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Four tips for portraying young adult characters

I asked Karly Kirkpatrick, who had the fortune to be my 500th follower on Twitter, what character development question she’d like me to tackle next on my blog. She asked for tips on portraying young adult characters. So here you go, Karly, this one’s for you.

There’s a pretty wide (and somewhat ill-defined) range for what ages put a character into YA territory, but for our purposes let’s call it 13 through 17, those often difficult and awkward teen years before the responsibility of adulthood is fully thrust upon one’s shoulders.

Personally, I think it’s somewhat ridiculous to lump all those ages into a single category, because let’s face it: people change an enormous amount from age 13 to 17. To do the subject justice would probably take a five-volume set of books, one per year, rather than a blog post. But a blog is what I’ve got, so here goes. Four tips for writing YA characters.

Treat dialogue as dialect. Kids these days, with their texting and their sometimes impenetrable idioms drawn from video games and slices of pop culture adults don’t often partake of, might just as well be speaking a different language sometimes. It’s not—it’s still English. Mostly—but it does come to resemble a new and ever-changing dialect. If you do a good job capturing the flavor of that dialect in your books, you’ll be miles ahead of the competition.

Here’s the kicker. YA dialect really is ever-changing. The nuances of it are highly sensitive to the time period of your novel. A novel with YA characters set in the year 2010 will have a different YA dialect than one set in 2000. And James Dean may well have been Hollywood’s ultimate YA icon, daddy-o, but nobody talks like him anymore. YA dialect is also hugely influenced by subcultures—inner city versus suburban, skater doodz versus goths (we still have goths, right?) versus jocks—every little subculture has its own vernacular, and it’s your job to get it right. So treat dialogue as dialect, but do your research.

Attitudes. Not to paint with an overly-broad brush or anything, but let’s face it, there are definitely some recurring themes among the attitudes of young adults. Obviously not every young adult feels or acts the same, but these tropes are sufficiently well-grounded in reality that they’ll help with the believability of your characters. Your job is to portray them vividly, without being clichéd. Here are just a few of them.

Separating from parents. The YA years are when kids experiment with independence, and intentionally create distance from their parents. Having had their entire lives defined by dependence on parents, kids are often eager for a change. This is why moms who may have been best friends with their daughters may suddenly find that the daughter no longer wants to hang out with mom on the weekends to shop or go to a movie.

Pushing boundaries. Young adults rebel against externally imposed boundaries. Be home by ten? No way, you can’t control me! This is kids experimenting to find out how far they can go, what they can get away with, motivated by a desire to set their own rules. And can you blame them? If somebody had been telling me what I could and couldn’t do for 13, 14, or 15 years, I’d be fed up with it too.

Frustration. I wish I had a more specific, pithy tag for this one but I don’t. Follow me here. Kids have been growing up, from birth to the YA years, undergoing an enormous character arc. They’ve learned so much, they’ve grown so much, they’ve changed so much they’re hardly the same person anymore. And they know it. They’ve experienced an overwhelming inner character arc, resulting in a new view of themselves. Where they had previously viewed themselves as generally incapable and dependent on others, they can now see their capabilities, and have a newfound belief in their own ability to be independent. They feel like adults, even though they aren’t fully there yet.

Actual adults know this; these kids’ parents and teachers know full well that the chicks aren’t quite ready to leave the nest. So there’s a mismatch, as the kids feel like adults but nobody treats them that way. Result: frustration, and all the emotions that come with it. This is a big topic, and for more on the difference between inner and outer character arcs, I’d encourage you to read this article from last October.

Know-it-all syndrome. In the YA years, kids finally start to get a clue about life and how life works. The world stops being quite so confusing. When that happens, illusory superiority sets in: kids misinterpret having a clue about life as being an expert about life. Result? You can’t tell ‘em anything. They’re convinced they already know. It’s a problem, because often they don’t already know yet they reject information and advice from adults because they’re over-estimating their own expertise at this whole life thing.

Power struggles and bad choices. Young adults will vigorously fight to get their own way, even if their way looks dumb to a more experienced adult, simply because they are desperate to be in control of their own lives. Thus, the ability to make any choice at all, about anything, often takes on significance out of proportion to the choice itself. This is one of the most dangerous aspects of the YA years, because kids will often make bad choices—ones they know to be bad—simply because they can. Because it’s a choice they can make, that they know their parents can’t stop them from making. It’s all about being in control.

Trying on new identities. This is a big one, too. Young adults are becoming aware that there’s a whole range of options for what kind of person they could be. They’re cluing in to white collar / blue collar class and professional distinctions, to the variety of careers, modes of dress, subcultures, et cetera that they could potentially belong to. Life’s whole palette is becoming visible to them, and while it’s exciting as hell, they don’t yet know which of those choices is right for them.

So they experiment. They try out different personas, different political and spiritual attitudes. They may begin to champion a social cause, such as suddenly declaring “meat is murder!” and going hard-core vegan. They may join and leave a variety of cliques at school. Experiment with being straight, gay, or bisexual. Come home from school with their hair suddenly dyed blue. The variety here is endless, but if you’re looking to show a teen who can’t yet answer the question “who am I?” this is a great way to go.

Steal from your own life. We were all kids once. Not to discount the few gifted teenage novelists out there or anything, but most of us writers are well past the YA years ourselves, which gives us an edge. We’ve been there. We’ve lived through it. We can look back on our own youths with a much different perspective, and by all rights this ought to give us some good insights into how to write YA characters.

If ever there were an excuse to “write what you know", this is it. Just look back on your own youth. Try to remember how it felt. What struggles you faced. What made you really mad. What giant arguments you had with your parents. Think about them, and try to figure out why those things happened. Maybe they happened for some of the reasons I’ve discussed here, or maybe for other reasons entirely. When you figure it out, I promise you a little light will go on in your head for how you can apply that to your own YA characters.

May 28, 2010 17:32 UTC

Tags: character, young-adult, dialect, slang, attitude, inner character arc, power, choice, identity

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How to revise your characters attitudes

This is part 5 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. So far in this series we’ve covered most of the superficial and mid-level aspects of your character, their dialogue, their mannerisms, and their bodies.

Today, we’re moving deeper to talk about attitudes: the opinions and beliefs your characters hold that shape the choices they make and the way they interact with other people.

There are three important goals you should strive for when revising attitudes: One, creating complexity. Do your characters hold complex views about life, just like real people? This is the time to take one-dimensional characters and flesh them out into believable human beings. Two, ensuring consistency. Real people’s attitudes tend to cluster into well established groups according to social, cultural, economic, political, and religious lines. This is the time to make sure that your characters’ beliefs fit together into a unified whole. Three, differentiating characters from one another both to create drama and believability in the whole work. After all, no two people hold the same attitudes about everything, and those differences are the source of much excellent drama.

Consider the individual

The first two goals, complexity and consistency, are ones you can tackle by considering your characters one at a time.

If you’re the sort of writer who does extensive character development before writing the book, you likely already have copious notes about what everyone in your book believes. Review these notes and make sure that your characters don’t sound like one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Especially if you have used shortcuts like “slick used car salesman” to create a quick mental picture of a character, now is the time to dig deeper. Sure, maybe your used car salesman will do or say anything to close the deal, but ask yourself, is that really true? Would he really sell a lemon to a single mother who he knows won’t be able to afford the car’s inevitable repair bills? Does he consider all customers equally, or is he biased against low-income or minority buyers who walk onto his lot? It’s all up to you, but ask yourself whether particular answers to questions like that will give you opportunities to align or clash with other characters.

If you didn’t do any particular character development , that’s ok too. This is a great occasion to discover your characters’ beliefs by interviewing them. Browse around online to find one of those “lists of 100 questions to answer about your characters” that pop up on so many writing websites. Find one you like, and write a scene at a cafe or something where you, the author, literally have a conversation with the character. Now that you’ve finished the novel, you probably have a gut feel for the character’s attitudes even if you can’t name them specifically. Conducting an interview is a great way to discover the specifics behind that gut feel. Again, look at the results and ask whether they are complex enough, and whether there are opportunities for change that will create drama later.

Whichever method you used, consider whether any of a character’s attitudes clash with the rest of what that person feels and believes. Are any particular beliefs against-type for the character’s social, ethnic, or economic background? If not, that’s fine. If so you can either change it to enhance that character’s portrayal as a representative of their background, or leave the clash but work to find a justification for it.

For example, if you have a teenager who is a devout fundamentalist Christian but who also believes that pre-marital sex is ok, you’ve got a clash. You can make the character fall in line with his peers, or else come up with a reason for it. Maybe he was himself the product of a pre-marital affair. He knows he wouldn’t exist without pre-marital sex. On a certain level, he owes his life to it. And since he can also feel God’s love personally in how own life regardless of his parents’ marital status, he has trouble getting too worked up about that particular issue.

Consistency in attitudes should also apply across the whole book, except to the degree that the character grows or changes over the course of the book. The overall character arc (which I’ll cover at the end of this series) may well be structured around changing one or more of a character’s attitudes through the events of the plot. That’s a good thing, but that’s something I’ll cover more in the next installment.

Consider the cast

Before you go jumping into your manuscript to adjust all your individual characters, spend some time considering the attitudes of your cast as a whole. In this, you are looking for ways to heighten the drama, create opportunities for conflict and obstacles, and create the sort of moral ambiguity that so often occurs in real life.

Allies. Look at who in your book is allied with who else, and find ways to differentiate their attitudes from one another. This is a great way to create internal tension within the group. If you can do this for one or more beliefs which guide the group’s decision at key points in the book, you also immediately elevate the drama surrounding those decisions. Will the group go one person’s way, or another’s, or will the group split up? You can have some great arguments and confrontations around what the best thing to do is, when allied characters differ in their core beliefs.

Adversaries. The other way to do is to look at pairs of characters who are adversaries, and find ways to give them similar attitudes to each other. You can leave your protagonists with some terribly difficult decisions to make if they discover that they are not so very different from their antagonists. It can also work tremendously well to give adversaries the same core belief, but have them interpret it in radically different ways.

You might, for example, have adversaries who were once allies in the environmental movement, except one of them decided that the best way to fight climate change is to promote renewable energy while the other decided that the best way was mass murder. One is attacking the supply-side of the energy economy, while the other is attacking the demand side. Literally. If the FBI calls your hero to help stop the eco-terrorist before he wipes Los Angeles off the map, your hero may have some tricky moral questions to resolve: yes, murder is wrong, but climate change itself stands to kill a lot more people so maybe the villain’s brutally expedient strategy isn’t so wrong in the big picture. At any rate, the hero can certainly empathize with the villain’s point of view, which can give you some great drama.

You can mix-and-match those strategies, of course, but even when applied exactly as I’ve described they both work just fine.

Conclusion

Attitudes and beliefs start to get into who your characters are on a deep, personal level. I don’t encourage you to change their attitudes willy-nilly. Be thoughtful about it. But undeniably, conflicts and unexpected alignments in attitudes are both opportunities for strengthening your characters and your plot at the same time. So many novels suffer from flat characterization and the dreaded “sagging middle.” Making strategic choices about your characters attitudes and beliefs offers you the opportunity to fix both at the same time.

< Back to part 4: physical attributes | Next: part 6, character arcs >

December 09, 2009 00:03 UTC

Tags: character, revision, attitude, beliefs, protagonists, antagonists, multi-dimensional

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Don't forget to revise your characters too

To everyone who completed NaNoWriMo, and to everyone who has finished a manuscript in any timeframe, congratulations!

Now begins revision, strengthening the parts of your book you weren’t happy with when you wrote them, or that readers have told you don’t work very well. But as you revise your story’s weak plot points, as you iron out geographic inconsistencies in street names, historical details of clothing and social customs, don’t forget to revise your characters, too.

