Building a World for Your Teen Characters in Young Adult Fiction

This is an excerpt from my book The Young Adult Writer’s Journey. I drew the sketches in this book.

Laying the Foundation: Characters Characters are the foundation of your story. They’re the concrete pad you pour your plot and action on top of and into. Without great characters you don’t have a story. You have a two-dimensional, flat house, no walls, no sides, no floors, and it certainly isn’t going up. Real, three-dimensional characters can take your book to the stars.

Background/Environment

drawing homeless coleHow many siblings does your main character have? Do his/her parents work? What kind of home does the character live in and in what world? Is it inner city or Middle Earth, the suburbs or some deserted island? If you chart what your character’s bedroom looks like, it will be there to refer to throughout the book. How much time did you spend in Bella’s room? In Edward’s? What did it tell you about them? Well, for one thing, Edward didn’t have a bed. What did that tell the reader? Maybe your protagonist is homeless or from a broken home. Maybe they spend fifty percent of their time with different parents who have different families. Chart it, even if you add to it as the character tells you about it throughout the story. Religion could be important to your character’s background. It could affect their behaviors, motivations or ideals, even who they choose as friends. Do they own pets? Chart the pet’s name so you don’t accidentally change it halfway through your book. Is it his ever-present companion, like another character in the book? Does it interact well with others? Does the character talk to his pet, rely on the pet for comfort, protection, or friendship? When you refer to your character’s family life, make notes about her childhood. Was it happy or troubled? Did she have a mean grandma who babysat her? Note her earliest memory and her saddest. Details like this make your book more real. Even if you don’t use every detail, it gives you a better insight into the character, which helps you reveal more about him/her to the readers, just not in a huge, sappy background dump that doesn’t move the plot forward in some way. Does your character have a soft heart or is he cold and unfeeling? Why? Is he terrified to speak in front of the class or outgoing and boisterous? Is your character generous or selfish or somewhere in
The Young Adult Writer’s Journey
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between? If he was an only child, sharing might be an issue. Is your character empathic and sensitive to others’ needs or self-absorbed?

Author: Janet Post

I’m the daughter of a Marine Corps colonel. I lived the military life until I got out of high school. At that point I was a wild child. I got married and moved to Canada where I lived up the Sechelt Inlet, the scene for Spellcast Waters. I lived in a log cabin, with wood heat and a wood cook stove fifteen miles by boat from the nearest town. I’ve moved a lot. Between the military upbringing and just rambling around the country, I’ve moved 40 times. I lived in Hawaii and worked as a polo groom for fifteen years, then I moved to Florida where I became a reporter. For ten years I covered kids in high school and middle school. Kids as athletes, kids doing amazing things no matter how hard their circumstances. It impressed me, and it awed me. How wonderful teens are. They have spirit and courage in the face of the roughest time of their lives. High school is a war zone. Between dodging bullies, school work and after school activities, teens now days have a lot on their plate. I wrote stories about them and I photographed them. My goal was to see every kid in their local newspaper before they graduated. I love kids, horses and I paint, and I write. Now I live in the swampland of Florida with too many dogs and my fifteen-year old granddaughter. Life is beautiful. Live in the moment.

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