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Using Character Handles In My Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

In my first teen novel, The Winter Prince, there are four secondary characters who turn up in a pack.  They’re brothers, they’re all teens, and they all have similar names (they are, in fact, the princes of Orkney from Arthurian legend, traditionally named Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth).  When a friend of mine read an early draft of The Winter Prince he couldn’t tell any of them apart.

Here’s what he advised me:  ‘A supporting character needs a handle.’

‘A handle?  You mean like a nickname?’

‘No.  I mean like a door handle.  Or a pot handle.  Something that the reader can grab.’

Ever since then, I’ve tried to do exactly that with minor characters.  I give them handles.  I give them some characteristic, twitch or quirk designed to jolt the reader into recognition: ‘Oh, yeah, this is the guy with the thick glasses/the wandering hands/the car that’s always breaking down/the missing fingers…’ and those are just the ones from Code Name Verity!  After my friend gave me this advice, I gave my character Agravaine my very first conscious handle.  He wears his hair in a long copper-coloured plait of which he is very vain.

Handles shouldn’t be gratuitous.  Agravaine’s plait, though I included it on purpose to make him a little different from the rest of his red-haired brothers, is important because it works symbolically to show how like his mother he is – she, too, has long red hair and is vain.  It also shows Agravaine’s bond to his mother.  Similarly, the handles for the minor characters in Code Name Verity all contribute to the plot in some way.

The magic thing about handles is that they help the writer as well as the reader.  Once you’ve given someone an interesting characteristic, the writing starts to generate itself around that characteristic.  The guy with the thick glasses suddenly has a prop that can be used in a number of different ways – sometimes he seems to be disguised, sometimes he seems to be hiding, sometimes he can take the glasses off and wipe his eyes and I, as the author, can use this prop to suggest his emotional state without having to speculate about what he’s thinking.

Handles aren’t just relevant to characters.  Giving your settings specific, detailed characteristics helps to make them come alive, too.  Not just the smell of flowers, but the smell of lilacs.  Not just a fire in a fireplace, but a coal fire in an iron grate.  Not just a small dog but a wire-haired terrier.  Specific details don’t just make your story more interesting to read: they make it realistic and evocative.  These small nuanced touches can be particularly important in historical fiction or fantasy, where it can be tempting to generalize when you don’t know or can’t visualize specifics.

What are your characters eating around their campfire?  Have they got a coffee pot?  Is the coffee burning?  What does it smell like?  When someone picks it up, is the handle hot?

It’s worth a few burnt fingers to grab that handle.


Elizabeth Wein’s author website:

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     The Dog in the WoodRaven SpeakDeadly Little Games

Writing Teen Novels

Using Characters And Setting To Situate Your Story In Another Culture, by Kashmira Sheth

The most challenging part of writing a story set in another culture is making it feel authentic and relevant. It is like building a brand new house that perfectly blends with the century-old neighborhood. It should have the same weathered feel as the other homes. To write a story that feels realistic, the author should think of two critical parts, characters and setting.


Start a story with the main character and build her (or his) personality. Do it in such a way so that the readers can relate to and empathize with the protagonist. The character must have habits, likes and dislikes, and certain physical attributes. For example, she may like to wash her hands obsessively, he may hate the idea of his father’s waking him up at four to help him on the farm, he may have a big mole on his hand or she may bite her nails. These kinds of details help us create an image of our character in readers’ mind no matter where they are from.

Give your character’s personality a strong sense of believability. A childhood adversity, such as money problems, may drive your character to start a lawn-cutting business while still in high school. A shocking event in his early life (eg. a sibling’s accidental death) may cause him to have nightmares into adulthood. Life-changing events that shape him make his behavior believable, his motivations clear, and his journey plausible in the reader’s mind.


A place with sensory details is also critical to a story. If the story is set in an unfamiliar place the setting is as important as your main character. Using all five senses brings the place alive and keeps the story grounded. When a writer can establish a character in a setting that seems unique and yet natural it adds depth to the story.  To achieve this, the writer can use a familiar place (contemporary novels) or build it up from imagination (fantasy novels) or from extensive research (historical novels).

