Monday Advice from Editors & Agents – Be Mean to Teens


Starting today, I’ll be blogging every Monday (or having guest bloggers in) to talk about advice from editors and agents – whether we followed the advice, disagreed with it, or tossed it out the window.

Being Mean to Your Main Character

At the 2009 SCBWI-IL Prairie Writer’s Day Conference, Nicholaus Eliopulos, editor at Scholastic, talked about writing for young adults. Nicholas, “who tends to do ‘guy’ books because he’s a guy editor,” had lots to say. I recommend reading the whole blog summary of his talk here but one of his gems of advice really made an impression on me. He said:

“You… need to be as mean to your main character as possible.”

I completely agree with this. It’s terrific advice for any kind of writing, from picture books to adult horror. Characters need to face incredible obstacles on their way to a happy, or resolved, ending. It may sound trite, but a good story really is all about the old adage, Conflict builds or breaks character.

Eliopulos’ advice is especially interesting to implement when you’re writing for young adults. Teens in high school have a low threshold for “mean.” Everything and everybody is out to make their life hell. That means they are – or feel they are – constantly battling the whole world. This makes for a character arc with sustained high drama.

Being mean to a teen

I’m currently updating the script for a play for middle school students. In brainstorming issues that face such students today, my production partners came up with many things that remain issues for many years past eighth grade, including (in alphabetical order):

  • Awareness of darkness/problems in the world; fear of dystopian futures
  • Bullying
  • Cheating
  • Diagnoses – ADD, ADHD, bipolar, OCD, etc.
  • Egos – both indestructible and fragile; embarrassment
  • Emotional highs and lows, anger, depression
  • Freedom
  • Grades
  • Hormones and The Opposite Gender
  • Interpersonal/communication skills
  • Money
  • Parents, divorce, abuse
  • Peer pressure
  • Personal appearance
  • Popularity/cliques
  • Sense of immediacy, breeding FOMO or Fear of Missing Out
  • The “reality” of reality TV

So many, many ways to be cruel to your teen protagonist!

I’d love to hear from you about the particular meanness you’ve hurled at your main character.

About Donna Maloy

History, Mystery... and sometimes a touch of Fantasy. Historical adventures for Teens, Tweens and Young Adults.
This entry was posted in Characters, Conflict, Young Adult books, Young adults. Bookmark the permalink.

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