Plots are important, sure, but the heart of any story is its characters. They deserve to be every bit as polished and well-crafted as your plot. There are plenty of great writing blogs with advice on fixing plot issues, building tension, raising the stakes, and all of that. I won’t cover any of that.

Instead, this article is the first in series on techniques for strengthening your characters during revision. Over the next several days, I’ll cover these areas where revision can greatly improve your characters:

Dialogue

I’ve said it before on this blog, but dialogue is a marvelously powerful tool for exhibiting your characters’ inner workings to the reader. But with that power comes danger: get the dialogue wrong, and the characters fall flat. In revision, your goal is to create consistent, distinctive voices for each character. Each character should be immediately recognizable through the way they speak. What they say and how they say it should reveal a lot about them. Click here to read how to revise your dialogue

Mannerisms

I touched on these a little bit in an earlier article about habits. Much as with dialogue, mannerisms are also wonderful windows into your characters’ souls. In revision, your goal is to display consistent patterns of mannerisms, but also to find ways to use those behaviors to display your characters’ mental states. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ mannerisms

Physical attributes

This isn’t an area I have covered in much depth on this blog—not yet, anyway—except possibly for this article about stealing a character’s shoes. I apologize for that; it would be helpful to have some good background reading to point you at before talking about revision techniques, but it’ll have to wait. Suffice it to say that a character’s mind and body come in a single package, and I’ll be talking about ways to link physical traits to the attitudes you need the character to have as well as to the personal growth they may undergo. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ physical attributes

Attitudes

Attitudes—our complete sets of opinions, beliefs, prejudices, and values—govern how we interact with others and guide the choices we make in any given situation. The same is true for your characters. In this installment, I’ll be covering ways to ensure that your characters’ attitudes are as complex as a real person’s (not cardboard-cutout characters), as well as strategies for using the attitudes of individual characters and your whole cast to enhance the drama in your story. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ attitudes

Personal growth

Last of all is the big one: character arc. Mainstream thrillers can, and often do, get away with plots in which the protagonists don’t learn and grow at all over the course of the book. They leave the final chapter no wiser about life or about themselves than they were on page one. That’s an enormous missed opportunity to elevate a book from merely entertaining to moving and meaningful. You may still elect to have a laser-straight character arc in your book, but I at least aim to give you some tools you can use to put some juicy bends in that arc. Click here to read how to revise your character arcs

Conclusion

Don’t think of these as four discrete items to add to your must-fix-in-editing list. They don’t work in pure isolation from each other. Physical attributes, for example, can have a bearing on a character’s mannerisms and attitudes. Rather, treat these areas and the techniques I’ll be covering as a mental framework for evaluating your characters, for teaching yourself how to see what needs to be fixed. Expect to go back and forth with them, moving from one area to another as you see opportunities where they can build on one another.

I hope you’ll stay tuned to the rest of this series, in which I’ll give you practical, in-depth and hands-on tips for addressing those four areas. If you apply them diligently, then when you are done revising you will have characters who are every bit the equal of your plot.

Next: Part 2, how to revise your dialogue >

December 02, 2009 19:14 UTC

Tags: character, revision, dialogue, mannerisms, attitude, physical attributes, character arc

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How to show character through dialogue

A long time ago, I wrote a pair of articles about dialogue: one about the importance of realistic dialogue, and one with techniques for creating distinctive dialogue. This, then, is part three: techniques for revealing details about your character through dialogue.

Dialogue is all about nuance. After all, there are almost limitless ways to say any particular thing you want to say, but each one carries its own flavor. Showing character through dialogue is all about being sensitive to the nuances of these different flavors, and picking the one that best matches the traits of the character saying the line.

Consider, just for example, the difference between “Would you mind fixing me a ham sandwich?” and “I’d like a ham sandwich,” and even “fix me a ham sandwich.”