The last step is to bring the character and the setting together in an intertwined fashion. If your protagonist lives by the ocean, the tide may have some special significance to him. On the other hand, if he lives by the mountains, he maybe fond of hiking along a trail to clear his mind.

Another way we can do this is to let your character use dialogues as well as body language not only to convey his thoughts and feelings but to ground him in the place. These gestures must be culturally specific and relevant to the story though.

What if your protagonist, who lives by the ocean, opens a window, sees someone, and shivers? Is it because of the cool ocean breeze or because he sees his arch enemy walking up? This kind of reaction to a setting can serve dual purposes for your story and make readers want to keep on reading.

Once the setting and character are well established readers can identify with the protagonist easily. Then the details you provide from another culture, tradition or time become just as engrossing as the ones the reader is familiar with.


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Keeping CornerBoys without Names     Saraswati's WayBlack Storm Comin'Code Name VerityWinter TownTarzan: The Greystoke Legacy

Writing Teen Novels

Teenage Characters And Responsibility In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

One feature that I feel is characteristic of teen fiction is the divide between young people and adults.  It can show up as a contrast – between the unfinished, dynamic character of a maturing teen and the more static character of adults who are stuck in their prescribed roles.  Or it can show up as a simple lack of understanding between the adults and the teens in the novel.  Where I find this divide most interesting, and probably most disturbing, is when it’s part of a power play.  This is the kind of conflict that I find myself most often describing in my own novels.

Teenagers don’t appear to have much power in Western society.  They can’t legally drink, drive, vote, fight in a war, marry, hold a job or live on their own until they reach a certain age that adults consider appropriate.  Basically, they are dependent on the adults around them to make sensible decisions for them. These can include life changing or even life saving decisions and, to the maturing mind, not being able to make one’s own decisions is often a source of deep conflict.

The kind of relationship that I explore in all my novels is that of the teen breaking free from the control of the adult world and learning to make decisions and accept responsibility for those decisions.  I don’t really have a moral message to deliver in my writing, but if I did it would simply be that I want people to accept responsibility for their own actions.  That’s what being a teen is all about.

In Code Name Verity, my most recent novel, the young heroines find themselves involved in assisting the British war effort during World War II.  Not only is the dire global situation created for them by adults, but the Air Transport Auxiliary pilot Maddie and Special Operations Executive agent ‘Verity’ find their lives almost entirely guided by the orders and restrictions of superior officers.  When Verity is captured by the Gestapo and Maddie is forced into hiding, the girls’ literal movements and freedom become restricted by the older people in charge of imprisoning or hiding them.  How the girls cope with these situations and win back their individual freedom, figuratively and literally, is the core of the book.

Even a reader with the most ordinary daily existence should be able to relate to this theme, because rebelling against authority or learning to work with it is what people do in their teenage years.

Fiction is good practise for real life.  Perhaps the teen/adult divide is one of the hallmarks of what makes a book a ‘teen novel’ rather than an ‘adult novel’.


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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     The Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)Project 17Victoria Rebels

Writing Teen Novels

Choosing And Voicing Characters For My Teen Historical Novels, by Pauline Francis

I always imagined that I’d write contemporary fiction. When I decided to write for teenagers, I wrote a full-length novel about a young girl with anorexia. It was good - but it lacked a strong voice.

What is the secret of a good character? Why can it take so long to discover what it is?

I felt like an alchemist in search of the great secret: how to change metal into gold. I followed all the rules. I read and read and read (I was a children’s librarian at the time, so I knew what appealed to readers). I was involved in writing abridged classics (Fast Track Classics) for younger readers, so I knew most of the great English and American Classics and why they’d become classics.

But I still didn’t know how to make my fiction better.

I read and re-read my favourite teen authors; Witch Child by Celia Rees, Apache by Tanya Landman, The Road of Bones by Anne Fine (2006) and Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (2003).

They all have one thing in common - they are historical novels.

I came to understand the author’s voice. …that special ingredient that makes the magic. It’s ME - the author - who must be emotionally part of my writing and that without it, my narrative will be as dull as a base metal, whether historical or contemporary.

