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Three Ways to Make Your Characters Relatable

“I’m trying to set a good example for you!”

“I’d rather you were a relatable example.”*

*Excerpt from an actual conversation with one of my favorite teenagers.

How can authors who write YA  assure that teens will relate to our characters?

Share real moments—not just comfortable ones. Life is messy; life isn’t fair. Our attempts to win anything—be it a top grade on a test, a coveted job or internship, or the affections of a certain someone—often come to naught. Don’t make the path smooth and easy for your protagonist. Every scene in which a conflict is resolved should also introduce another, larger conflict.

Try these three tips to make your characters relatable:

Observe the real relationships around you. True story: a 16-year-old girl’s new stepbrother, also 16, appeared at the breakfast table one morning before school in a hideously mismatched Hawaiian shirt and plaid Bermuda shorts. She took one look at him, crossed her arms, and glowered. “You can NOT be serious.”

She was appropriately attired in a t-shirt from her favorite university, skinny jeans and Converse. She flatly refused to walk the three blocks to school with him unless he changed clothes. Like, now.

He appealed to the adults at the table, who both, trying not to hurt his feelings, agreed that he should change his outfit. He slouched back upstairs, and returned a few minutes later to take his place at the table—dressed in a t-shirt from the same university, skinny jeans, and Converse.

She huffed in frustration, but how could she criticize? He, quietly triumphant, kept a deadpan as he dug in and inhaled everything on his plate.

They left for school in tension-filled silence. One of the adults at the table muttered, “touche’,” and they held their laughter until they were sure the kids were out of earshot.

This anecdote is wonderful because it leaves unanswered questions. What’s really brewing between the two kids? Is he merely enjoying giving his new stepsister a hard time? Did he really intend to wear that Hawaiian shirt to school? Or is he testing the waters to see just how much attention she’s paying—to him?

Show conflicting emotions. In Counteract, Tommy and Careen meet on the morning of a terrorist attack. They’ve only been talking for a few minutes when the disaster siren goes off. Tommy unhesitatingly shares his last dose of the antidote that will protect them against the airborne toxins. They spend a day and a night together waiting to die, unsure if the reduced dose will be enough to protect them.

When the danger has passed and it seems certain they’re going to survive, Careen appears to be in no hurry to leave. Tommy begins to hope she might be interested in him.

But Careen’s got an agenda–and a romantic connection with Tommy’s not in her plan.  She shoots him down–but it’s more complicated than Tommy realizes. Later, Careen reflects on their conversation:

Alone, Careen slipped off her boots and lay on the sofa, wrapping herself in the cozy blanket she’d shared with Tommy the night before. She’d wanted to leave, but the blanket was more comforting than anything that awaited her at home. She wondered if it was a mistake to push him away.

Careen rolled over and tugged at the blanket, trying hard not to think about kissing him. Of course I feel a connection. We thought we were going to die, and so we have a bond of sorts. And there was definitely something about him, even if it was a fragile kind of something. She was used to hiding her heart, but Tommy wanted, needed, someone to care about. She couldn’t bear to cause him more hurt than she already had.

Any feelings I think I have for Tommy are because of some meaningless dream and the fear of imminent death. He deserves someone who’s ready to love him back. He deserves someone better than me. She buried her face in the pillow. I don’t want to be the one he needs.

Let them make mistakes.
Careen says some heartless things to Tommy that are designed to push him away, and, during the first draft stage, I didn’t plan on letting her treat Tommy so callously. Heck, I like him, too!

But the dialogue was dragging. I wasn’t sure how to fix it, and I was shocked when Careen spoke inside my head. “That’s not what I would say there.”

Direct communication with one of my fictional characters was a new experience for me, and I replied to the empty room. “Umm…but that’s what the outline says you’re supposed to say.”

“I don’t care about the outline. I would say [no spoilers] instead.”

“But that’s so mean! Tommy doesn’t deserve to be treated that way.”

“I don’t care. It’s who I am right now. You have to let me be who I am so I can grow.”

In the beginning of Counteract, Careen is a pretty selfish young lady. She has her reasons—but she shows little concern for others around her. She seems always on the defensive, unwilling to get close to anyone. Many things that have happened to her were beyond her control.

In time, she realizes that she’s not the only one affected by the circumstances surrounding the terrorist attack. Will she risk her own safety for an opportunity to expose the truth?

Above all, to create characters your readers will identify with, pay attention to the people around you. Seek out personal contact and…relate.

If you liked this post, you may like other things I’ve written. Click here to check out the Resistance Series books!

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