Creating Young Adult Fiction Characters Readers Will Love
I wanted to title this article “Writing Young Adult Characters Your Readers Will High-Key Stan.”
I didn’t, because someday—probably soon—young people will stop saying “high-key stan.” They might not even say it now; I’m 39 and got that phrase off of a list on the Internet made to help parents understand their kids.
Either way, that title would eventually destroy any credibility I might have as someone who understands YA readers. And understanding young adult readers is absolutely critical to finding success in this genre.
That’s why you really want to nail your character development. YA is where teens go to process the issues surrounding them on their terms. They want to see themselves and their peers reflected in the fictional teenagers that populate your novel.
To make that happen, you have to be the grown-up who “gets it.” And trust me when I say Googling “teen slang 2023” is not enough to get the job done.
You’re about to learn everything you need to know about filling out your fictional high school, including:
- The role of character development in YA
- How to create authenticity in your made-up teens
- The common pitfalls you should avoid
- How to develop awesome YA character arcs
- The secret to great dialogue
- How to get to the heart of motivation
- The relationships that define YA
That’s a lot of stuff, so let’s get to it while we’re still young.
Importance of Character Development
Character development is basically the whole package of who your character is and how they change over the course of the story.
Such a tidy little summary for something so massive. When you start fleshing out your protagonist and all their friends, enemies, and frenemies, you have to consider everything. Their backstories, goals, fears, motivations, flaws, cultural context, appearance, and so, so much more.
It’s a big job, but you can’t write a great book without it. Especially if that book is a young adult novel.
Why Character Development is Crucial for Young Adult Fiction
I don’t know if you noticed this, but teenagers have feelings. And why shouldn’t they? This demographic is, like, in it. All of it. All at once.
They’re falling in love, finding themselves, navigating social politics, discovering the troubled world beyond their school, deciding who they want to become, torn between independence and security… all those things that tend to make a person live in a constant state of growth and self-observation.
Writing young adult fiction means writing characters who reflect this experience. That requires a lot of careful thought and planning.
And the first step is to get into the heads of YA readers.
How to Create Authentic Characters That Resonate With Readers
It’s true: some of your young adult readers will actually be older adults. Nevertheless, you’re writing YA for the whipper snappers.
And what does that look like exactly?
Get Into the Teen Mindset
The first thing to know is that the typical YA protagonist is 14-18 years old. High school, basically. So start by asking yourself what you remember about being that age.
What goals were important to you? Why did they matter so much? Who was the center of your world? What were you most afraid of? How did you measure your own value? How did you measure everyone else’s?
Of course, when you’re actually writing your YA novel, you’ll also need to consider how teenhood is different for today’s youth. That’s why it’s also a good idea to consult with young people.
If you know any teenagers, ask about their interests, friendships, and ambitions. Interview parents, teachers, or psychologists about their observations. And of course, read loads of current YA bestsellers.
Choose the Right Goals and Make Those Goals Everything
Your young adult characters should have goals that fit where they are in life and are likely to resonate with readers. The previous step will help you find ambitions that make sense.
Then, make sure those goals are everything for your fictional high schoolers, especially the protagonist.
This demographic is in a weird spot where their worlds are still fairly small but beginning to open up. Anything that happens in school or at home is massive because those spaces define their entire lives. And if the world outside factors into their conflicts, it usually does so as an unfamiliar and overwhelming force. (More on that in a bit.)
You even see this in The Hunger Games. Katniss’s day-to-day life is defined by the dystopian government she lives under. But she doesn’t concern herself with anything beyond friends (or friend, rather) and family until she has to.
Don’t Hold Back on Flaws and Weaknesses
In any genre, it’s important to give your fictional folks flaws. But it’s especially essential when it comes to your YA protagonist.
This teenager has to grow. They need to have an arc, and at some point, that arc should involve making a massive mistake, losing people they care about, and having to walk it back.
Here are some great tips for finding your protagonist’s fatal flaw.
Give Them Conflicts Readers Can Relate To
This is where it pays to begin your writing process by getting to know what modern teenagers are dealing with. Some of it will look exactly like your teenhood. Some of it won’t. Either way, focus on writing a story that reflects reality as your young adult readers experience it.
