You’re deeply in love with your quirky, witty, somewhat grumpy teenage protagonist. You know their faults, flaws, and strengths by heart, as well as what kind of viscous liquid sugar they drizzle (or don’t) over their coffee. You’re endeared by their crabby sense of humor, their mood swings, and their impatience with grown-ups. In fact, to you, their resistance to the cult of adulthood and all its dull-eyed initiates seems heroic, even.
The problem is that we writers can lose perspective on when these teen characters might be just a tad too complainy. Or hyperbolic. Or dare I say, entirely off-putting?
Writing a compelling young adult protagonist is, like so many other aspects of authorship, largely about voice and characterization. Agents will tell you that when considering a middle grade (MG) or young adult (YA) work, they’re particularly looking at voice. If you’re writing YA, you likely understand that the age range of your intended audience is narrow. If your hero is sixteen, then the readership is likely those avidly-reading twelve-year-olds bored by MG up through sixteen-year-old readers. That number declines sharply afterward; most eighteen-year-olds won’t pick up your book unless you’re writing about Hobbits, bespectacled wizards, or battle royals. So your protagonist’s struggle, perspective, and voice must also appeal to this narrow intended audience. Here are a few considerations.
Crankiness and sarcasm do not equal “voice.”
Your teen hero must have more going for them than snarky comments or a grudge with the world. Make sure readers could pick your protagonist’s voice out of a crowd of teens huddled around a Starbucks table. I’ve read dozens of YA chapters written by college students in the sixteen to twenty-year range, and sure, their heroes are often sarcastic, but sarcasm isn’t a definitive personality trait. It’s more like the diction of teenagehood.
Tip: Imagine your hero really is sitting at a café with four friends and discussing a video. How would we know which character is yours without speech tags? Which traits, mannerisms, and motivations would show through in their speech? If you know, great. Make sure you’ve layered those into your scenes, especially the early ones. If you’re not sure, there’s an activity to try below.
Don’t assume that conflict equals character.
So often, we set teens in the worst, apocalyptic, dramatic, larger-than-life moments ever, and to be fair, that’s what adolescence already feels like, so no wonder they’re grumpy. But make sure the opening pages don’t sacrifice character for action. Hook the reader on your teen’s personality immediately. All teens are struggling to figure out who they are, and we adults know that’s a noble and life-long quest. But who is your hero besides this basic struggle, and how are you demonstrating that to readers?
Tip: Make a quick list. Can you name 3-5 adjectives that describe your character but aren’t dependent upon their mood, conflict, or demographics?
Make sure your teenage hero has hope.
Hope is one of the most endearing qualities of children’s literature. It’s absolutely okay to allow your teen characters to express frustration with adults, the adult world, the ridiculousness of society, and even the lack of good coffee. Teens get that the world is hyperbolic, scary, and difficult to navigate. But teens are also idealistic, and we all know, as survivors of adolescence, that resilience is required.
Find beta readers in the target age range.
No matter how well-read your adult critique group mates or friends are, if they are not truly interested in and familiar with YA, they won’t provide savvy feedback on YA voice. Instead they’ll nostalgically compare your novel to the slow-paced (and beautiful) L’Engle series that taught them what a tesseract was, or to a Judy Blume “hot topic” that’s now tame in comparison to modern MG and YA. Worse yet, they might compare it to the few YA books they’ve read this decade (and we’re back to the Hobbits, wizards, and arena contestants). You need teen readers who can alert you when your hero’s voice doesn’t ring true. Consider an Instagram/#bookstagram presence, read regularly on Wattpad, or tool around on Epic Reads.
However, and I learned this the hard way in my most recent novel, the approval of an adult reader or two makes for a good litmus test. If they find your character unbearably annoying, you might want to tone down the grouchiness.
And now the promised exercise: You and your hero are stranded on a desert island. Imagine all the normal hijinks that ensue (coconut phones, failed escape attempts, friendly salamanders, unfriendly spiders, perhaps even an aging, drunken pirate who visits occasionally from a nearby rocky outcrop). Now imagine you’ve been rescued a year later. When you’re back in your normal life, what would you miss about your young comrade? Make a list. Give specifics. What endeared you? How did they grow? What will you look forward to for the yearly castaway reunion? Great! Now make sure your reader is as endeared to your protagonist as you are!
Remember, your teen hero can be occasionally annoyed, and occasionally annoying — as long as they’re worth being stranded on a desert island with!