I asked myself: what had made me tick emotionally when I was a teenager?

I disliked being a teenager. I felt trapped in a difficult situation - wanting to study and go to University but with a father who believed that girls shouldn’t be educated. I was a rather shy and very thin child, and my family thought I was too serious and hated to see me reading. They believed in lots of fresh air and healthy sport. Lady Jane Grey came into my mind. I knew her from my school history. The little written about her wasn’t very flattering. She was shy, short and very thin – and preferred reading to hunting. Her parents disapproved of her, preferring her beautiful and outgoing sister, Catherine.

You can see where this is going.  I resisted the urge to write about Jane for a while because I’d never planned to write historical fiction. Then I gave in. I decided to make Jane the subject of my first novel because she echoed how I felt as a teenager.

It was unbelievably easy to write about Jane. I understood what made her tick.

She was sold into marriage by her ambitious father to the son of an equally ambitious father-in-law. They both sought power through this fifteen year old girl, because she was close in line to the throne of England. She was manipulated onto the throne and died for it.

I’m sure that my voice echoing through Jane made it the novel it was.

I chose Elizabeth for Traitor’s Kiss because she had to draw on enormous resources as she grew up - and make difficult decisions as I did. She had few people to guide her and this was her great attraction for me.

Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was the second wife of Henry VIII. He had her executed for suppose adultery when Elizabeth was only two. Everything that belonged to Anne was banned and burned. Her name was never mentioned.

What would it be like to grow up, knowing that your father had killed your mother? What would the gossip be like? As  Elizabeth grew into womanhood, spirited and swarthy skinned like her mother, she attracted attention from men who wanted power (she was third in line for the throne) - especially her step-father, Thomas Seymour. He flirted with Elizabeth. She flirted back. They were seen kissing. Like mother, like daughter? Elizabeth was only fourteen, but banned from court. As her step-father tried to gain power, he was taken to the Tower of London and Elizabeth, by association with him, was interrogated for six weeks.

Elizabeth used all her resources to outwit her interrogators - and to live to be Queen. Although none of these events happened to me, I recognised the kindred spirit in a young girl forced to draw on her own resources.

In between these two novels, I wrote another called A World Away, based on the first British colony to be established in America. It has been well-liked, but it is the least popular of my novels and I think it’s because the voice of my characters doesn’t reflect me.


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The Raven QueenA World AwayThe Traitor's Kiss     Victoria RebelsRaven SpeakRed is for RemembranceAngel Dust

Writing Teen Novels

To Be, Or Not To Be (Likable)? by Jack Heath

It’s sometimes hard to decide whether your protagonist should be likable or interesting.

The heroes of many YA novels are not so much heroes as they are observers, or even victims. Harry Potter and Bella Swan are largely passive participants in their own lives. The advantage of this strategy is that the characters are usually likeable and sympathetic, since everyone knows what it’s like to feel powerless (especially teenagers).

Other books have protagonists who do things, rather than having things done to them. John Cleaver, Tally Youngblood; these characters are more entertaining to read about, but harder to identify with. This may be because all stories require conflict, so if the protagonist is driving the plot, they’re probably making things difficult for the other characters.

I’ve tried both methods – in The Lab, Agent Six’s superpowers are mainly used in self-defence, making him a passive character rather than an active one. Meanwhile, Ashley Arthur sets off the action herself in Money Run when she decides to steal $200 million from a tax cheat. Agent Six is a more sympathetic character, but Money Run is a better story. Perhaps this is one of the repercussions of the passive/active protagonist choice. Imagine, for a moment, the Harry Potter series if the narrative had followed Snape. The plot may have worked better, but would Snape have charmed as many readers as Harry?

Most successful novels fall somewhere between the two extremes. Katniss Everdeen and Alex Rider are never in control of their own lives, but each of them volunteered (albeit under difficult circumstances). The risk, or course, is that the hero will plummet into the canyon in the middle, neither identifiable nor intriguing.

