Creating Believable Middle Grade and Young Adult Characters

This article, by Laura Backes, is a cross-posting of a piece which appeared on The CBI Clubhouse on 5/19/09.

How to reach older readers with characters that are believable, bold and memorable.

When you search for a novel to read, do you hope to find a story about someone exactly like yourself? That first glimmer of recognition might be intriguing, but after several pages you’d probably get bored. Adults read for entertainment, escape, and to get glimpses of lives different from their own. If the main character is too ordinary or familiar, the story won’t hold any surprises. You already know how it ends.

Middle grade and young adult readers are no different. They want to identify strongly with the characters in their books, and understand those characters’ problems. But they also need the characters to be a bit bigger, braver, or smarter than themselves. The problems must be more dramatic than the readers’ own, the stakes higher. Tension builds when protagonists act more impulsively, foolhardy or selfishly than the reader would ever do. Novels for older readers portray a magnified version of real life.

Even though the characters and their situations might be drawn more sharply in fiction than in reality, they still have to be believable. The reader must be certain that these people could actually exist. The protagonist, however troubled, must be sympathetic enough for the reader to care about his or her problems. Including underlying universal themes of adolescence connects the reader on an emotional level.

Consider Lucy the Giant, a young adult novel by Sherri L. Smith. At over six feet tall, Lucy is literally bigger than her peers. Her size is in sharp contrast to the small Alaskan town where she lives. Lucy’s greatest desire is to fit in, a yearning familiar to most readers. One day, tired of dragging her alcoholic father home from the bars at night and enduring the taunts of her classmates and pitying glances from adults in town, Lucy runs away to Kodiak Island. Mistaken for an adult, she gets a job on a crabbing boat, where Lucy finds adventure, a family of sorts, and even has a near-death experience that teaches her running away from problems is never the answer.

It’s unusual for an adventure story to feature a female protagonist, but virtually every teen will recognize part of him or herself in Lucy. Lucy’s mother abandoned her at age seven, and Lucy spends much of the book blaming her parents for her problems. This is understandable, but what makes Lucy more resilient than an average teen is that she decides to take responsibility for her own life. At age 15, Lucy–already incredibly brave, physically strong, and carrying heavy emotional baggage–grows up.

It’s this “growing up” that marks a young adult character. They enter the story from the world of adolescence, and emerge with tools they’ll carry into adulthood. Though the reader might not make that journey as quickly or completely, he or she need examples of teens who did. If 13-year-old Brian Robeson from Hatchet by Gary Paulsen can survive by himself for 54 days on a remote island in the Canadian wilderness, then surely the reader can hope to survive junior high.

Middle grade readers also love characters who face situations that are more dramatic than their own. These characters learn lessons about life or how the world works, but in the end are still content to remain adolescents for a few more years. In middle grade books, the characters who often unwittingly provide the drama simply by being themselves.

Polly Horvath is a master at creating quirky, complex, funny characters who spin the plot in a new direction simply by entering a scene. Horvath pays special attention to the adults who inhabit the worlds of her child characters (The Trolls and Everything on a Waffle are my two favorites). Richard Peck does the same thing in his award-winning historical novels A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder. Both authors have created child viewpoint characters who are dealing with everything from surviving a summer visit with Grandma to waiting for Mom and Dad to show up after their boats were lost at sea. But the stories get their sparks from larger-than-life adult characters. The humor, and the deeper meanings of these books, comes from the children gaining deeper understanding of the eccentric adults in their lives.

When you’re developing characters for your middle grade or young adult novel, start with qualities readers will see in themselves. Then raise the stakes and see how your character reacts. Make her six feet tall. Strand a boy with no wilderness experience on an island with nothing but a hatchet. Send some city kids to spend two weeks in a small town with a crotchety grandmother. Shake up an ordinary family by dropping in an aunt from another country who spins tall tales that just might be true. Go just beyond your own experience, and that of your readers, and think big.



CBI Publisher Laura Backes has experience as an editor and literary agent, and has been published herself by Random House, Writer’s Digest and The Writer, among many others. She was Technical Editor of Writing Children’s Books for Dummies and is the co-founder of the acclaimed Children’s Author’s Bootcamp workshops.

 The CBI Clubhouse is the online home for Children’s Book Insider readers and the ultimate learning & sharing spot for children’s writers, packed with articles, audio, video and fellowship with writers worldwide.