Writing YA Tip #476

Writing YA Tip #476


Figure 1. Norman Reedus in some movie I haven't seen yet. This has nothing to do with writing or YA.

Figure 1. Norman Reedus in some movie I haven’t seen yet.  Dark Harbor, maybe? The one where he makes out with Alan Rickman? This has nothing to do with writing or YA.


Today, I’m interrupting my normal aversion to discussing writing or craft to offer this tip for people who write YA.

(Not advice. No one likes advice. I do like tips, though. So. Just the TIP, then. Heh.)


I started teaching a class yesterday. With actual teenagers. There are five of them, so it’s not a big class.

It’s a writing class, though, and in order to get at what interests them, I have them fill out this sheet so I can get an idea of what they like and don’t like and what their deal is and how many pets they have and how old they are and what they are hoping to do in the class and blah blah blah.

Anyway, EVERY TIME I do this, it just underscores to me a crucial aspect of character development. Teenagers like to do lots of things. They are interested in the lots of things. (ALL THE THINGS, if you will.)

Okay, I realize that’s not revolutionary information, but I’m working up a lather here. Be patient.

Here’s a list of things the kids in this class like:

– blogging
– acting
House of Cards
– play-writing
– steampunk novels
– philosophy
– dogs
Phantom of the Opera
– song-writing
– volleyball
– being in a band
Arrested Development
– writing mysteries
– YA novels
– writing poems
– BBC’s Sherlock
– drawing
– cooking
– speed-skating
– writing fan fiction
The Carrie Diaries
– playing the ukelele
– playing the piano
– cats
– playing the saxophone
– Tumblr
30 Rock
– Broadway musicals
– post-apocalyptic novels

Here’s a short list of some of their dislikes:

– seafood
– racism
– uncivilized conversations
– bad-acting in professional productions
– horror films
– yelling
– naps
– group work
– headaches
– attention seekers
– overt tropes
– meat
– small talk

Now, all of this together isn’t that interesting except when creating characters, it’s important to remember that adolescent lives aren’t as ruthlessly edited down as adult lives. As you grow up, your strengths emerge more clearly and you rule out lots of choices and soon you’re specialized and middle-aged and that’s that.

Not that this life-editing is bad. In fact, I find it profoundly comforting, deleting out possibilities and options, as I get older and older. But even kids with really well-honed talents in sports or arts or other enterprises are still widely interested and involved in many, many things. They have lots of opinions and interests and activities and this is all very good! I say this as one of those edited-down adults whose list of things she enjoys is rather short and very boring.

There is an openness to everything in adolescence. This is what I’m saying. The die has not been cast yet. A common organizing gimmick for a writer of YA is to amp up the drama and intensity by creating a character who is passionate about one thing. This isn’t a problem, really. It’s fine. But it’s also fine if you have a character who wants to be an astronaut and a ballet dancer and President of the United States, all at once, too.

However, if your characters are not curious, if they don’t have that openness to possibility, if they have no hobbies or interests or side projects, then maybe you need to go back to that teenaged time and place in your memory. It’s not easy to erase your experience. It’s not easy to unknow what you know so well. But I think it’s a key element in those YA novels I love, the ones that blow the doors off what people expect of this genre.

So that, YA-writing friends, is my TIP for you today. Enjoy.



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