YA titles can be intense and hard to write! Shirley-Anne McMillan has devised some thoughtful tips on writing relevant characters that will resonate with YA readers today. Check out her suggestions below.
Writing Characters that Resonate with Young People Today
By Shirley-Anne McMillan
Lately I’ve been thinking more and more often about those Leonard Cohen lines;
Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey I ache in the places where I used to play…
It’s a little melodramatic of me. My friends are, at least, still with me. My hair really is grey, but I’m kind of liking it. And I have the beginnings of a dodgy knee but I can still shoot a few hoops with my son in the local park.
Still, I can’t deny that since I first published in 2016 I have grown older, and every year that passes is a year further away from the audience I’m writing for. My eldest son was 11 when my first book came out. He’s 18 now. Before you know it he’ll be 30. Will I still be writing for young adults when there are no young adults in our home? But culture changes so quickly – you only need to be a couple of years out of step for your characters to seem slightly odd, their language weird and jarring.
So here are my tips for researching and writing authentic YA characters when you start to get further and further from real life YA people. These are rules for myself, just what works for me.
· Cherish the family (or other) connections you have with young people. Listen to them. They are incredible. Ask them about what they’re interested in and how they feel about the world. Really try to take it in- you can make notes when they’ve gone.
· Get into TikTok. If you’re writing about Belfast get into Belfast TikTok. Listen carefully to how people talk, not just what they say.
· Get to know your young self. Do some writing about it. Who were you when you were sixteen or nineteen? If you kept diaries then you’ve got that great resource (although to be honest my university diaries were not such a great resource. I didn’t manage to document much more than who I fancied and how they didn’t fancy me back).
· Eavesdrop like mad. Get the bus on Saturday mornings or school day afternoons. Instead of putting in your earphones, take note of what everyone around you is saying. I think there’s something about being on the bus, on the way to meet friends or after a long day at work or school, that makes people relax. That’s when you hear how they really talk to one another. Again, you can take notes later- if you’re listening hard you’ll remember the good stuff.
· Watch Netflix. Find out what’s trending. If people on TikTok are raving about a show then watch it, even if it’s not normally something you’d enjoy. You might surprise yourself. You’ll also get a feel for what young adults find funny, sad, entertaining and important.
· Finally, read as much current YA as you can. Yes there are celebrity books which sell because they’re everywhere and you can hardly cross the street without bumping into one, but there are also YA novels which aren’t on the supermarket shelves which young people adore. Check out the Carnegie awards webpage to see which YA books are highly rated by librarians and young people. Ask your local librarian which YA books are mostly popular in your local area. Set aside serious time for reading them.
Most importantly, enjoy yourself! If you don’t like young people and you don’t love writing young characters then YA isn’t your genre. But if you enjoy it, you’re probably on the right track.
Grapefruit Moon by Shirley-Anne McMillan is published by Little Island Books.
Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation.