Creating the YA protagonist is the most important part when it comes to writing a YA story. If your protagonist doesn’t appeal to your audience, nothing else in the story will matter. So how do you create a protagonist that teens will want to get to know from page 1 until the end? From my writing and reading, I think the key ingredients are giving the protagonist characteristics that make them likable and relatable as well as vulnerable.
Your YA protagonist should be someone teen readers want to spend time with. What qualities could your main character possess that would attract teen readers? Reread stories you liked as a teen and take notes. What appealed to you about these teen characters way back when? Was it their sense of humor? Their loyalty to friends? Their bravery? If you don’t remember, read current teen books and make notes about what you like and don’t like about the main characters.
When creating the YA protagonist, you have to make him or her relatable, even if your character is a Plutonian with X-ray eyes, or a page to a medieval knight, or was raised on the run by a father, who is wanted by the F.B.I. The main character has to have some qualities that teens share through time and space.
I fell in love with The Outsiders in high school, although the protagonist, Ponyboy Curtis, is fourteen, lives with his two older brothers since their parents died, and has to worry about getting jumped by the rich kids in 1960’s Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had none of those problems and was a teen in the 80’s, but I related to Ponyboy’s anger over class distinction. He also likes to watch a movie so he could live the story with actors. I was becoming a serious movie fan at the time, so I could relate to Ponyboy’s desire.
Giving your main character certain vulnerabilities goes a long way to making them both likable and relatable. If your protagonist is afraid of driving because of all the responsibilities it entails, that’s a vulernability readers can relate to or sympathize with. If you sympathize with a character, chances are you like her. Also since we all have areas in our life where we’re vulnerable, it makes the character seem human, and therefore, relatable.
Now, a Warning …
Two things that irritate me when I encounter them in protagonist in YA stories are main characters with tons of attitude or wisdom beyond their years.
My objection to the character with attitude is it’s been done. A lot. I understand why. It’s easy and fun to develop a character who is always mouthing off and making snarky comments in his head. I learned this when I wrote an inverse mystery, “Bovine”, from the point of view of a snobbish New York author. But all the nasty observations can be a thin cover for the fact that there isn’t much development of the character.
Of course, your protagonist carries a certain attitude toward life and you have to convey that. Just be sure to flesh out your main character, that he has more going for him than a caustic wit and disrespect for his fellow humans.
When I read about teen characters who move through their lives with more wisdom than Yoda, I’m turned off. A teen can’t know as much as an adult. They haven’t had the time. Now they can be very knowledgeable in certain areas, but when it comes to dealing with people, they should not be masters. Most elderly people are not masters, so it’s silly to create teen characters who have such a deep understanding of other people’s motivations, that they can read them correctly or give advice.
I have to watch this when writing my mysteries with my teen detective. Rae Riley is supposed to be smart. But she’s also nineteen, going on twenty. She will do things wrong simply because of her age, and I have to let her so that readers are convinced she’s nineteen, going on twenty.
What advice do you have for creating the YA protagonist? Which books have great YA main characters?