Writing for Teens, Part Three

Hey there!

Did you survive the great Halloween Candy Binge of 2014? I did, but at the expense of a tighter waistband.  In a word: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

It was WORTH it. : )

Anyhoo, how about we dive into this third post about writing for teens? We’ve talked about getting real, we’ve talked about feeeeeliiingggs, and now we’re going to hit on one of the most important aspects of writing great YA fiction:


Yep, your characters are your keys to the kingdom, my friends. They’re the spark that makes the reader care about your story. And not just the main character, but a host of close secondaries. Whether they are a main POV, or are the sidekick in a 1st person, these guys have to pop off that page. Not to brag (maybe a little), but the biggest compliments I received on the Matt Archer series were how well developed Will, Mamie, Ella, Uncle Mike, Aunt Julie, Johnson, and Penn were. That’s a lot of names–and that’s only the close-up crowd. I worked really hard to individualize as many of the named characters I could. I wanted them to be distinct, because in the end, Matt had dozens of impact characters. It was a five book, epic urban fantasy, so making sure the reader saw each impact character as real was super important.

But how do you do it? How can you make a character layered and multi-dimensional, especially if they are part of a supporting cast? For me, that’s a tough one to answer. Sometimes you just know it if you see it. The 5th Wave series has multiple 1st person POVs, and I can almost always tell who’s speaking even without hints. Yancy is pretty darn good at differentiating his voices. One way I do it is work out a backstory for my secondary characters. If they are really important, I might even write off-screen scenes from their POV, so I can get a feel for who they are and how they speak/think/move.  Other people have Character Bibles, in which they write out the attributes of each person, down to imaginary birth dates, favorite colors, and most hated foods. However you do it, though, it has to feel natural, not forced. Here’s where the “Show v. Tell” becomes very important.

Let me give you an example of a rookie mistake that I’ve seen in pieces I’ve beta-read:

John waited at the counter. Then he saw her–Samantha. The object of his dreams. She had red hair, blue eyes and a petite frame. Today she was wearing faded blue jeans and a cardigan. Her favorite coffee was a mocha latte, which he had already bought, along with a chocolate scone. She was nineteen years old and lived in an apartment with three girls while she went to nursing school. That’s how they met, in patient care class.

Samantha approached him. “Hi.”

Okay–so what’s wrong with this? It tells you about Sam, right? But did you catch yourself skimming to get to the action? Yeah, me, too.

How about I rewrite it and show (versus tell) you about Samantha. This won’t be flawless writing as it’s off the cuff, so bear with me.

John sees her coming in the crowd swarming the sidewalks outside. She’s easy to spot–her red hair always stands out on rainy days. 

She brushes the water from the shoulders of her sweater when she comes into Starbucks, flashing him a shy smile. “It’s getting colder out.”

He hands her a mocha latte. “Maybe this will help warm you up.”

“You’re so sweet. This is my favorite.” She takes a sip. “Sorry I’m late. Mary, Karen and Jessie were all hogging the bathroom this morning, and I had to wait them out.”

“Don’t even worry about it,” he says. “Besides, you’re not really late. We still have time before class starts.”

Her face brightens. “Do you think they’ll let us start IVs on each other today?”

John shudders. “God, I hope not. I’d rather practice on a tomato.”

Okay, so that was a very simple, crude example, but can you see the difference? You found out almost all the same things about Samantha in this section as you did in the infamous info-dump above, but it flowed more smoothly and give you some insight into John’s relationship with her. The info-dump tells you flat out: Object of his dreams. The second version? He sees her coming because of her hair–he notices. He knows what her favorite coffee is. He’s waiting for her.  This version shows you that he’s smitten, but maybe she’s not totally aware of it. There’s a mystery here. And that’s tantalizing to many readers.

Dialogue is a huge help in characterization, too. Banter between two characters can show you their whole world in a single page. The familiarity–or formality, or terseness–of a conversation gives the reader a TON of information about the two speakers. And it’s always okay merely to imply things and let your reader do the work. No one wants to be handed a story on a silver platter. Let the reader dive in deep and make their own conclusions. They’ll be more invested in the story that way.

A spark of life in your characters is all it takes.

How about you? What are some of the best YA characters you’ve read?

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