Other books split the active protagonist and the passive protagonist into two separate characters, which works surprisingly well. We empathise with Ishmael, we’re interested in Ahab. Holmes fascinates the readers, while Watson wins them over.

Ultimately, the kind of hero you have will be dictated by the kind of story you are trying to tell. The only advice that I can offer is this: work out what the protagonist wants. Even the most passive characters are hungry for something.


Jack Heath bio page
Money RunThe LabHit ListUgliesMockingjay (Hunger Games Trilogy)Mr. MonsterMoby Dick (Wordsworth Classics)

Beyond Good And Evil In Teen Fiction, by Ben Chandler

Do you believe in good and evil?

I was asked this question by a nine-year-old during my first public appearance as an author. I was both impressed and stunned. I mean, what nine-year-oldworries about good and evil? Stupid question. Every child does. Childhood is when we’re most concerned with the question. It’s only as we grow older that we’re introduced to the grey areas. When we’re young, we crave the simplicity of the good/evil dichotomy. It makes us feel safe, and that’s exactly why answering the above question is essential for writers of YA fantasy.

Here’s the thing: Good and Evil are boring. If you can answer the following question solely with reference to either, you’re writing is probably boring too: Why did your antagonists / protagonists do that? The assertions ‘my protagonist is good’ and ‘my antagonist is evil’ are fine in themselves, but they tell us absolutely nothing about who these people are or why they’re doing what they are doing. People don’t really sit around in their lairs plotting evil plots just for the sake of being evil, nor do they gallop around the countryside looking for pretty damsels to rescue just because they’re ‘good guys’(except maybe in parody or early 90s cartoons). Something drove them into that hollowed-out volcano or on that never-ending quest. I’m interested in what those something’s are. If you tell me it was ‘just because they’re evil’ or‘just because they’re good’ then I’m going to put your book down. This is what I like to call the Dark Lord Syndrome, or the Hero of Light Disease. It’s boring and, frankly, lazy writing. Writers need to give their characters some psychological depth and believable motivations.

Now, hang on a minute! What about that flaming eye in The Lord of the Rings or, you know, the Devil? I’m glad you asked, because these are the two most infamous Dark Lords in Western culture, and they are not simply embodiments of abstract evil. Sauron’s tale is actually pretty dense, and Lucifer’s fall is one of the most intriguing, most human, stories we have. It’s why Milton was accused of being ‘of the Devil’s party’ when he wrote Paradise Lost. The motivations behind Lucifer’s rebellion and subsequent fall are absolutely human. Milton’s Adam, on the other hand, comes off as the quintessential Good Guy who is so holier-than-thouthat no reader could possibly relate to him. Paradise Lost is a classic example of a perfect villain (Satan) and a completely awful hero (Adam). The former is complex and relatable, while the latter is good and perfect and boring as all Hell (see what I did there?).

Portraying characters with depth is vital in forging connections between those characters and their readers. Most readers just don’t relate to abstract principles. There’s nothing for them to latch onto. Writers need to give readers something more, put some meat on their characters’ bones. It’s the interesting fleshy bits that a reader will grab hold of and relate to.

If there’s any time for a writer to abandon simplistic notions of good and evil, it’s when they’re writing for a YA readership. Their readers have already caught a glimpse of the grey spaces and probably aren’t going to buy into the abstract absolutes any longer, particularly as motivating factors for the actions of heroes and villains. YA readers hunger for characters wrestling with the same moral dilemmas they are. They’ve moved beyond the simple answers they were given when they were growing up and are venturing into the grey, featureless moral wastes, perhaps for the very first time. This gives writers of YA fantasy plenty of scope to explore moral ambiguity in a way that’s meaningful for their readers and relevant to their characters.

So, do I believe in good and evil? Nope. I believe that even bad people have reasons for the things they do, even if those reasons seem like justifications or excuses to me, even if I think their actions are ‘evil’. We are none of us perfectly good, nor perfectly evil, and none of our YA characters should be either.


