Literature for adolescent readers lives and dies on the strength and development of its characters. As authors of middle grade and young adult novels, we must create deep, rich characters young readers want to follow down the river Styx, through nightmarish simulations, and onto the cancer ward. Young readers cling to the characters in the stories they love, growing right along with them as if they were close friends or even extensions of themselves. The best-developed characters are ones the readers not only want to be, but believe they can be.
But how do we create characters to which our readers can actually relate? Very few adolescent readers are cancer survivors or have facial deformities that can scare the neighbor’s cat. Even fewer have survived plane crashes or are locked into their futures at the age of thirteen (though they sometimes may feel that way). And how many adolescent readers are the offspring of Muggle-born witches or the illegitimate children of Greek Gods? One or two—tops.
So before we can pit our characters in death matches or drop them into revolutions against mind-controlling serums, we have to make them real and relatable to our readers. We have to ground them in some of the same mundane, everyday problems and issues our readers deal with. Our characters are not the handsome, gregarious captains of the football team with 4.0 GPAs. They are not the gorgeous student body presidents with friends coming out of the woodwork. Adolescent readers don’t want to read about heroes who are better than them at everything in the real world AND get to lead revolutions against dictatorial governments. How differently would young readers have responded to Cedric Diggory, with all his strength, popularity, and handsomeness, being the title character in the Harry Potter series?
No, to connect to our readers, our characters have to suffer from ADHD and duck bullies and tormentors before they become heroes. They have to come from broken homes and worry their friends will find out their mothers are alcoholics. They are the overlooked younger siblings of the afore mentioned captains of the football team who can’t even throw. Our characters must fear. Not the obvious, tangible fears our epic plots put them through. They can fight cancer, dementors, death matches, lotteries, and revolutions to our hearts’ desire…but first they have to fear the real things, too, just like real kids.
So what do adolescents fear in the real world? They fear their parents getting divorced and their dads’ new girlfriends. They worry about their grades, making the basketball team, and the volcano-sized pimples on the tips of their noses. They’re afraid that their boyfriends will want to have sex before they are ready and that their friends are going to pressure them to drink or do drugs. Above all, real kids fear being outed as different and inadequate. They think their pubescent voices are the only ones cracking and they’re embarrassed at the collection of five-thousand Pokémon cards that have been hidden under their beds since they were eight. Add to all these fears their incessant desire to make their own decisions and not be told what to do ALL THE TIME! Can you attribute any of these fears to the main characters in adolescent books you’ve recently read? Have you ever connected to a character’s fears of inadequacy?
Once you have developed your characters as real life, living and breathing adolescents with problems just like the rest of us, then the real fun can begin. Bring on the dragons, hexes, shipwrecks, or whatever epic plots you have in mind to put your heroes through their real trials. Your heroes can come of age within the context of plot and defeat the bad guys despite their own deficiencies, both realistic and contrived. If you do it well enough, you may be able to leave your young readers saying, “Hey, I have ____, too (fill in the blank: ADHD, idiot friends, a crazy uncle who’s trying to invent a time machine)! And I’m not going to let it get in my way, either.”
Wouldn’t it be great if, at the end of the day, we can say that we not only inspired and entertained a generation of readers with a compelling story, but that we tricked our readers into learning something about life and coming of age, too? That’s one of the most wonderful aspects about writing for children. They’re only at the beginning of their own stories and we get to fill their imaginations with limitless possibilities.
About Todd McClimans
Todd is an elementary school principal who lives in York, PA with his wife and three young children. His novel, American Epochs: Time Traitor, a middle grade sci-fi/historical novel about two sixth graders who go back in time to thwart a plot to derail the American Revolution, was a finalist for the 2013 NAESP Children’s Book of the Year Award. The second in the series, Time Underground, will be published by Northampton-House Press in June, 2015. Learn more about Todd at his website, www.timetraitor.com, and follow him on Twitter @todd_mcclimans.
A Writer's Tale
Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
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