Characters You Meet Along the Way

YA author M. Liz Boyle is back with “Characters You Meet Along the Way” as we dive into the fascinating process of creating characters for our stories. You can read her other guest blogs here. Thanks for coming back, Liz!

“It’s not where you go. It’s who you meet along the way.” Dorothy is credited with this saying in The Wizard of Oz. It’s a sweet quote to share with your family and friends.

I think sentiment also applies to authors. Think of your favorite books. Do you reread your favorite scenes because of what happens or where it happens, or because of who it happens to? Just like relationships are essential to life, characters are what make stories come to life. (I am not discounting the importance of setting or plot, but for this article, I’m focusing on characters.)

Here are some tips to make your fictional characters as interesting and varied as the people you know in real life:

Describe more than what you see.

When you meet someone, are hair and eye color the only things you notice? The tone of voice he uses and whether he maintains eye contact might make more of an impression. Does her body language put you at ease or make you wonder if she’s running from the cops? Before he answers your pointed question, does he check his watch or give you full attention? Is she only halfway listening to you as she periodically scrolls through her phone, or does she make you feel like she has all afternoon to listen? Qualities like these (and more!) are worth describing so your readers get a full sense of who your characters are. 

Give your characters sayings or mannerisms that are unique to each character.

Maybe you have a mentor who often starts conversations with, “Listen, I was thinking….” Meanwhile your sister commonly skips up the porch steps and says, “Guess what!” Assign phrases to different characters to help distinguish their personalities. 

Choose your character’s interests.

If you want readers to know certain details, let the character who is most likely to recognize those details describe them. 

A character who describes her own clothing in detail will probably describe other people’s wardrobes, too. She’s interested in clothing, so she notices that in other characters. This fashionista character probably will not describe vehicles with the detail of a car collector. She might recognize a car as old enough to be in a car show, but she probably wouldn’t say, “Look at that 1960s Shelby Mustang with the racing stripes.” 

My husband is a tree worker, and he can tell me all about the health and species of trees in a yard and their proximity to power lines and propane tanks, but he can’t ballpark what century the house was built in because it doesn’t interest him. 

Here’s a snippet of a recent conversation with my dad that illustrates this. 

Dad [about the first time he went water skiing, which was many decades ago]: The boat had a 30 horsepower outboard motor. It was a Mercury with a four cylinder.

Me: What color was the boat?

Dad: I don’t remember that. 

Me: [wondering how he can remember the motor but not the boat color]

It’s unrealistic if characters are all-knowing, so give them interests like real people.

I hope these three tips help you design your characters. What other ideas do you have? Thank you so much, JPC Allen, for hosting me today!


Adventurous teenager Marlee Stanley has a knack for finding herself in natural disasters with her sisters and the Miles boys. When their adventures take a turn for the worse, will Marlee cave under pressure, or will her faith in God be strong enough to guide her to safety? 

Check out the books on Amazon!


M. Liz Boyle

Liz is the author of the Off the Itinerary series, the wife of a professional tree climber, and the homeschooling mom of three energetic and laundry-producing children. Liz once spent a summer in Colorado teaching rock climbing, which she believes was a fantastic way to make money and memories. She resides with her family in Wisconsin, where they enjoy hiking and rock climbing. Liz and her husband have also backpacked in Colorado and the Grand Canyon, which have provided inspiration for her writing. She makes adventurous stories to encourage others to find adventures and expand their comfort zones (though admittedly, she still needs lots of practice expanding her own comfort zone). Follow Liz on her website, Facebook, Instagram, GoodReads, and BookBub.

Book Review of Baby Names Made Easy

This month, JPC Allen Writes is all about characters. Since I’m a character writer, this is one of my favorites themes. Naming a character correctly is crucial to me for his or her development. Names have fascinated me since I was a kid, and I have several naming books in my personal library, including The Character Naming Sourcebook, which I’ve reviewed in another post. I’m very excited to give a book review of Baby Names Made Easy: the Complete Reverse-Dictionary of Baby Names by Amanda Elizabeth Barden because its arrangement is tailor made for writers.

Instead of the names being arranged alphabetically or by country of origin, the names are arranged in categories by meaning. Some of the categories are astronomy, animals and insects, colors, courage and bravery, seasons and time, and mercy and forgiveness. In all 49 different categories for names, which are selected from all over the world.

I find this kind of grouping particularly helpful when creating names for a family of characters. Since fiction is an illusion, fiction writers need all the help we can get to support the illusion. Creating names that people would use in reality helps the illusion. And when you have a whole family of characters to name, it makes sense to name them in way a real family would.

Families name in patterns, and your fictional families should reflect that. Also having a naming pattern for each family helps your reader keep the characters straight. In my Rae Riley mysteries, Rae has two cousins, Amber and Coral, both nature names. Her best friend has two daughters, Liberty and Serenity.

For another example, if the father and mother of a fictional family are new age hippies, then you might want to select names for their children from virtues the parents admire. Or let’s say your family is pretty functional, supporting and loving each other. The names could reflect that without the reader even knowing it. Under “Happiness & Joy”, you find the names Abigail, Beatrice, Felicity, Isaac, Tate, and Felix.

Do you spend a lot of time naming characters? Where do you find names? What are some of your favorite names for characters?

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?

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