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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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Character Corner: Annabel Scheme by Robin Sloan

Annabel Scheme

This is a book with a history that deserves some brief explanation, as it’s a great example of an author using social media technologies in an innovative way to both write and publish a book. You can read more on his website, but the short version is that Robin Sloan used the website Kickstarter both to raise money to support the writing of the book as well as to develop a pre-book-launch fan base and community around the book. This is brilliant, and at least in Sloan’s case, wildly successful.

It helps that Sloan is also a talented writer. Alas, no social media technology is going to help you with that. The book itself isn’t available at Barnes & Noble, but I don’t feel bad about reviewing it here because you can download it for yourself from Sloan’s website under a Creative Commons license.

The story itself is a funny, inventive adventure, a heady admixture of occult and cyberpunk themes. A strange combination, but Sloan makes it work. The result is what you might get if Neal Stephenson and Christopher Moore teamed up on a book. Sort of ”Snow Crash meets Practical Demonkeeping.” I give it two and a half stars; I’d give it more, but it has some weaknesses that drag it down.

The book includes a number of glosses over existing technology and brand names, with Sloan giving roman a clefs to icons such as Google and World of Warcraft. And I have to say, he uses those very smoothly. I recently read Libba Bray’s new book Going Bovine which does the same thing. In Bray’s case they felt forced, almost as though her publisher was afraid of actually mentioning Star Wars and other pop-culture trademarks by name. They were awkward enough to impact the story, and they made me wonder if her publisher made her do that. In Sloan’s case he obviously re-branded those icons on his own initiative, and he makes them work very well. They felt integral to Annabel Scheme in a way that the renamings in Going Bovine didn’t.

The book does have some shortcomings. One, it’s short. It’s properly a novella, not a full novel, which kind of sucked because it was enough fun that I wanted it to be longer. Two, the writing is quite rough around the edges. So rough in a couple of places that it pulled me out of the story. This is a book that needed an editor, but didn’t get one. [Full disclosure: I know this because I thought the project was so cool I offered to edit this book in exchange for a credit. But c’est la vie, that never happened.] However, despite the book’s shortcomings, the story and Sloan’s fast-paced style combine to overcome them and create a wildly entertaining result.

Still, this is Character Corner, so what about the book’s central actors?

Annabel Scheme

The book’s eponymous main character, Annabel Scheme, is a private investigator specializing in “digital and occult” investigations. Sloan uses the device of a secondary narrator character (see below) to keep the reader out of the main character’s head. This was a great choice because it helped build a deeper sense of mystery around the main character herself. We could be credibly surprised by her actions, because the narrator was also surprised by them.

Annabel Scheme definitely fits the Sherlock Holmes-ian model of an investigator as person with almost encyclopedic knowledge of all manner of things, with lots of skills and tricks of the trade that aren’t themselves magical but take on that aura to someone who has never been exposed to them before. Oh, and gadgets. She has a lot of very clever gadgets. It is a somewhat stereotyped concept for a private eye, but again, Sloan does a great job with it.

I have only two significant complaints about Scheme herself. First, she is perhaps too well connected. That is, she always knows who to go to for information, and they’re always happy to see her. She has extensive and very convenient history with some of the plot’s central figures. It’s fine to do that sort of thing here and there, but in this case it felt like too much to me. I felt like Sloan’s default choice when facing his protagonist with an obstacle or challenge was to reach into the grab-bag of “well, who can I have her be connected with that can tell her what she needs.”

It undermines her as a character because she isn’t so much overcoming obstacles herself as asking other people here and there to do it for her. There’s nothing wrong with bringing in other characters to help with things, but there’s a balance to it that I feel is missing here. It would have been nice, now and then, for one of her sources to stonewall her or something. Make her work harder for her victories.

My second complaint has to do with plausible motivation. There’s a point fairly early on in the book where one mystery is resolved, her client’s question has been answered, and the book by all rights and norms in the detective story game, ought to end. But, Scheme has this notion that something else is going on too, so she keeps investigating. Yes, that’s necessary for the plot to continue, but it had me scratching my head. Why is she doing this? At this point, nobody’s paying her. She’s diving headlong into various dangers, embroiling herself in some deep mire, for what reason?

You can’t read this book without concluding that Robin Sloan is a clever and very inventive guy. I know he could have come up with a genuine motivation for her to continue, or re-worked the original mystery to encompass the whole plot, but he didn’t, and it undermines both the character and the book.


Hugin-19, or simply Hu, is the book’s narrator. I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything by saying this, but Hu is a computer. You learn this in chapter 2. The picture Sloan paints, and that the reader works with, is very much like Hiro Protagonist’s AI sidekick from Snow Crash.

In that context, at many points Hu’s thoughts and attitudes felt overly human to me. His grasp of human emotion, intuitive leaps, and a variety of other things struck me as out of character.

However, there’s a twist in store about Hu, one I won’t reveal because that WOULD be a spoiler. The thing about this twist is that in many ways it retroactively justifies Hu’s overly-human thoughts and attitudes. It doesn’t leave the reader with the greatest feeling; it’s like I’ve gone through this whole book with this gripe about a central character, and then at the end I get this “oh, NOW you tell me?” moment.

I was immediately reminded of Justine Larbalestier’s book Liar, which includes a similar twist about the underlying nature of the narrator. However, in Liar’s case I didn’t wish I’d known the twist sooner.

They say you learn something from every book you read, and what I learned from the portrayal of Hu in Annabel Scheme is this: if you’re going to have some type of identity-based twist about a character, you need to construct that character’s thoughts, speech, attitudes, and actions in the pages before the twist is revealed very carefully. They must fit both with what the reader initially thinks about the character and with what the character actually turns out to be.

In Liar and Annabel Scheme alike, after the twist is revealed you can look back and say to yourself “oh, now I understand about why the character does such-and-such.” The difference is that in Liar, I wasn’t left feeling that those actions were out of character at the time they happened.

To Sum Up

Robin Sloan is a wickedly smart, inventive writer who will be great someday. He’s rough around the edges now (and I’m happy to make him that same offer on his next book), but he’ll get over that. He has a wonderful flair for inventive leaps that feel perfectly natural. I hope he continues writing in a similar cyber-punkish vein, because he has a great grasp on technology and what I feel are very incisive views on future-tech.

At the risk of dating myself, I am reminded of Max Headroom’s “20 minutes into the future” tagline, a feeling Sloan captures marvelously in this novella. And I cannot help but be amused to note that one of Max Headroom’s creator’s was also named Annabel.

All in all, despite its flaws I enjoyed Annabel Scheme immensely. Download it today and give it a read.

December 22, 2009 19:08 UTC

Tags: character corner, book review, Robin Sloan, Annabel Scheme, motivation, identity, twist

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