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Monday, January 24, 2011

Teen Dreamers: Ambitious Characters in YA Fiction

Wanted: Teen characters with at least one goal or dream beyond high school, beyond Getting the Guy. Ideal candidates: strivers and do-ers. Young people with skills, talents, passions. Passive whiners and drifters need not apply.

Yesterday I wrote this ad and taped it above my desk. I wanted to remind myself to be on the lookout for more passionate, active, motivated characters in my YA reading and writing. I'm trying to counteract my natural tendency to start writing projects with main characters who seem adrift, whose immediate or longer-term goals are unclear. ("Great, but what does she want?" my critique group moans when I bring in a draft too early. "And what else does she do?"). This aimless tendency is probably normal in a draft stage, as I'm just beginning to explore the character's personality and dipping my feet into my story. But at some point, character traits need to crystallize. Having a character with a clearly defined passion or personal goal helps me get into the dreaded "murky middle" of a novel. A character's special skill, or steps toward a personal goal, can open up all kinds of scene possibilities. An ambitious character leads me faster to intriguing tensions and conflicts. And I believe YA writers can honor the richness of our teen readers' lives when we infuse our characters with a little ambition.

Reading YA novels, I'm training myself to be more alert to characters with an extra "spark" of motivation, or a skill they cultivate. I've found two types of novels with ambitious characters. In one type, the entire novel hangs on the main character's talent and accompanying ambitions, like Justina Chen's Girl Overboard -- a story of a teen snowboarder who, after an injury, parlays her snowboarding expertise into new and exciting directions and helps her fractured family come together. In the other type, the main character's skill and ambition play a secondary role to the story's main objective. Yet they help to round out the character and assist her pursuit of a different goal. I just found a great example of that in Beth Revis's Across the Universe. This is a sci-fi thriller about a girl who's been cryogenically frozen on a spaceship heading for a distant planet 300 years in the future. Amy is awakened 50 years too soon, and finds herself trapped in a spaceship with a killer aboard. She worries her still-frozen parents could be targeted too. Amy's immediate objectives are clearly defined, and urgent. But what rounds her out wonderfully is her passion for running. We learn that she ran all the time back on Earth, and that she used to dream of running in the New York City marathon. Her desire to run is so strong that she finds a way to do so even within the confines of a spaceship, and even though pursuing her passion means putting herself in danger.The running aids her in her goal of figuring out the spaceship's secrets. It also makes her real.

I'm trying to remember what my own ambitions were as a teen, and to tap into some of the emotions around them. In my teen years, some dreams flared up and blew out fast. Like the idea of being a fashion designer/actress/film director. (Yes, all at once). And I was probably not the best goal-setter in high school; it was sometimes hard to imagine ever getting out of that place and going on to start my own life. But one thing was constant. I always wrote, and I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I scribbled novels during math class, sometimes co-authored with a friend by passing manuscripts back and forth under desks. (Oh, I failed math that semester). I sometimes lied to friends about my plans or my whereabouts so that I could stay in on a Friday night (gasp!) and write. I was embarrassed and private about my writing, yet I secretly entered -- and won -- several contests for young writers. I browsed the annual Writers Market at the library, and swapped it for a more acceptable Sweet Valley High novel if I saw a friend coming my way. These memories serve to remind me that young people can be fiercely passionate about their interests. They will structure their lives around what matters most. Characters can do this too.

What are some of your favorite ambitious characters in YA fiction? What are some of your teen memories about ambitions, hopes and dreams?

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