Friday, May 31, 2013

Guest Post Exchange: Writing YA Characters That Kids Will Love and Adults Won't Even Notice by Michael Hiebert

I recently met author Michael Hiebert through Writer's Village University. He came up with the fantastic idea of exchanging guest posts on our blogs. If you're writing for the YA market, I think you'll really enjoy this post about winning over young adult readers. When you've read this one, go read mine on his blog! And leave us comments. They make us warm and giggly!

Writing YA Characters That Kids Will Love
& Adults Won't Even Notice

Michael Hiebert

I write a fair amount of YA, although if you looked at Amazon, you wouldn't know it. You'd see one book that gives the appearance of being a YA book, and that's my book Dolls. However, I also have five short story collections available and many of the stories in those books I would also call YA, even though the collections themselves don't say it on the covers. See, I trick people. What's the difference between a YA book and an adult book if the main character's a really cool kid who's designed to be a weapon and is only twelve years old, and the story is an SF/Fantasy with tons of rockets and exploding things, and it grips your attention and doesn't let go until nine thousand novella-length-words later? Far as I can tell, nothing. It's just a good story that you can leave on the table and if your kid happens to pick it up and start reading it, you don't have to snatch it away, embarrassed.

Kids don't want characters that pander to "their level." They want to read the same great stories everyone else is reading, albeit without any naughty words or elicit sex. And actually, I recently bought a Harlequin Teen Romance and I don't have any idea what age group it's targeted for, but there's more sex in that book than there was at my wedding. And it's a book about zombies (It's called Alice in Zombieland, if anyone's interested).

 I mentioned my one "official" YA book, Dolls. Let me tell you the premise: Sixth grader, Kite Morgan, is madly in love with boy in seventh grade who kisses her in water fountain lineup because he "apparently" broke up with his girlfriend, Carla Bell, the toughest girl in school. After school, Carla forces Kite to fight her in the playground because Carla's definition of break up is apparently different than everyone else's. The fight lasts ten seconds and Carla goes home with a black eye and a broken ego. Pulling out an old craft box, she makes a paper doll of Carla Bell and then proceeds to run over it with her little brother's Tonka truck.

 Strangely, ambulances race by their front window with their sirens blaring and lights flashing. Neighbor folk crowd the sidewalks and start walking toward where the vehicles have stopped. Kite follows, only to find the real Carla Bell underneath a real dump truck, looking very much like the paper doll on her table.

 It doesn't take much for Kite to put it all together.

 She's somehow learned to make voodoo paper dolls of her friends allowing her to torture them as she sees fit. The story then spirals out of control, but hey, I don't want to ruin it for you.

 The tag line? Absolute power corrupts absolutely--especially twelve-year-old girls.

 Some may think the story's a bit graphic for the age group. But kids LOVE it. My agent did make me change one thing, though. Originally, Carla died on impact. In the book now sitting on the shelf, she falls into a coma. It's actually funnier now anyway. I got a really funny line out of the coma bit. So, apparently, you can't kill kids in YA books, but putting them in comas is fine. Good to know.

 That's another thing. Don't pull back your humor with kids. They get it. They get it a lot more than we get it. Make your characters funny. And edgy. Don't be afraid of the Edgy Police.

 Then there's the biggest, most important rule of all: when you get to the end of your story and your characters need to figure out what's going on or your protagonist has to endure and win the Climax, the solution to the story cannot come from an adult. This is vitally important.

 Just as important is the use of Mentors. Mentors cannot be adults. They can be opposite of whatever your protagonist is. If she's a level-headed girl with street smarts, they can be the school nerds. If she's afraid of being picked on, a bully can become a Mentor, but the Mentor and all the rest of the major roles in your story have to be played by kids.

 And absolutely, positively do not put a moral into the story. Kids smell morals from a mile away. It will destroy any credibility you have. You can have a theme, just like you would in an adult novel, but make sure it's just a theme and not a moral.

 That's about that. Thanks for letting me sub-in for Mysti.

 Michael out.


Michael Hiebert is an award winning professional writer who owns enough books to make him never want to move again. He lives in Canada, in British Columbia's lower mainland to be exact, and has three children and a dog named Chloe that prefers sleeping to just about anything other than eating. His highly lauded mystery Dream with Little Angels just received a starred review on Publisher's Weekly and will be released by Kensington Publishers on  June 25th.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your post, Michael. I don't read a lot of YA, but you grabbed my attention and I want to read the books/stories you've written.

    Your advice for YA writers sounds good to me.


  2. See, this is what I love about advice from Michael Hiebert--it's never the advice I get from anyone else. I love your point about the mentor being both a peer of the MC and an opposite, like Fonzie and Richie on Happy Days.

    1. Exactly like Fonzie and Richie, although that wasn't really a Mentor/Apprentice role, it was more of a Warrior/Sidekick role.

  3. Joyce Hertzoff/MumMay 31, 2013 at 7:01 PM

    Michael, I have no idea whether any of my books should be YA. Even my YA librarian daughter can't tell me. But whether or not they are, your advice is excellent.

  4. I've never written YA, but this advice makes so much sense! If I ever give it a try, I'll put this wisdom to good use. Thanks, Michael! :)

  5. These days, Joyce, especially if you're writing fantasy or science fiction, the line between YA and adult is a very fine one. I think in most cases, kids are just reading the same thing as everybody else is.


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