That’s not to say you have to come up with a conflict every reader will have had a direct experience with. In fact, some of the best young adult fiction challenges readers to see the unique external conflicts other people deal with.
What makes a YA novel relatable is the internal conflict. This can involve a crisis of identity, moral dilemmas, complicated feelings about a relationship, and more. Read this article to learn the secret to writing internal conflict that resonates.
Avoiding Common Character Creation Pitfalls
So what are some things to look out for when writing your young adult protagonist?
Writing From an Adult Perspective
This is exactly why you want to take your time and get into a teenager’s mindset. If you observe your young adult characters through a grown-up lens, you’re guaranteed to miss the mark.
You might find yourself accidentally writing gum-chewing, eye-rolling teen stereotypes. You could underestimate your protagonist’s understanding of social issues or even themselves. Even the way you describe these fictional youths and their world could make teen YA readers feel like you don’t really get them.
Failing to Update for Modern Teens
We’ve kind of covered this, but it’s an easy one to miss if you’re trying to fast-track a YA novel inspired by your own youth.
Everything from technology to politics to social issues influences the way your protagonist communicates, connects, and perceives the world. Don’t let your readers catch your contemporary characters chatting on AIM unironically.
Making Your YA Protagonist Too Perfect or Safe
I know it hurts, but you gotta put these kids through hell. That’s what your young adult readers are paying you for.
Yeah, you want your protagonist to be someone your readers are happy to cheer for, but you have to let them screw up. And when they screw up, you have to nail them with devastating consequences. Maybe even dangerous consequences.
It makes for a better story and it’s key for…
Developing Memorable Character Arcs
A character arc is your protagonist’s (or anyone else’s) journey of transformation.
In literature as a whole, characters can transform for the better or worse. They can even choose to stay the same. But you’re writing a YA novel, which means you have to end on an optimistic note.
Positive transformation it is.
Tips for Crafting Character Arcs Readers Will Love
If you could use a template to help you build your protagonist’s arc beat by beat, you can find one here.
For now, we’ll keep it simple and just say that in a solid arc, the protagonist faces conflict that forces them to confront or avoid their own flaws, fears, and weaknesses. Usually, they try to avoid the icky stuff for a while, and that backfires with even bigger problems.
Eventually, they run into a “change or die” moment. At this point, they realize they risk more by staying the same, so they choose to change for the better.
Here are a few tips for really nailing all this when you’re writing YA.
Keep it moving - Teens are fairly introspective, so you can get away with exploring your protagonist’s thoughts in the young adult genre. More so than in middle grade fiction, anyway. But as a general rule, keep those moments of introspection brief and let your protagonist’s actions tell the story of their arc.
Let your protagonist make huge mistakes - I’ve said it already, but I’m saying it again. Big mistakes make for thrilling arcs.
Make the emotional stakes super clear - What does your protagonist stand to lose if they fail to reach their goal? What’s at risk in that “change or die” moment? How do they feel about the person they’re in conflict with? Help the reader feel the stakes.
End with hope - Again, the rule of the young adult genre is to end on a hopeful note, even if you choose not to end on a happy one. If all is not well with your protagonist by the final page, at least demonstrate a transformation that helps the reader envision a brighter future.
Using Dialogue to Develop Characters
Dialogue is an excellent tool for developing your fictional teens during your own writing prep and in the actual story. Let me break this down.
The things your YA characters say can show readers:
- How these kids see the world
- What they’re willing to share
- How they want others to perceive them
- Details about their daily lives, relationships, backstory—all that expository stuff
- What they want
- Why they want it
Plus half a million other things. On top of that, the way they speak can demonstrate:
- Their personality
- Their cultural background
- How comfortable they are in this conversation
- How much they like the person they’re talking to
- Whether they’re hiding something
Dialogue does a lot of heavy lifting, and you can learn more about how to use dialogue as a character development tool here.
One quick YA-specific tip: try to tap into the way teens actually talk without leaning on slang. As we discussed, slang is a fantastic way to make your novel sound outdated within a year.
Understanding Character Motivations in Young Adult Fiction
A goal is what your protagonist wants. Motivation is why they want it.
And if you can tap into the very real fears and desires that make prom feel like a life-defining night for your characters, you can avoid writing the kind of YA fiction that comes off as condescending.
Here are some tips for getting this right.
Tips for Creating Compelling YA Character Motivations
Create a backstory - What life experiences have taught your character to pursue a specific goal or avoid a certain consequence at all costs? Backstory is one of your most powerful tools when it comes to creating compelling motivation. You can learn more about it here.
Let their world expand - The motivation for many young adult characters evolves with the story. The challenges they face give them a broader perspective, and their fears and priorities change with it.
For example, in The Hate U Give, Starr initially avoids drawing attention to her experiences as a Black teen in her very white high school, motivated by a desire to fit in and keep the peace.
But when she witnesses the death of a Black friend at the hands of the police and has to make a choice about speaking out or lying low, she sees the consequences of staying invisible in a much different light.
Amplify emotional consequences - It’s not enough for your YA protagonist to make a mistake that “ruins everything.” Those consequences have to be devastating for the protagonist. It has to be something that makes them want to run, lash out, or—eventually—change.
Exploring Character Relationships
We get attached to made-up people not just because of who they are but also because of who they care about (or despise). For a deep dive on different types of supporting characters and how they might relate to your protagonist, I recommend this article.
Meanwhile, here are some relationship dynamics you’re likely to see in YA novels specifically:
Learning how to be adults together - To you and me, they might look like a bunch of teens who think they’re grown. But to each other, your characters are young adults finding themselves and their purpose.
They take each other’s problems seriously. They’d often rather take advice from each other than from a parent. And when they take those important steps toward growth, they usually do it together.
Adult mentorship - There’s often that one grown-up who gets it. Whether it’s a guidance counselor, neighbor, or cool aunt, this person listens without judgment, offers advice, and gets tough when they need to.
Forming identity around social circles - If your fictional high schoolers are like most YA characters, they’ll draw a strong connection between who they hang out with and who they are. This can be a source for conflict when one starts ditching their friends in an effort to change their reputation or reinvent themselves.
New relationship, new perspective - Okay, so young adult isn’t the only genre where the protagonist makes a new acquaintance who changes the way they see the world. This happens in… well, almost every story ever told.
But it’s particularly significant in YA novels, because identity and perspective are so central to the teenage protagonist’s growth. Remember, you’re writing about young people whose worlds have been fairly small for a long time.
A new relationship with someone who shows them a totally different view is going to blow their absolute minds. More so than it would if they were, say, fifty.
One Final Tip for Populating Your YA Novel
Actually, a couple tips.
For one thing, I should mention that the topic of character development is huge. Ginormous. In this article, we covered a bunch of tips related to young adult characters specifically. But if you’re fairly new to novel writing, I also suggest checking out:
- 14 Common Character Archetypes You Should Know
- The Best Character Template
- The Character Development Worksheet You’ve Been Looking For
- What You NEED to Know About Your Characters
Or you can just peruse all our articles in the character section of DabbleU.
Now, once you’ve done all this reading, you’ll realize how messy this process can get. Maybe you already know. You can lasso some of that chaos with Dabble.
If you’re not already familiar, Dabble is an easy-to-use tool that simplifies every step of the writing process. You can use the Plot Grid to track all your character arcs and Story Notes to keep track of all your fictional teens.
Then all these details are there at your fingertips as you draft and revise your young adult novel.
Are all the cool kids using Dabble? A lot of them are, yeah. But Dabble is all about author individuality. So you’ve got the option to try it for yourself and see if it’s right for you. Start a 14-day free-trial just by clicking this link, no credit card required.
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What kind of writer are you? Are you the sort who writes a meticulous outline that tips into the five digits or the type who sits down in front of a blank sheet of paper and lets the words pour out of you like a runaway train? Did you know there are specific terms for this kind of writing? Writers will come up with words for anything, I swear. Plotters are the first type of writer. They like to have detailed outlines that tell them exactly where their story is going. Pantsers are the other type of writer, which is kind of a weird name, but the term was coined by Stephen King (a famous pantser) to describe writing by the seat of your pants. Cute, eh? There is no right or wrong way to write your book, and I’m going to repeat this so many times. The right way is the way that works for you.
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