My Strategy for Crafting Stories Authentic and Relatable for Young Adult Readers
In the last fifteen years, young-adult fiction, or “YA fiction,” has exploded into the reading world and has had a huge cultural impact on our screens. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games Series, and Veronica’s Roth’s Divergent Series are a few of the books that have received massive sales and a huge following in popularity—and they’ve all been adapted for the big screen. YA fiction doesn’t belong to one particular genre. It can span into romance, horror, comedy, drama, thriller, science-fiction, fantasy, action, and adventure. Stories can be set in the past or the future, or can be contemporary. So how do authors write specifically for the YA audience when there are so many possibilities?
Below is the strategy I took in crafting Zaya for The Wayward Haunt. The story is set in a dark, dystopian world where magic is real, but regardless of the setting, I wanted Zaya to be authentic and relatable for young adult readers. I wanted readers to like and admire Zaya for her ambition, strengths, and faults—something we all have.
One: Don’t dumb down the language or emotion of the character.
Zaya is nineteen years old. She’s approaching a point in her life where she’ll no longer be considered a child but an adult. That’s both exciting and terrifying. It means independence but also responsibility. She hasn’t had the greatest past—amnesia, living in an orphanage, sentenced to a labour camp for a murder she didn’t commit—but she’s hopeful for her future. She doesn’t give up, despite the horrors of her past and the terrors that she encounters along her journey. She has difficult decisions to make, and sometimes what is right and what is wrong isn’t always clear.
Zaya’s voice had to be true to her identity, her emotions, and her experiences. She’s a mature, feisty, often sarcastic girl, and accepting of the bad decisions she’s made in the past. The language in the novel had to reflect that. It couldn’t be simplified because that wasn’t who Zaya was. For that reason, I chose to write as though I were targeting a mature, adult audience. Readers, especially teenagers, don’t like to be treated as emotionally immature. They understand Zaya and her fears just as well as any adult. This maturity is explored in the passage below where Zaya is processing her escape plan from the labour camp.
“My scheme had been in the works for weeks now. I’d never seen what was beyond the prison walls, but re-education had allowed me to study enough maps to get a sense of where I’d go. Five nights from now, I’d break out of Gosheniene and cross the Oldric Mountains. It would be a long journey to Yuchicana, the nearest city, but there I’d be able to blend in. I’d find a job, earn some cash, and buy my way to a new province. Maybe, with some luck, I’d find a witch doctor who could cure me of the ghosts.”
Two: Make sure the character is three-dimensional.
I strived for authenticity when it came to Zaya. The Wayward Haunt is her story, told in first person narration. She sees flaws in the world and the people she associates with, even her friends, and she’s not afraid to point them out to the reader. She’s quick to judge and treats people like stereotypes, as shown in the example below.
“Tusk Monahan had celebrity status among the cadets, and enough bullshit to fill a septic tank. He was popular with the girls, idolised by the boys, and had smaller brain cells than a goldfish. He was tall and had so much gel in his peroxide blonde hair, it would ignite under a match. I’d heard girls refer to him as a Greek God. He would have been flawless except for a long scar that ran down his left arm. Tusk boasted he’d received it fishing off the coast of Karlinia when holidaying with friends—and that it was something to be proud of because all women loved a man with a good scar. Pity he didn’t realise that excluded mental scars.”
Maybe that is harsh on Zaya’s account, but the attitude, evaluation, and judgement is exactly who she is. The language had to reflect this. Zaya can be loving and kind—she can even be sweet, sometimes—but she had to be multi-faceted with positive, negative and redeeming qualities to be a believable character.
Three: Find the right voice.
I’ve established that Zaya has a snarky, sarcastic attitude. We all do to a point, but if I had used this voice for the entirety of the story, readers would have quickly lost interest. Emotion gives us many faces. We can be happy one day, angry or sad the next. Zaya couldn’t be any different. She couldn’t be limited to just the one emotion and voice. Certain events in the novel required her to respond in a different voice, which meant word choices, sentence and paragraph lengths, and cadence had to change. Below is an example of Zaya’s voice when she is afraid of the situation she is in and frightened for a friend.
“Smoke continued to fill the room the same way water leaked into a sinking vessel, doubling in strength and impossible to see through. Long, drawn-out coughs erupted from Lainie. A spasm of fear seized my gut. Who knew what chemicals we were inhaling in here—carbon monoxide, cyanide, nitrogen? The possibilities were endless. And then I too felt the overwhelming pain of slow, blistering suffocation. My throat burned like it had been doused in acid. There was a reason why the hatch was locked, why bodies had been left in the dumpster. This entire room was a furnace—an apparatus designed to cremate everything inside.”
Four: Don’t avoid taboo subjects or write around controversial matters.
Teenagers are not stupid. They know life is unfair and that terrible things happen in the world. Young adults are experiencing drugs, sex, bad language, smoking, and drinking all the time, so there is no point avoiding this from happening in your novel. Reflecting the teen experience is what writing young adult fiction is, so don’t be afraid of crossing that line. But what about darker subject matters? War, murder, death, violence, abuse, victimising, bullying. Well… it happens in the real world, so why not in your novel? In The Wayward Haunt, war and violence occurs often. I didn’t shy away from this. I know my reader will be mature enough to understand the horror that Zaya encounters.
“The hangar was unrecognisable. The infirmary must have been overrun with cases, because every corner, space and niche of the shelter had been converted into a sloppy, makeshift hospital. Medics ferried the wounded on cots and stretchers, trying to find a space on the crowded floor where a doctor could attend to them. The stench of burnt flesh, festering wounds and soiled linen saturated the air, the heat making it feel as though it were clogging my pores. Bile rose in my throat. The idea that injured, dying casters lay here lost and unknown tormented me. I didn’t focus on the bodies shrouded in white sheets. The pain would rip my heart.”
Writing about these subjects is a safe way for young adults to be confronted by the darker aspects of human life. It prepares them for the real world.
Five: Don’t preach.
Don’t talk down to your YA reader. Don’t try to teach them a valuable lesson. Reading a YA novel with teenage characters should be about the journey of self-discovery. It should be about the story and the adventure. Preaching and learning lessons is best left in the hands of parents. Perhaps this is the reason why parents are often absent in YA novels?
Six: Progression and growth. Keep it real.
Regardless of genre, teenage years are a period of firsts. First exam, first kiss, first drink or cigarette, first major fight with parents or friends, first experience with death. These are the moments that will make your teenage character grow. True to life, your protagonist must have new experiences that change or develop them as a person along their journey. In The Wayward Haunt, this occurs when Zaya first realises she has strong feelings for Jad, something beyond a schoolgirl crush.
“I wrapped gauze around my hands and jumped into bed. Sleep alluded me. Thoughts kept spinning through my mind. So, the commander didn’t trust me. Neither did Jad. But a new problem had arisen. Captain Arden had called me brave, strong, smart. I felt flushed and dizzy every time I thought on it.”
So there you have it. My six tips to craft an interesting and relatable character for the YA audience. Give it a try.