Attitude towards others

Speaking of ham sandwiches, that example shows clearly some differences in attitude towards others. Respect versus disrespect. The part to clue in on is the grammatical nature of the sentence. The question is the most respectful. It gives the listener the opportunity, at least on the surface, to say no. It expresses the speaker’s wishes without being too pushy about it. The simple declarative sentence is pretty neutral. Context would indicate whether it’s a request or just a wish. The imperative sentence, a literal command, is the least respectful as it leaves no linguistic room for the listener to say no. It attempts to impose the speaker’s will on the listener.

When attempting to convey nuances of respect or disrespect, look to questions, statements, and commands as your tools. And remember, respect and disrespect factor into all sorts of personality traits. For example, simple arrogance—a character who always feels he knows better than everyone else—can manifest as a tendency towards issuing commands rather than stating his opinions declaratively. He would say “You don’t want to do that,” rather than “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Command versus declaration.

This is also a useful tool for underscoring relationships between characters where there is a difference in social power. For example, an employee/boss relationship, a soldier/commander relationship, et cetera. The person in the higher position of power can get away with using the less respectful forms, while the person in the lower position will tend towards the more respectful forms. And if you have a character intentionally break the pattern, watch the sparks fly: Employees and soldiers don’t issue commands to their bosses and those of higher rank.

Mood

Dialogue is a wonderful way of showing moods and emotional states. The underlying axis here is not respect-to-disrespect, but rather, calmness-to-agitation. And the tool for revealing it is grammatical correctness.

A character who is calm and collected will naturally speak in sentences that are more complete and more correct than one who is agitated. When a character totally freaks out, it’s natural for them to stutter and splutter, speak in sentence fragments, re-start sentences or switch to a new sentence half-way through the old one, and generally exhibit all manner of verbal tics.

This is not to say that a calm character should always speak in flawless King’s English. No. Of course real people speak in ways that are very different than written English, even when they’re calm. But the more agitated someone is, the farther they tend to stray from the strict rules of grammar.

Personality

Another core character trait that dialogue excels at showing is the scale from introversion to extroversion. Is the character shy or outgoing? Cool towards others, or engaging and warm? The tool for doing this is simple word count: Expansiveness versus brevity.

Shy people don’t tend to talk as much. When they do, they choose their words carefully. Outgoing people tend to talk more. They’re more likely to gab, to expand on a thought with tangents and side-thoughts, and so forth.

Let’s say a patron walks into a library and asks where to find a book on Detroit muscle cars of the 1950s. One librarian says “Those are in the 629s,” and points you towards a particular shelf. Another librarian, given the same question, says “Oh, yes! All the stuff about cars is in the 629s. Here, let me show you.” She comes out from behind her desk to lead you to the right shelf.

One is all business, she says the minimum necessary to end the conversation. The other is happy and personable, and attempts to make a connection with the patron. Nobody expects the conversation to end with an invitation to a weekend bar-b-que or anything, but still, she’s striving in that brief encounter to make a relationship. As a reader, you’re perfectly entitled to conclude that one is more shy and the other more outgoing.

Going further

Those are just three character attributes you can play with. But you can take this technique much further. Most personality traits have an opposite. That is, there’s a spectrum for that attribute, just as with the three I’ve covered here. Greedy is the opposite of generous. Kind is the opposite of cruel. There’s always an opposite, which means there’s a spectrum.

Take that ham sandwich line—or the particular line you’re struggling with—and ask yourself how someone from each end of the spectrum would say the line. For example, the greedy person would say “where’s my ham sandwich,” the use of possessive grammar indicating a focus on what belongs to him. The generous person might not ask at all, but might instead suggest a trade, “Boy, I’d give you the keys to my car for a ham sandwich right about now.”

Those are extremes, but considering the extremes can be very instructive. Once you have a handle on the spectrum you’re working with, you’ll have a better sense for where to pitch your specific character’s line of dialogue.

November 20, 2009 21:05 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, attitude, respect, mood, personality, introverted, extroverted

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