Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Writing Self-Help: How Should Authors Portray the Protagonist in Young Adult Books?

by Lorilyn Roberts




For a book to make an impression on me, I must be able to identify with the protagonist. I think that is even more true with young adult readers. I remember reading a book by Randy Alcorn where the main character was a black man. I wondered if I would be able to relate to the protagonist. Mr. Alcorn did such a great job, I found myself fighting in the Vietnam War, being injured, and dealing with all the issues that the protagonist brought into his life from that event. 

I read the book for pure enjoyment, not knowing one day I would go back to school to get my Masters in Creative Writing. That book made an impression on me that never forgot. I realized that if a book is well-written, a reader should be able to identify with any kind of protagonist, and for me that even included a black man who fought in the Vietnam War.

Another example of a memorable protagonist is Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. I read the book when I was a young seventeen-year-old. I went to Margaret Mitchell School and grew up in Atlanta. I had frequently been to the area called Tara and knew the historical setting well. But it takes more than that to create a relationship between the protagonist and the reader. Why did I identity with Scarlet O’Hara beyond the obvious?

The author, Margaret Mitchell, created a main character that was believable, endearing, and unpredictable. Scarlett represented a strong woman who was determined, smart, beautiful, passionate, and full of envy and jealousy. 


When I read Gone with the Wind  as a young adult, I wanted to believe I was like her. I admired her, particularly her strong will, determination, and self-confidence that I lacked. I actually did possess many of her qualities; even the hard-headedness and being too independent. It caused me many issues just as it was Scarlett’s downfall. I could relate.

Young readers today, typically young ladies, are very much like Scarlett O’Hara in many ways. The women’s movement has done much to propel women in the direction of Scarlett. Plus, human nature doesn’t change. We might live in different eras and face different problems, but the way a protagonist tackles those problems is what makes the story marvelous and memorable. The conflict, the twists and turns in the plot, the emotional turmoil, the uncertainty, with sub-characters who bring out the best and the worst in the protagonist, makes for a great story.

A classic is one that has staying power and can be enjoyed by multiple generations. No matter how many times I read the book or watch the movie, the final scene is etched in my memory when Scarlett asks Rhett, “Where should I go, what should I do?” and Rhett replies, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” What an awesome way to end a six-hundred page book.

Above all, authors need to make the protagonist reader-friendly, especially in young adult books. I've read several negative reviews by readers on Amazon who simply didn't like the protagonist. Perhaps she was too self-centered, too immature, or too flawed. Young adults want to read about heroes and heroines. Give the reader a flawed main character whom he or she cares about, put the protagonist in a life or death situation, add a little bit of magic (young adults love that), and chances are you will hook your reader all the way to the last page. Of course, it's easier said than done, but someone will write that next best best-seller, and it might as well be you.



A great book to help with character development is: Creating Unforgettable Characters, by Linda Seger. You can purchase it on Amazon here.

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