I’ve been doing lots of reading about writing young adult fiction in connection with a talk I’m giving next week to my local Sisters in Crime chapter. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest pieces of advice is to avoid writing stereotypical, flat characters—the nerdy geek, the shallow blonde cheerleader, the macho jock, etc. For one thing, they’re boring to read about. And for another, they don’t exist.
Take a trip back to your own adolescence, and you realize that what you perceived about others—and what they perceived about you—often has little to do with how anyone felt on the inside. We’re all so much more complicated than whatever label got attached to us in school. Years ago, an old acquaintance blew through town on a visit, and on a whim, I asked her what she’d thought of me when we were in high school. “Oh,” she said, “you were so together, self-assured, grounded.”
I decided I must have been a much better actress in those days than I’d thought. I was one giant ball of insecurities and never felt like I fit in anywhere! But then, so many of us felt that way. This past week, I got a lovely email from one of my high school classmates. I was the editor-in-chief of our yearbook, and she told me how much it meant to her to be selected as one of the staff editors. She said she was never a member of the “popular” crowd and felt painfully shy and insecure. Being part of the yearbook team did wonders for her self-esteem.
Did I have any clue she’d felt that way? Absolutely not. All I knew was that she was really smart and nice and did great work. I had no idea she had as many self-doubts and internal struggles as I did. And she probably had no idea I was freaking out because I was being sexually harassed by the yearbook faculty advisor before I even knew what sexual harassment was.
To some extent, we wear masks throughout our lives. Our public personas don’t necessarily match how we’re feeling on the inside. This is especially true during adolescence when our emotions are all over the place, and we’re trying to figure out who we are while simultaneously worrying about what other people think of us.
Perhaps the greatest thing we can bring to our young adult readers is empathy and the willingness to dig deep into our characters. It can be comforting and reassuring to readers to find out that they’re not alone in experiencing the transition to adulthood as a painful, messy process. And, as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving.