Three Reasons I Write YA fiction

I started this month’s theme on YA fiction with a post about why you might want to write YA. I’ll wrap up with three reasons I write YA fiction.

My Natural Bent

I can’t fight it. I just seem to think in terms of a teen. In 2017, I was invited to write a short story set in Ohio with a Christian worldview. It could be any genre, any time period, as long as the setting was Ohio. I had the freedom to write any story I chose. I tried writing a humor piece based on a misadventure my sisters and I had during one Christmas when I was in college. As my husband kindly put it, humor is not my thing. I ended up writing “Debt to Pay”, a country noir set in Wayne National Forest and told from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old boy. This was published in an anthology, From the Lake to the River.

Last year, I had another opportunity to contribute to an anthology. Again, it was tied to Ohio, this time to its literary heritage. I changed course and wrote an inverse mystery from the POV of an elitist New York novelist who comes to my fictional Marlin County, Ohio, to plan a crime. This mystery became “Bovine” in Ohio Trail Mix. Writing from the perspective of an adult character stretched my imagination, but I still think I write best from the perspective of a teen or young adult because …

Teens Makes Great Amateur Detectives

A story that has an amateur solve mysteries is already asking the readers to suspend their disbelief. I think it’s easier for readers to do this if the amateur detective is a teen. Why? Because certain behaviors in a teen are understandable. Teens take risks that would make adults looks childish. They also make mistakes that lead to all sorts of plot complications because they are just learning how the world works. An adult wouldn’t commit nearly as many of those mistakes, making the adult characters more believable but less fun.

In my Christmas mystery, “A Rose from the Ashes”, nineteen-year-old Rae Riley comes to Marlin County to discover her father and her mother’s assailant and if the two are the same man. She does this secretly, entirely alone. A forty-year-old digging into family history might try to hire a private investigator. And a forty-year-old would certainly hesitate to confront a possible killer alone at an abandoned house with only a rifle as protection. A teen would think she could do it.

It’s Easier to Make Teens Grow

When creating a main character, writers are advised to make the character believe a lie, spend the story uncovering the truth, embracing that truth, and then the character has grown and changed by the end of the story.

This is fine character development for a stand alone story. But I find it difficult to sustain that sort of structure over a series. Eventually, the main adult character is going to look like dope because he or she has believed so many lies. Not that it’s not true in real life. I just find it hard to pull off in fiction.

But the teen period of life is a time of growth and change already. That makes teens perfect as a series main character. As he learns about life, he changes over the course of the series.

Why do you write in the genre or genres that you do?

How to Create Authentic YA Characters

Since you’ve heard a lot from me this month on how to create authentic YA characters, I decided to pull from previous author interviews I’ve done so you can read other author’s opinions.

What do you think are the keys to creating engaging main characters for young adult readers?

Laurie Lucking

Laurie Lucking

I’ve found that young adult readers seem to really engage with a character when they get to deeply experience that character’s perspective throughout the book. Rather than telling a story or giving limited glances into a character’s mind, narratives that allow the reader to live through the action right alongside the main character – practically feeling like they could be that character – are the ones teens just can’t put down. And I’m right there on the edge of my seat with them!

I still have a long way to go toward writing that kind of immersive point of view, but I think a huge key is having an understanding of the human mind and heart and translating it onto the page. Balancing beautiful prose with the way people actually think. Including internal responses in the midst of actions and dialogue. Taking the time to think through what sensory details your specific character would notice in place of generic descriptions. It’s a long, work-intensive process, but it’s amazing how that in-depth experience really draws readers in!

Read her whole interview here.

C. S. Wachter

C.S. Wachter

Round the characters. Flat or stereotyped characters won’t fly. Even secondary characters need to be more than cardboard cutouts. The characters need to be relatable. They need to experience real feelings: boredom, anger, pain, loss, sadness, confusion, pride. They help drive the story forward and keep the plot moving. Though teens are good at wearing masks of confidence, inside, they question themselves. I don’t try to use slang because I would most likely mess up and use it incorrectly, a big problem. I keep try to keep the language simple and not dated.

Read her whole interview here.

Most YA writers aren’t YA. How do you write authentically about characters younger than you are?

Clare Campbell

Clare Campbell

Young people are awesome! I’ve worked with all kinds of teenagers. From the homeless, to the disabled, to the exceptional, and each of them has a magnetic spark. A spark, I believe, we never lose no matter how old we get. Some of us might forget about it, or deem it too immature, or naïve. But, some of us retain that spark and hold it up as the thing that makes us see the world through a lens of hope. Or, the youthful energy that makes us believe we can achieve the impossible even against the odds. That’s all you need to connect with YA audiences.

Read her whole interview here.

Now it’s your turn. What do you think it takes to create authentic YA characters?

Creating the YA Antagonist

Last week, I wrote about creating the YA protagonist. Now I flip the equation to discuss creating the YA antagonist. A protagonist is only as compelling as the antagonist he or she has to deal with. Would Sherlock Holmes be as memorable without matching wits with Professor Moriarty? You should invest as much care in developing your antagonist as your protagonist.

General Rules for Antagonists

They Don’t Have to be People.

