Some Thoughts on YA Characters

I’ve been reading a steady flow of draft manuscripts from serious YA/MG writers, both through my critique group on in on-line critique sites. I’ve also been reading through the 2013 Printz Award finalists, which is the most prestigious award for books designated for teens.

One of my observations is that the acclaimed books have either an extraordinary main character in ordinary circumstances, a somewhat ordinary chactacter thrown into extraordinary circumstances, or the jackpot — an extraordinary character in extraordinary circumstances. Take this year’s Printz winner, In Darkness. Without providing any spoilers, the main charcacter (MC) is a cold-blooded teenage gang banger who specializes in assasinations who happens to be narrating while trapped under tons of rubble in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He also has some sort of magical  realistic connection with Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the 1790s slave revolution. Double whammy for sure on this one. How about my favorite (so far) of the finalists: The White Bicycle. Narrated by a girl with severe Aspergers who can’t detect facial clues (or even recognize faces), and who is confused by the simplest non-literal expression such as “why don’t you sit on that for awhile.” But why not take the character far from her home in Canada? Say France. Giant whammy paired with a little whammy.

More commonly in the manuscripts I read in draft, the writer seems hesitant to take their character’s circumstances or personal attributes to the extreme. The character has a missing parent, but the pain is remote and obscure. Or the MC lives only in relative poverty (certainly not by Haitian standards). Or the circumstances are somewhat trying — Mom is dating a bad guy, a boyfriend is dabbling in drugs, kids at school are teasing.

Take a lesson from Hollywood. I recently was revisiting that beyond-reason story of thwarted genius, Good Will Hunting. The Matt Damon character is a good example of the kind of hurt the average YA writer seems to shy from. He not only gets in fights, he’s being arraigned for assault and looking at jail time. He not only comes from poverty, his father lays out a wrench, a stick and a belt and tells the little Matt to pick one for his beating. He’s  not only smart, he’s perhaps the brightest human being since Leonardo da Vinci. Probably smarter, actually, if you listen to the preposterous scene in the bar where he puts down a pompous Harvard student by citing chapter, verse and page of the obscure history book the Harvard boy is citing from as if it is an original thought. He solves overnight a problem that the MIT Fields Award winning prof has spend two years working on. You get the drift. Take an interesting idea (impoverished, thwarted smart kid) and exaggerate it to the point of unbelievability. You’ve got a hit!

So if you’re looking to break out from the crowd, it might be worth asking: is my MC extraordinary? Are the circumstances also extraordinary? Shoot for a least one big whammy and one smaller one.


By Lawrence Tabak

Lawrence Tabak is a widely published magazine writer who is currently focused on writing fiction for young adults. He is the father of two boys. He has worked as a tennis teaching professional, a executive at the United States Tennis Association, and in corporate communications postions in the financial services industry. His essays and feature stories have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including the in-flight magazines for TWA, United, American and Continental; Fast Company, Tennis Magazine,, and The Atlantic Monthly.

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