Ben Chandler author website:

Quillblade: Bk. 1 (Voyages of the Flying Dragon)Beast Child (Voyages of the Flying Dragon)The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Boxed SetThe Hobbit: Graphic NovelParadise LostDracula, Original Text: The Graphic NovelMacbeth (Wordsworth Classics)

Avoid Writing Characters Who Are Unrelatable, by Rhiannon Hart

When you’re writing a novel, it’s so important to make characters relatable and realistic. If you don’t, your readers will be rolling their eyes every time your character opens their mouth.

Have you noticed how so much of writing advice is what not to do? Show don’t tell. Go easy on the adverbs. You can have the same approach when you’re looking at characters. Some of my pet hates when it comes to what not to do when writing characters are:

Making them perfect

Little Miss goody-goody is respectful to her parents, kind to animals and is wracked with guilt if she thinks she’s crushing on the same guy as her BFF. She’s never impulsive, eats her vegetables, has neat handwriting and a pencil case full of all those beautifully coloured gel pens. Unchewed. And she never loses a pen cap. Oh, and bluebirds make her bed every morning. These girls make me feel frumpy and erratic in real life. I certainly don’t want to read about them. The highest praise I have received from reviewers who enjoyed my first book, Blood Song, is that they love how Zeraphina (my main character) isn’t perfect. She is selfish, and then feels ashamed. She’s impulsive and she knows it, but she just can’t help herself when there are people keeping secrets from her. This dissonance springs from her cravings for blood, and her subsequent horror that it might mean she’s a monster.

Making characters self-centred

The other day I opened a WIP from a year or two or go that I have been intending to finish. I reread several chapters, and I was bored. Every single character is excruciatingly self-centred. No one likes anyone else. Even best friends are secretly mortal enemies. Crushes are superficial. If I ever revisit this piece it’s going to require some serious surgery.

Having them fall in love with someone they don’t like, or don’t even know

This one comes from my experience as a reader. I have a favourite writer of non-fiction who also wrote some novels early in his career. When I began his the first one, I was quickly put off by how the main character met and quickly fell for a woman when the reader had been given only a superficial description of her. I wasn’t doing the falling with the character; I was watching it from the sidelines, askance. Not long after that I put the book down. When falling in love is so often central many novels (even when they’re not romance), it’s important to look at why and how quickly two characters fall for one another. Crushes can be baseless and superficial, of course. As can jealously. But the falling in love part has to be logical (which does sound absurd, but it’s true), timely and thoroughly examined.

Which brings me to my next point: when the ‘realisation moment’, the first kiss or confession or declaration or however it comes, falls flat. Some writers build up tension exquisitely between two characters and it’s not until just before the denouement (which I think is the best place to put the declaration moment, right before the climax of the story, when it’s not a straight romance) that they confess their love and finally kiss — and it’s done in the most off-hand, peremptory manner. A sort of ‘duh’ is written between the lines, and the two characters seem to squeeze each others arms and go, ‘Oh yeah, we love each other. We sort of knew it and it’s no big deal.’ Fade to black. Wha? No big deal?! It’s a MEGA deal. In real life when you discover someone likes you the way you like them it’s like a supernova goes off in your world. There’s a sense of wonder. Electricity. Joy. Perhaps some writers feel it’s a little cliché by now to make a big deal of a romantic scene. But I need it. And I’m sure a lot of other readers do too.

I canvassed Twitter for other readers opinions on what makes characters unrelatable, and variations on the above came up, as well as: love triangles in general, when motivations are confusing and illogical, general illogical behaviour, the ‘it’s behind you’ factor*, and when everyone’s dialogue sounds exactly the same. (I wanted to give proper credit for these, but Twitter is playing up. I will favourite Tweets and do better in the future, promise.)

What are your pet peeves that make characters unrelatable?

*Does everyone know what I mean when I say the ‘it’s behind you’ factor? It’s when something is staring the heroine (usually) right in the face or breathing down her neck, and she remains oblivious. Gah.


Rhiannon Hart author website:

Blood Song (Lharmell)Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great FictionCharacters, Emotions and Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints (Write Great Fiction)The The Sookie Stackhouse Companion: A Complete Guide to the Sookie Stackhouse SeriesFictional Minds (Frontiers of Narrative)Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification


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