An antagonist is whoever or whatever prevents the protagonist for reaching her goal. In Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, the main character is up against surviving in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but a hatchet and a windbreaker. In the nonfiction book Dove, Robin Lee Graham, who began sailing around the world at sixteen, must battle the sea and his own thoughts while he’s alone on the ocean. The antagonist for the main character in Challenger Deep is his own schizophrenia.

They Don’t Have to be Villains.

The antagonist doesn’t have to be evil or the bad guy. Just the person who is throwing obstacles in the way of the protagonist. Let’s say the main character is a sixteen-year-old boy who wants to become a cop like his late father, who died in the line of duty. His mother is dead set against his goal and does everything in her power to dissuade him in the name of safety. She’s the antagonist but not a villain.

I think it’s far more challenging to write about an antagonist, who is a good person, but is at odds with the protagonist. I can’t rely on painting my antagonist in pure black. I have to use more nuanced colors. While this can be challenging, and even frustrating, there’s also a greater reward if I succeed, creating two characters who aren’t just the good guy and the bad guy.

Rules for YA Antagonists

Your Antagonist is an Adult.

Don’t fall into the cliches I’ve seen in a lot of teen books in which all the adult characters are either stupid or mean or both. The adult characters in a YA story should be as fleshed out as the teen characters. If the adult antagonist is a villain, I have to supply a better reason for his villainy than “I said so”.

It’s difficult for a teen to contend with an adult because of the vast experience an adult has built up. But don’t level the playing field by making the adult antagonist a dope. First, you want your teen main character to have a worthy adversary. As I said in a teen writing workshop I led over the summer, you don’t want Conan the Barbarian going up against the Easter Bunny. You have to develop a realistic way for your teen to overcome the adult antagonist to make the characters both believable and the story rewarding for the reader.

Your Antagonist is a Teen

If your antagonist is a teen, you may run into the flip side of the problem above. To make the clash between protagonist and antagonist interesting, I may end up with two characters who dress like teens but act like adults. Since I write mysteries, I might have a teen as the culprit. Having been a teen and known teens, I don’t buy the teen villain who hatches his plan like a master criminal. What seems more believable is the teen who commits a crime in a sudden burst of anger and then spends the story trying to stay ahead of the police and the teen protagonist.

What are your thoughts on creating the YA antagonist? Who are your favorites?

Creating the YA Protagonist

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.

For more tips on writing YA, click here.

What advice do you have for creating the YA protagonist? Which books have great YA main characters?

If You Want to Write YA Fiction

As we follow “The Journey of Book” this year on my blog, we’ll examine some genres as well as discuss tips on developing plot, settings, and characters. Studying young adult or YA fiction was a natural choice because that’s what I usually write. With a mystery twist. If you want to write YA fiction, keep reading and follow my blog this month for more posts and prompts about this genre.

Before you delve into your story for teens, you need to consider the following and decide if this is the correct genre for your story.

What’s the Age of Your Main Character?

I was reminded on Wikipedia that the age range for the YA genre is twelve to eighteen, although some adults like to read YA. And kids tend to read up. By that I mean, younger kids want to read about older kids and not usually vice versa. If you’re main character is twelve, then your story will appeal to kids eight to ten-years-old and you have a middle grade novel, not a YA one. My mystery, A Shadow on the Snow, has a nineteen-year-old amateur detective, a good age to interest high school readers.

Be aware that there’s a big difference in character development and plot possibilities if your main character is eighteen or nineteen, legally an adult. I’ve made that fact a part of my plotting; the newly-found father of my teen detective Rae isn’t sure what his role is as a parent of an adult because his next oldest child is thirteen.

Is Your Main Character Dealing with Something that Concerns Teens?

This is a topic adult writers fear and spend a considerable time wrestling with. After all, life is so different for teens now, especially those who were teens during the pandemic. Or is it?

One way to discover a relevant problems for your teen main character to deal with is to take a trip back to your teen years. What were your interests back then? What were your fears? What were your joys? Your goals?

I’ve read advice about talking to teens now and asking them those questions, but I only do that if I’m checking on manners and slang. Because I find writing from my own experiences as a teen to be much more authentic than borrowing those thoughts and emotions from someone else.

For example, I fell in love with old movies and classic mysteries in my teen years, which instilled an interest and delight in them I still hold. At seventeen, I discovered the humorous short stories of Damon Runyon. I’d never read stories in which the author wrote in dialect. I thought I’d uncovered a tremendous literary secret.

I can apply that passion to any number of hobbies or pursuits a teen might like, but the way I make it come to life is to remember my emotions about my own hobbies or pursuits as a teen.

What is Your Motivation for Writing YA?

If you want to write YA fiction because you think current YA fiction is too graphic or immoral or boring or unimaginative, and your story will shake up the genre, be very, very careful.

None of those reasons are bad in themselves. But if you start with an agenda, instead of a story, then your story will most likely suffer and be of little interest to readers. That doesn’t mean you can’t explore themes in your stories. But the theme should serve the story, not the other way around, or readers will feel like they are being lectured by the author instead of hearing from the characters.

For more on agenda vs. theme, click here for an excellent article on The Write Conversation. For another view on the author’s view ruining a story, click here.

If you want to write YA fiction, I’d love to read your reasons!

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