fiction–you can explore the feelings associated with that loss, work out how someone else, someone different from you, might deal with it. I can usually find one something–a trait, mannerism, talent, experience–that I connect with in each of my protagonists, no matter how “different” they are from me.
Don’t write to stereotypes. Unless, of course, you plan on turning that stereotype on its head and exploring it from a whole new angle. But in general, a stereotypical young adult protagonist is one-dimensional and boring. I just finished reading Kathy McCullough’s excellent YA debut, Don’t Expect Magic, and one thing really stood out to me–the lack of stereotypes. The main character was very original, and I couldn’t really put a “label” on her. A major secondary character was a model-gorgeous cheerleading captain who was not a mean girl. At all. She had depth and therefore was an interesting character. In fact, none of the teens that populated the novel seemed at all stereotypical, and thus they really seemed more like “real people” and not cardboard cut-outs to me.
A few more:
Do make sure that your protagonist’s actions/reactions are consistent with their experiences/characterization, not yours.
Don’t confuse your readers with character inconsistencies.
Do remember that people have flaws. Ergo, so should your protagonist. Readers identify with flawed characters because they seem real and more sympathetic.
Don’t forget to leave room for “character development.” In other words, remember that your protagonist is going to travel the route of your plot, and somehow come out having learned something/accepted something/changed something, etc. If your main character is exactly the same at the end of your novel as he/she was at the beginning, then obviously the paces you put him/her through weren’t very important, in the grand scheme of things. What’s the point of telling a story that isn’t important to your character?
And there you have it–a story that’s important to your character. Not a story that’s important to you, the author, or to your readers. This is key, in my opinion. You create the characters, the world they live in, and the plot that structures their story. When you’ve finished your novel and sent it out “into the world,” your job is done. It’s now in readers’ hands, and they’ll bring their own experiences/opinions/baggage/biases to the reading experience. No two people are the same, and no two readers will have the same impression of your protagonist. And that’s okay!
Any other do’s and don’ts you’d like to share?