I’ve been a middle school teacher longer than I’ve been an author. While 2019 marks my debut year, it also marks my twentieth year teaching middle school literacy. Juggling these two careers is challenging, but I also benefit from the overlap between both roles. What I’ve learned being an author helps me teach writing better. And what I’ve learned as a teacher has made me a better writer. Some of the principles I use to write YA fiction, I learned from teaching and spending my days with young adults.
Young adults are in the early stages of figuring out who they want to be
These early stages of self-discovery have always been one of my favorite parts—and one of the most challenging parts—of teaching. Because while some teens have a clear vision of who they want to be, they struggle to be that person consistently. I keep this in the back of my head when I’m creating characters, especially when I consider “what a character wants” vs “what a character needs.” Those two ideals always conflict, especially during adolescence. Another favorite activity involves filling in the following blanks: My main character is ___________ until _____________. “ Lia is strong until she gets near crowds and her past traumas overwhelm her.” Or “Lia is savvy until she can’t figure something out and her obsessive, reckless nature takes over.” Both exercises help me define my characters’ personalities and how they will react in challenging situations. Naturally, once I figure out their triggers, I love to push them to their limits. Obviously the journey of self-discovery can last a while. I turned forty-one this year, and I’ve finally figured out who I am. Still, there is something very appealing about creating characters in the beginning of it.
Young adults are often influenced by outside factors beyond their control
By the time a student arrives in my classroom at 8:30 a.m., their availability to engage and attend to my class has already been influenced by hundreds of factors. This is because their story begins before my first encounter with them as their teacher. Breakfast, for example, can have a dramatic impact on their frame of mind: whether they ate, with whom they ate, whether their company was in a cheery or foul mood during breakfast, whether they had to make their own breakfast, whether they had enough food in the cabinets to make breakfast. The list is endless. I love to consider this when my characters—especially my secondary characters—enter a scene. They are walking into that scene with a back story that began well before that scene takes place and often times with young adults, the external factors impacting their day or frame of mind are beyond their control. The decisions of adults in their lives—parents, guardians, teachers—play an influential role in YA stories. This allows writers to develop characterization through the teen’s reactions and attitudes to the limitations placed on them.
Young adults need and want exposure to dark topics handled responsibly
Many of my students over the years have faced dark challenges. Others have witnessed friends and loved ones battle them. I’ve seen so many of those teens turn to books and stories as a coping mechanism or a way to make sense of their own experiences. As authors, we have to keep those readers in mind. It’s our responsibility to write about dark topics with authenticity, but without the sensationalism or glorification of the topic. If you write about suicide, for example, you have to consider your audience. You will have teenagers reading it who have thought about suicide, attempted suicide, lost a loved one to suicide. Because of it, you have to consider what those readers will take away from your book.
Young adults tend to be both more reactive and more resilient than adults
Adolescent behavior often comes down to brain science. Teens are more likely to take risks and act impulsively because of brain development. But taking risks and impulsivity don’t have to be negative qualities. In fact, heightened risk-taking and impulsivity can develop a character’s heroic qualities as we often see in YA fiction. These qualities can also make for exciting, active characters, as long as it isn’t at the risk of intelligence or maturity. More brain science to consider while writing characters: the adolescent brain is also remarkably resilient. Recent studies have emphasized the importance of connections in fostering resiliency. The more a teen connects, the more resilience they demonstrate, especially after trauma. That makes your secondary characters pivotal in your main character’s arc.
Young adults need diverse stories told from authentic perspectives
As a teacher, I need stories to reflect the diversity in my classroom. I want students to see themselves represented and reflected on the page, and I’m so happy when I find strong books told from diverse perspectives that I can put on my shelves. That said, teens deserve authenticity. When my students choose books hoping to see themselves on the page, they feel the deepest connections with the characters who have been created by authors with similar experiences. Authors should tell the story they want to write without shying away from difficult topics. But authors also need to ask themselves if they are the right person to tell that story. I made sure when creating Lia that her struggles felt authentic because they reflected my own experiences with anxiety and PTSD. If readers see themselves on the page in my book, I want their connection to be valid and authentic.
Having both teaching and writing in my life gives me a heightened understanding of my students, my audience, and even my own children. While it can be chaotic, I find myself constantly learning and striving to be better because it’s what young adults deserve.
Kimberly Gabriel is the author of EVERY STOLEN BREATH (November 5, 2019; HarperCollins/Blink), a fast-paced and immersive Young Adult thriller that shows just how hard one girl–who is struggling with both her father’s death and debilitating asthma–will fight back, knowing that any breath might be her last. She started writing in fourth grade when she penned, bound, and gave away books of terrible poetry to family and teachers as holiday gifts. Today she is an English teacher in the suburbs of Chicago who still squanders all free minutes to write and uses it as the best scapegoat for her laundry avoidance issues. You can visit her at www.kimberlygabriel.com