5 Secret Ingredients for Writing a Killer Teen Novel

by Kathleen Baldwin

Today I will give you 5 secret ingredients that will inspire teens to shell out their allowance money to buy your super-cool teen novel. And not just teens…

5 Secret Ingredients for Writing a Killer Teen Novel

Scary Halloween laboratory

If you are writing Young Adult fiction, nearly 50% of your audience may be adults.

Yep, and some of them might be as old as eighty or maybe even ninety. Age doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t, not when it comes to reading teen novels. Some people stay young at heart forever. So whether the average YA reader is 65 or 12, when they pick up your book, they’re looking for a novel with some very specific features.

Those features may not be the ones you think they are…

When I got into the fiction business, I assumed I was writing romantic comedies for adults. Ha! Apparently not. My brother-in-law, a professor of English at a prestigious university and at the time also president of the National English Teachers Association, said, “You do realize you are writing YA, don’t you?”

“I insisted he was wrong, but a few months later, a prominent book reviewer contacted me requesting an interview. “Kathleen, you do know you are writing YA, don’t you? And you really ought to be more intentional about it.”

More intentional??? I intended to write comedic, satirical romances like Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde. I thought that was what I’d done. Following the book reviewer’s stern lecture, I decided to figure out why everyone thought I was writing YA.

What is the difference?

I needed to know, so I read YA and middle-grade fiction. I studied manuals on writing for that market. Some advice seemed to fit, some did not. I read more books, talked with teens and librarians, and kept reading.

(Did you notice the abundant use of the word read?) Here’s a quote from New York Times bestselling author Tony Hillerman “When I was teaching writing — and I still say it — I taught that the best way to learn to write is by reading.”

After reading and studying, I tackled a new series armed with an arsenal of YA-centric secret weapons. My alternate history for teens garnered multiple offers and finally sold to TorTeen—MacMillan’s teen publishing imprint at Tor Forge. The New York Times Sunday Book reviewcalled School for Unusual Girls, “…enticing from the first sentence.” Kansas NEA awarded it “Best of the Best” for high schools, it was a featured Junior Library Guild Selection, Texas ALA made it part of their SPOT middle grade reading program, and it was optioned for film by Ian Bryce, producer of Saving Private Ryan, Spiderman, Transformers, and other blockbusters.

I mention these accolades so you’ll have confidence that I know a little something about writing a successful teen novel.

My Top 5 Secret Ingredients…

Dozens of websites out there can give you the basics, but I figure you here at WITS are above all that. You’re ready for the secret sauce recipe, right? You already know the main characters can’t be thirty-five, that mama can’t ride in on her white stallion and save the kid from all the trouble he’s gotten into, and generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to throw in any graphic language or erotica. Although…I’ve seen that done. I’m not advocating it, just saying the lines keep shifting, and I’ve seen it done.

Only Splendid Characters Are Allowed into
the Inner Sanctum

The first secret ingredient is a relatable character. “Okay, okay,” I hear you saying, “That’s not a secret. There are hundreds of books on characterization.” And I suspect you’ve probably read dozens of them. I’m with you. My personal favorite is an older book by Robert Peck called Fiction is Folks.

Pssst, the actual secret is building a character that teenagers trust enough to allow into their inner sanctum, a character they can identify with. Trouble is, there isn’t just one character type everyone will find relatable. Not that you’re writing for everyone. You’re not! You are writing for YOUR unique reader. See my post on finding YOUR reader.  

However, there seem to be several character traits that have a remarkably universal appeal. Harry Potter is one of the most widely-loved characters in Fictionville. Let’s examine his relatability factors:Orphaned.

• Orphaned.

While not all of us have been orphaned, many readers have felt left out, unloved, or unimportant at one time or another in their lives. the issue is not whether your character has both living parents, one, or none. The feeling of being abandoned and on their own is the critical component.

• Parents died trying to save him.

This is a hopeful characteristic. Even though now others minimize him and make him feel valueless, at one time Harry was so important his parents and others were willing to die to save him. This goes to the reader’s need to feel important despite external evidence.

• Feels left out and alone.

This is a fairly universal experience, especially among young readers. Addressing and arcing this emotion is a critical factor in teen literature.

• The worst villain in the world wants to kill or convert him.

This is a handy factor. The fact that this terrifyingly powerful villain is after him validates Harry’s importance while also providing jeopardy and conflict for the story.

• He’s smart but unassuming.

Readers relate to characters who are smart but not braggadocios. Clever but not all-knowing.

• Brave but not fearless.

It’s okay to be afraid. Fear is normal. Most readers crave a fictional experience wherein a character overcomes their fears. However, a total cowering scaredy-cat might be a turn-off.

• He discovers he is gifted with special powers

Characters with a gift or gifts are appealing—it needn’t be magic, but it does need to be something interesting. All of us are gifted in some way or another. It is exciting, rewarding, and satisfying to discover those gifts. Consider Anne of Green Gables. She wasn’t magic; she was irrepressible and incurably enthusiastic and able to lift the spirits of people around her.

Take a look at other successful characters who share many of Harry Potter’s appealing traits:  Luke Skywalker, Cinderella, Snow White, Black Beauty, Heidi, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Anne of Green Gables, Pippi Longstockings, Tris Prior in Divergent, Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games, Percy Jackson in the Lightning Thief, and the list goes on for miles.

• Unpredictable Adventure

Take your interesting relatable characters and plunge them into an unpredictable adventure! WHOA! Wait, don’t grab your pencil just yet.

Busting free of predictability is trickier than you think. You have watched, read, or listened to thousands of stories. THOUSANDS! In his brilliant book on plot, Robert McKee warns us not to use the first five ideas that come to mind. The first five ideas will be mimics of ones we have seen, heard, or read. He encourages writers to brainstorm until they reach the tenth idea. Then they’ll begin getting fresher ideas. Go ahead, try it. Getting to ten is tough.

Years ago, I put my psychology background to use and built a brainstorming shortcut that I shared with many of my writing students. I love this tool. It is so handy that it has been plagiarized all over the internet. I want to give it to you today in its original form along with my commentary. It tricks your brain into bypassing the stuff you’ve seen a hundred times.

Image of a magic top hat suspended in air at an angle with a magic wand sprinkling sparkling Secret Ingredients for Writing a Killer Teen Novel into the hat.

Kathleen Baldwin’s Magical Marvelous Idea Jump-Starter Tool

Let’s employ Joss Whedon’s superbly relatable character, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Let us suppose Buffy is walking through a graveyard at midnight…

1. What’s Obvious?

What does your reader expect will happen? What idea pops into your head first? The obvious idea is:

  • vampire jumps out and attacks Buffy; they fight, and she wins.


2. What’s blatantly opposite?

Consider all the elements of the first concept and write down a directly opposite idea, no matter how inane or outlandish:

  • What if a happy clown pops out of a headstone a

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