Untie the Tropes: Write In-Depth YA Protagonists

with Elisa Bonnin

transcending teen tropes ya writing course

Young adult (YA) fiction has become increasingly popular in the last two decades, with readers old and young enjoying YA books. If you’re an avid YA reader, or a writer who’s noticed the trends, you might be thinking about making your next project YA, or you might have written a few YA novels yourself. While young adult books can be written in all genres, they share some similarities, and one of those is the protagonist. YA protagonists are almost always teenagers, with everything that entails. If you’re intimidated by the idea of writing a teenage main character, this course is for you.

In this course, we’ll talk about how YA protagonists differ from protagonists in adult fiction, and how to develop protagonists that are deeply tied to their families, communities, and worlds. And since YA fantasy is such a popular genre of YA, we’ll also talk about how to let these kids save the world and still be part of their families and communities. We’ll discuss some of the most common YA tropes and explore alternatives, and talk about how to make your teen’s backstory line up believably with their age.

Each week, you’ll have a writing assignment designed to help you get to know your YA protagonist and directly apply the techniques discussed in the lecture. You’ll create your protagonist from scratch, starting with the most basic of character creation essentials and ending with a one-page character synopsis detailing the plot of your novel from your main character’s point of view.

This class is for writers of all skill levels, but will be best for writers who already have an idea, no matter how small, for the story they want to write. Your idea can be as small as a what-if question, a single image, an aesthetic or a song that inspires you, but it should be something you’ll want to build on over the next five weeks. Come prepared to discuss, share, and build characters and worlds together.

Learning and Writing Goals

By the end of this course, students will:

  • Learn what makes a book a young adult novel, including audience and industry expectations.
  • Understand the role of a protagonist in fiction and the differences between a protagonist and other characters in the story.
  • Develop, from the ground up, a YA protagonist who is fully integrated into the world around them and into the plot of the story.
  • Learn tools for character creation and development that can be applied across all genres of fiction.

Students will build their own unique protagonist through weekly writing assignments and receive feedback from the instructor and some of their peers.

Zoom Schedule

This class will meet once a week on Mondays at 1:30 PM ET. Zoom meetings will be used to discuss the topic of the week, with the meeting time divided between lectures and discussion.
Attendance at the weekly lecture session is not mandatory, and lectures will be recorded.

Weekly Syllabus

Week 1: The Making of a Protagonist

We’ll begin by discussing what makes a protagonist a protagonist and what makes a book YA. This week, we’ll go over genre conventions, what people expect from a young adult novel, and what people expect from a protagonist. By the end of the week, you should have your protagonist’s basic details down.

Writing Goals:

  • Fill out a basic character sheet with some information about your protagonist, their goals, and a one-sentence summary of their story.

Week 2: Setting, Culture and Magic

In our second week, we’ll look at how our protagonists are affected by the world they live in. We’ll talk about how the worldbuilding of the story can affect a protagonist’s character, and how their characters are influenced by culture. Since speculative themes are so popular in YA novels, we will also discuss the role magic and other speculative elements play in defining our protagonists.

Writing Goals:

  • Build a cultural background for your protagonist, and make notes about how that background affects the way they behave and their outlook on the world.

Week 3: A Case for Living Parents

In our third week, we’ll talk about the prevalence of orphans in young adult and children’s fiction. We’ll discuss why this trope is popular, why people both write and read orphan stories, and the types of stories where killing off the protagonist’s parents works. We will talk about the role that family plays in children’s literature and discuss some ways to include family members without disrupting the adventure. The goal of this week is to have authors consider how the protagonist fits in their family and how their family.

Writing Goals:

  • Flesh out your protagonist’s family, writing short character sheets for their parents, other adults in their lives, and any siblings they might have.
  • Write a brief (one sentence to one paragraph) summary about where each of their family members are at the beginning of the story and the role they play in the plot.
  • Summarize (one sentence each) how the various members of the family influence the protagonist, the way they make choices, and the way they perceive the world.

Week 4: Acting Your Age

Week four is all about age and life experience. We’ll talk about the difference between a teenage protagonist and an adult protagonist, and how to believably write teenage characters without having them read either as adults or as a teenage stereotype. We’ll also talk about establishing a timeline and making sure that the character’s age lines up with their backstory and accomplishments.

Writing Goals:

  • Expand your one-sentence summary of the character’s role into a one-paragraph of at least five sentences.
  • Build onto your protagonist’s history by establishing the timeline of their life up until the start of the story. Make sure that there is enough time in the character’s life for them to reach the role planned at the story’s start.

Week 5: The Heart of the Story

For our last week, we’ll talk about theme. We’ll discuss the sort of stories we tell as young adult authors and what we hope teen readers will get out of our books. We’ll talk about how to give the character’s internal and external conflicts that support the theme of the story and discuss how a character’s development can be affected by the theme. At the end of the class, we’ll also talk about resources to start writing the story.

Writing Goals:

  • Name a theme or major conflict of the story, and outline both the character’s internal struggle and the external conflict that drives the plot.
  • Expand your one-paragraph summary into a one-page character synopsis.
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Student Feedback for Elisa Bonnin:

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Elisa A. Bonnin was born and raised in the Philippines, after which she moved to the United States to study chemistry and later oceanography. After completing her doctorate, she moved to Germany to work as a postdoctoral scientist. A lifelong learner, Elisa is always convinced that she should “maybe take a class in something” and as a result, has amassed an eclectic collection of hobbies. But writing will always be her true love. Publishing a book has been her dream since she was eight years old, and she is thrilled to finally be able to share her stories. She is the author of Dauntless and Stolen City.