15 ways to create an unforgettable ya protagonist blog post image

15 Ways to Create an Unforgettable YA Protagonist

by Matthew Del Busto

So, the perfect plot for a YA book has been simmering in your mind for months now. You’re dying to start writing, but you don’t want to until you have a better idea of the main character, the MC. But here’s the problem—you can see all the secondary characters as clear as day. It’s just the MC you can’t quite get, and you know they have to be good.

Fear not, dear writer! As an avid YA reader (and real-life young adult) myself, let these tips guide you and you’ll be on the right track in no time.

Names matter.

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One of the first things you likely tried to do when thinking of your character was naming him or her, and that’s good. Names are important; we all know that. But does your character’s name have significance? (If you want an in-depth analysis on coming up with some great names, try starting here.) Don’t be afraid to spend some time thinking about a good name for your main character. Will it be symbolic? Suggestive of an inner struggle? Ironic? Sure, a name is just a couple of words, but it’s the label for the most important character in your novel.

Get to know them.

This may sound a little silly, but try to imagine meeting your MC for coffee. What would they be wearing? How would they talk, and what would they talk about? What would they order? Going through situations in your head with a character with help you think through and more fully understand them. Another great way to get to know them would be if you…

Try widening your perspective.

A problem for me with creating characters is that I always try to create them from the inside-out. I imagine what they’d be like, what kind of personality they’d have, things like that. But, what about the MC’s mom? How would she look at him/her? What about the MC’s best friend? A great way to understand your MC is by getting into the heads of other characters in your book and reflecting on how they would see them.

Point of view is key.

The big question: should you tell your story in first person or third person? Personally, I love first person. It’s a more intimate reading experience, and I love hearing the internal thoughts and quips of the protagonist. However, first person is also limiting. You have to stick to that unique voice throughout the entire novel, and you can’t explore topics or events that are beyond the character’s purview. On the other hand, third person can be omniscient and less restricted as far as voice. Certainly, each point of view has its strong points. While I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer, the perspective in which readers will see and come to know your protagonist certainly has an effect on the story.

Give them a body to live in!

Now, physical description of your protagonist likely won’t take up all that much of the story, but having enough there for the reader to get a picture of the protagonist is important. Who could forget Harry’s lightning-shaped scar and messy jet-black hair or Ron’s flaming red hair and freckles?

Show, don’t tell.

This is heard time and time again in writing, but it remains as important in creating a YA MC as anywhere else. Don’t tell me your protagonist has a big mouth that gets him in trouble, just showing him mouthing off to a teacher and I’ll know right away. We readers are smart enough to connect the dots.

There’s a young adult in it.

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If it’s a YA book, give us a YA protagonist, and make it realistic. It gets weird when TV shows feature high school-aged main characters who are really played by 20-somethings. By the same token, it’s also weird when high school-aged protagonists behave like they’re older (see this article, under “You’re Really Writing 20-Year-olds”).

Make me laugh!

I love all kinds of books—sad ones, weird ones, funny ones, adventures, mysteries, and so on. Regardless of the genre, I think there’s always room for a dash of humor, and I love funny parts in books. A witty or snarky MC with some one-liners is someone I remember for a long time.

Include a Catchphrase.

No, this doesn’t have to be a superhero comic strip for your character to have a catchphrase. By “catchphrase” I mean anything as simple as a word or phrase they say throughout the novel, like the word “fuggin’” in John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. It’s little, but it sticks with me to this day, and I smile thinking back on it now.

Quirks are great!

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These are a bit like catchphrases but have more to do with something the protagonist does throughout the novel, or a hobby or fascination they have. Let’s be honest: people are weird. So, give us a weird protagonist! Maybe your MC has a fascination with the 1930s that really doesn’t have to be in the novel, but their constant musing on it becomes an enjoyable quirk throughout the book. In all actuality, a “weird” character is usually more human and realistic than one that just fits perfectly into a stereotype.

I feel their pain.

Well, we already know that the MC should be a young adult (see Number 7). Now that I know they’re like me, I want to be close enough to them that I’m riding the highs and lows of their lives with them throughout the book. If he gets let down by a friend, I want to feel the devastation. If she finally talks to her crush, I want to be just as excited as she is. Experiencing intimate moments with the MC is a sure way that I’ll remember them for a long time.

They’re dynamic.

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Now, I’m not saying the protagonist has to change completely by the end of the story. But, I do want to follow a story where the MC encounters scenarios and people that lead them to make decisions by the end of the novel they wouldn’t have made at the get-go. This adds to the realistic element of the story in a big way. We change so much between year 12 and year 18. It’s only natural to show that growth in your YA character as they discover new things and surprise themselves along the way.

They surprise themselves.

Flowing naturally from Number 12, it’s important enough to me to make it its own point. Just as we so often surprise ourselves by the things we do (or don’t do) in our day-to-day life, so too do I appreciate when the protagonist does something that they are astonished by.

They’re not perfect!

At some point in the story, I should probably be facepalming at something the protagonist did. Teenage years are years of excessive mistakes, goofs, laughs, cringes, and tears. Just as I’m hoping to do a lot of fist pumping in excitement at the good things the protagonist does, I’m also wanting some hold-my-head-in-my-hands moments because the protagonist goofed up.

They have buddies!

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Pretty much every great YA protagonist I know has some friends. Alex has Darla (Ashfall), Harry’s got Ron and Hermione (Harry Potter), Katniss has Gale and Peeta (Hunger Games), Hazel has Gus (The Fault in Our Stars)…the list goes on and on. A good couple secondary characters can really add some color and fresh perspective to your MC. So, right next to your great protagonist, make sure they have a family member or a friend or two journeying alongside them throughout the novel.

Writing a great main character for your YA novel certainly isn’t going to be easy, but it can be done! If you follow these above tips, you could create a character who comes to life in the novel and stays alive in the minds of your readers for years to come.

Any other tips you want to share? Please let us know! Comment below, or tweet us @TangewoodPub to start the conversation!