Developing Your Protagonist for YA Fiction, by Lori Ann Palma

In the YA section of your bookstore or online haven, you’ll find fiction featuring a wide expanse of characters. Sun summoner—check. British secret agent—check. Cyborg. Check.

While the majority of today’s YA books feature a teenage protagonist, age is about the only rule for developing your lead. As Chuck Wendig said in response to a comment on a recent blog post, “YA is a little more Wild Westy in terms of what you can get away with…”

YA is a highly competitive market, and while a great imagination breeds fantastic settings and plot ideas, you need characters to create the action. Specifically, a protagonist  who has a heartbeat and a voice and feels human on the page (even if they aren’t technically human; see cyborg above). Whether you’re writing a contemporary romance or a fantasy on the high seas of a mythical planet, your protagonist has to feel real, and let’s face it, that will keep you up at night, staring at the ceiling.


Below are some tips to help you use that non-sleeping time to develop great characters:

  1. Houston, We Have a Problem. Your character needs something. A desire. A goal. And they don’t just need it. They NEED it. They will chew their own arm off to get it. If your character doesn’t have a problem that causes them agony, then keep digging for something that will truly torture them. The dirty secret is that we want to watch them struggle, and if the struggle is boring, we’ll put the book down. Your protagonist’s desire or goal doesn’t have to be actual life or death, but it must feel that way to them. Without a problem, there is nothing for your character to do but walk around aimlessly in circles, and that doesn’t make for exciting reading.
  2. I Can Fix It. The reason your protagonist’s problem has to be compelling is because we’re going to spend the next 200 to 300 pages watching them try to fix it. It’s human nature to identify what ails us and find a solution. As a writer, this is where you have to separate yourself. This is not your problem; you are not your protagonist. You might find the most rationale way of dealing with the same problem, but it’s not about you. It’s them. While you might take a surgical approach, they might swing a meat cleaver. Which sounds more interesting? I’ll go with the meat cleaver. And the reason they decide to attack their problem in the way they do is because of…
  3. Motivation. Your protagonist have a problem. A biggie. So, what keeps them from throwing their hands up and sitting in a corner to cry? Answer: The motivation to keep going, despite all odds. No matter how your protagonist decides to solve their problem, they have to do it because an external or internal force is making them. An external force is something physical—that jerk will get away, I’ll be suspended from school for a week and get in trouble with Mom. Internal forces are fear-based. Fear of anything is a great motivator—try to find someone in the world who doesn’t react to fear. As you set up your protagonist’s problem, their solution, and the reason why they must achieve a solution, remember that…
  4. It’s Complicated. Characters have to be convincing, and by convincing, I mean complicated. They are flawed, they have quirks, they have weird obsessions. They have contrasting traits, such as a girl with an outgoing personality and a devious, secretive side. These things make your character complex. They also typically make their life more difficult. Think of a person in your life that you spend a lot of time gossiping about. You follow this person’s life events because you can’t believe the choices they’ve made. Rebels are entertaining because they make mistakes and they never do what you think they should do. While exasperating, you keep in contact with them because you want to know what’s going to happen next. Keep this in mind as you develop your protagonist. They should be someone you want to know about. And this leads us to:
  5. Conflict. The conflict arises from your protagonist’s desperate attempts to solve their problem. Let’s break it down: As soon as your lead character has a problem, they feel fear (an internal motivator) and conjure a perceived negative outcome (an external motivator). To mitigate the problem, they react, generating a solution. This attempt at enforcing the solution creates another problem—more conflict. They react again—even more conflict. They keep trying to solve the problem, using motivation to fuel them beyond the obstacles working against them. As a writer, it’s your job to snatch the solution a little further away every time your protagonist gets too close.
  6.  Lastly, great characters take time to develop, so get comfortable in your writing space. I visualize writing a book as a process of layers. Your first draft will not fully capture your character, but as you revise, you begin to see them, to understand their motivations with more finesse. You can add in quirks and limitations that increase the conflict and create tension.

As an exercise, take your favorite YA novel, or one that is in the same genre as your work in progress, and write a few sentences about the protagonist using the following prompts:

  • What is their problem?
  • Their solution?
  • Their motivation to obtain a solution, including internal and external motivators?
  • What traits make them complex (and either help or hurt their quest to solve their problem)?
  • What conflicts arise because he or she tries to solve their problem?

At the end of this writing exercise, you’ll have a rough road map of the character (and also how the protagonist’s choices influence the plot). Once you see an example, you can begin to develop your own character road map and define the elements that create a living, breathing protagonist. Good luck!

What strategies have you found are helpful to developing characters? Is the process different to develop YA characters versus adult characters?

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