I hadn’t realized until I saw this interview on the CBS Sunday Morning show that The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was turning 50 this year. I learned some of my first writing lessons from reading that book. In fact, I learned them so long ago that I’d forgotten where the lessons came from.
At twelve, I began reading adult books, skipping YA books completely. Until I was sixteen. Late one night, I caught the end to the 1983 movie The Outsiders. It hooked me. The cute actors in all the lead roles probably helped. But the characters and storyline are what drove me to read and reread the book.
In high school, I felt like an outsider in a gang of one, so I identified with the main character Ponyboy Curtis. I wished I had a gang of tight friends like Ponyboy. I was also aware the haves and have-nots in my town and found the battles between the rich Socs and the poor Greasers relatable.
My very first novel was based on the concept of rich kids fighting poor kids in a small town. My current novel The Truth and Other Strangers is about outsiders who are poor, but they are a family instead of a gang of friends, and they are outcasts because of their family’s bad reputation, not their social status. So I owe Ms. Hinton a big thank-you for providing me with such long-lived inspiration.
Two other things I learned from The Outsiders:
Make your characters distinct. S.E. Hinton did a great job of giving Ponyboy and his brothers and friends specific qualities: Ponyboy is the dreamy intellectual, his brother Sodapop is carefree and fun-loving, Dallas is the tough guy, Johnny is the scared one everyone tries to protect. She also gives most of the characters a chance to grow. Dallas isn’t as tough as he seems or even thinks he is. Johnny displays bravery. Sodapop isn’t as as carefree as Ponyboy thought.
Since my main character belongs to a large family, I try to give each relative a distinctive personality, even the preschoolers.
Give your characters strong relationships. I came to care about Ponyboy and his gang because of the relationships within it. And not just with the main character, although Ponyboy’s relationships are more prominent because he tells the story. All the dynamic interactions between characters propel the plot.
I love to write interactions between my characters. Because I have given them strong personalities, relationships can develop that I haven’t planned but they make sense, given who the characters are.
I read other YA books by Ms. Hinton, but I never fell in love with them like I did The Outsiders. They were fine books, but they didn’t hook me.
I haven’t visited Ponyboy in years. Maybe it’s time I did.
Here is an interview with S.E. Hinton.