Books are dead. It’s sad, but it’s basically true. Sure, you can eke out a decent living if you dedicate yourself to your craft, spend years researching niche topics, and fleshing out the true human characteristics of your characters–that is, if you’re extremely lucky and enormously talented. Or you could write a young adult novel. Now, I’m using the term “young adult” loosely here, as the target demographic is really people of any age with the cognitive ability of a teenager. If you’re an aspiring YA author, here are a few ideas to help you along your way.
Your main character needs to be flat and uninteresting. Save your really good and compelling quirks and nuances for your side characters, because you’ll need those in order to justify their existence in the story. Now, that’s not to say your protagonist can’t come from somewhere interesting. Here are three qualities of his or her existence that you should use. You need at least one of these, but any combination of the three will work.
Orphan – Don’t be afraid to kill off those parents. Your hero needs motivation, and that’s pretty hard to do when he or she comes from a relatively stable home where his or her needs were provided for. If you need the parents for plot purposes, make your protagonist an emotional orphan. The dad is an alcoholic, the parents are both absurdly wealthy people who completely ignore your main character, or the older sibling is the parents’ favorite.
Socially Inept – This will make the protagonist endearing. He or she might not have anything of value to say, or any humor or personality to speak of, but if you make him or her awkward or shy, then your readers will see the character as a manifestation of themselves, as they’re likely also going through an awkward part of their life. This emotion will satisfactorily stand in for real empathy.
Chosen One – Your protagonist needs to have some sort of outline for his or her journey–otherwise, why would he or she go on it in the first place? You’ll need some sort of wizard/shaman/mystery mentor figure who either knows or has heard of a prophecy that involves your main character someday saving his people, all of humanity, or your thinly veiled knockoff of Hogwarts.
Speaking of thinly veiled knockoffs of Hogwarts, where are you going to set this turd of a story? Remember, it needs to be fantastic, but familiar. You can’t go taking your readers off to planet Zorkon with totally unfamiliar types of creatures and strange political structures. They aren’t smart enough to follow that. No, you need to make your fantasy world vaguely reminiscent of something your readers will recognize. Hogwarts is boarding school, Panem is Rome with Soviet influences, teenagers who become spies are James Bond lite, and everything involving dragons and magic are either Middle Earth or some version of ancient Greece.
You need a bad guy. That’s a given. Don’t worry about what your protagonist wants, because he or she is too boring to figure that out on his or her own. Here’s a little secret for you: your plot comes from your antagonist. The antagonist is the one who drives your story. Figure out what he or she wants and then reverse engineer it for your main character. Then, do something to set it all off. Your “hero” needs a call to action. After he or she is on the journey, put the protagonist through some difficult stuff. Force him or her to make “tough” decisions. Kill one of his or her friends or three. Along the way, show your protagonist going from childish to slightly less childish. That’s what we call character growth. It’s not actually, because the protagonist isn’t taking stock of his or her life, looking at the world through any lens but his or her own, or really showing any semblance of self-awareness, but the act of becoming slightly less annoying will stand in for that reasonably well.
The Supporting Characters
Here’s what you need: humor, physical ability, anger, moral grayness, wisdom, sarcasm, sex appeal, anti-authority, sheltered upbringing, and sleazy. Take those and sprinkle them amongst however many characters you feel your weak structure can support. In addition, depending on your story, you might want to think about including an old guy who will sacrifice for the protagonist, a high ranking bad guy who reconsiders and becomes a good guy, and a manic pixie badass, which is a girl who can kick ass and roll her eyes at the protagonist’s inability at the beginning of the story, but will eventually fall in love with him in spite of the fact that he only gains superficial skills, and everything the group does seems to be selfishly about him.
The Emotional Manipulation
Give and take, give and take. Create hilarious, endearing, lovable characters who don’t have a whole lot of significance to the overall goal of the plot and kill the shit out of them at their peak. Kidnap your main character’s siblings. Let us find out that his or her parents are actually alive, and then, spoiler alert, NOT actually alive because it was just a ruse the whole time. The world must be on the brink of destruction, every love must be the greatest love of all, and every character must be willing to pay the greatest sacrifice–except for the protagonist, because he or she is a boring, selfish asshole, remember?
The Writing Style
Simple sentence structure with SAT words. Readers will use context clues to figure out what big words mean, and it’ll convince them they’re reading something “smart.” They will not forgive you for making them think too hard, though. Describe EVERYTHING. Is there a meadow? Why is it the most beautiful fucking meadow in the history of fucking meadows? Fight scenes need to read like explicit sex scenes, because your editor will definitely not allow you explicit sex scenes, so brutal violence is your only recourse.
This is what it all comes down to. You need a real, concise theme that the ghost of the mentor or the dying antagonist can explicitly say to the main character so that he or she (and your audience) will know what it was all for: love, family, friendship, justice, that sort of morally unambiguous, beige-colored stuff. You get the idea.
Now go write your fantasy, dystopian, teen spy novel. I can’t wait to not go see the terrible movie adaptation starring a teen pop star and a guy who looks like he has a Ken doll stuck up his ass. You’ll make millions.
*Author’s Note: I actually enjoy a lot of YA novels and many other stories that follow some of these tropes. Faux bitterness aside, write whatever you want. Just make it good..