How to Write Young Adult Fantasy: Part 3 — Memorable Characters

“Swear to God, Perce, if I remembered, I’d tell you.” I take another swallow of sherry straight out of the decanter and set it down on the sideboard, nearly missing. It lands a little harder than I meant. “It’s a burden, you know.”

“What is?”

“Being this good-looking. Not a soul can keep their hands off me.”

He laughs, closemouthed. “Poor Monty, such a cross.”

“Cross? What cross?”

“Everyone falls in immediate, passionate love with you.”

“They can hardly be blamed. I’d fall in love with me, if I met me.” And then I flash him a smile that is equal parts rapscallion and boyish dimples so deep you could pour tea into them.

Henry “Monty” Montague from Mackenzie Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue embodies everything I adore in a character: he’s highly flawed, funny, and flirtatious, yet earnest in his love for his best friend Percy. Characters are the backbone of every good story, and it’s especially important to make sure your protagonist is someone worth following.

Part one and part two of this series defined the genre, examined high-concept premises, and explored what makes for vivid world-building and a strong narrative voice. Here, we’ll focus on the remaining three of the six elements for writing better YA fantasy, all of which relate to characters: a driven protagonist, contrasting relationships, and meaningful friendships.

4. A Driven Protagonist

Readers are naturally attracted to characters who yearn for something, whether they want to protect their loved ones, master their magic, or find answers about their past. These types of protagonists actively pursue what they want.

Passive characters, on the other hand, let the story carry them along on its current, which can make them seem undefined. Since our words and actions reveal who we are, it’s hard to get a good sense of someone’s personality when we don’t see them making choices.

YA fantasy novels that feature driven protagonists

While reading The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, I admired Jude’s drive to prove her strength. Being a human in the Faerie realm, she’s constantly the underdog, in that the fae view humans as inferior beings. But Jude is resourceful and persistent. When she loses a fight, the Faerie prince Cardan bullies her:

“Do you know what a mortal means? It means born to die. It means deserving of death. That’s what you are, what defines you — dying. And yet here you stand, determined to oppose me even as you rot away from the inside out, you corrupt, corrosive mortal creature.”

He tells her to get down on her knees and beg. Jude is too prideful to surrender. Instead, she shows her resolve to fight:

“I am going to keep on defying you. I am going to shame you with my defiance. You remind me that I am a mere mortal and you are a prince of Faerie. Well, let me remind you that means you have much to lose and I have nothing. You may win in the end, you may ensorcell me and hurt me and humiliate me, but I will make sure you lose everything I can take from you on the way down. I promise you this” — I throw his own words back at him — “this is the least of what I can do.”

The Trope of the Strong Female Character

In YA fantasy, you hear a lot about “strong female characters,” and oftentimes these are depicted as tomboys who hate dresses and makeup and would rather stab people with a sword. Garth Nix’s Sabriel is an example of a total badass female character who’s stoic and wise beyond her years.

Other books in the genre have shown that embracing traditionally feminine qualities, like loving to bake or caring about one’s appearance, doesn’t make a character weak. For example, in Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins, the heroine of the story is a girly Southern belle who gains supernatural fighting powers.

A woman doesn’t need to be unemotional and physically powerful in order to be strong — nor does a man. We can admire driven characters for their intelligence, strength of will, kindness, empathy, loyalty, skill, values, or perseverance.

Look at the Harry Potter series, which becomes more YA than children’s fantasy as it progresses: Harry is talented at Defense Against the Dark Arts and Quidditch, but he’s otherwise an average student and wizard. It’s his friendships and his values that drive him forward — and his hero complex can even turn into a fatal flaw, as it did in The Order of the Phoenix, when Harry falls into Voldemort’s trap at the Ministry of Magic by believing the visions put in his head. His emotions got the better of him.

Creating a Likable Protagonist

More than other genres, YA tends to prefer driven characters who are likable. Likability can appear in a number of forms. The lead characters of An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir are likable in their noble intentions:

  • Laia goes undercover to save her brother
  • Elias is a soldier who wants to rebel against the wrongdoings of the Empire
  • Helene struggles to choose between protecting Elias and staying loyal to her family

Even antiheroes can be likable in their drive to achieve their goals. Xifeng, the protagonist of Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, heads down a path of darkness, becoming more villainous as the story progresses. It’s a reimagining of how the evil queen from Snow White rose to power — yet the reader can empathize with her desire to be free and make her own choices.

As in all fiction, YA fantasy stories are most satisfying when the characters grow and change. Author March McCarron notes:

“Because the characters are young, they often have the opportunity to change more dramatically. You see this with young characters in adult fiction too, but it’s more of a necessary ingredient in YA. Take a book like The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson for an example: the transformation of the protagonist in this story is so significant that she is hardly recognizable by the end, and the ability to watch that journey is precisely what makes the series so successful.”

Things Readers Hate in a Protagonist

On the flip side, what makes a character unlikable? Readers often gripe about certain qualities when it comes to YA heroes and heroines. Among them are characters who are…

Mary Sues or Gary Stus. These characters are completely perfect, with no personality flaws. They always sacrifice themselves for others without question and stand up against villains who are obviously evil. They might also be overpowered, with rare abilities no one has wielded in thousands of years, and they easily destroy their enemies. These traits can result in a bland and unrealistic character who has no internal conflict and never fails, making them unrelatable to the reader.

This connects to the larger problem of the characters being…

Boring. Instead of being a super special Mary Sue or Gary Stu, the character is a totally Average Joe. They have no skills, hobbies, interests, aspirations, opinions, or thoughts to distinguish them from any other person. All their emotions are predictable, generic responses. They cry at all the sad parts, gasp at all the surprising ones. They show none of the complex emotions that are part of the human experience.

Both perfection and averageness make for flat characters. We want to create personalities that readers can root for and relate to, but that means digging deep and showing that people are complicated, messy, unique. Add more realism by being specific about what makes your character tick:

  • What are they opinionated about?
  • What makes them mad?
  • What makes them act like a fangirl?

We’re drawn toward people who feel strongly for or against something. Maybe they start cooing every time they see a dog, or they can’t help but start a fight whenever someone insults their religion. Find what motivates them and what other people tend to criticize them for.

Worse than a boring character is one who’s…

Stupid. There’s a fine line between a character making silly mistakes and taking risks. Imagine a main character with no fighting skills heading into a battle completely unprepared just because he wants to play hero. And then he inevitably gets captured by the enemy and his more powerful friends have to rescue him. That’s frustrating. However, if the character had some type of weapon and thought he had a pretty good chance of winning, the reader can understand him taking that risk. The choice needs to have logical motivations behind it and not just exist to create narrative conflict.

If a character is stupid, they might also be…

Annoying or Whiny. Make sure your protagonist isn’t worrying or complaining about the same thing over and over, for chapters on end. Crying every other page also gets old. These are normal human emotions, and the problem is more one of repetition. Characters can get annoyed or whine, but they shouldn’t do so for hundreds of pages because readers crave variety.

Complaining also might make these characters seem…

Judgmental. If the heroine sneers at every other female character or a hero believes they’re smarter and more talented than everyone else, many readers will instantly dislike them. They won’t want to cheer on a Negative Nancy who talks crap about everyone. That being said, a judgmental protagonist can work if it’s framed as a character flaw and they change by the end.

The plot will carry itself if the protagonist is driven to achieve a specific goal — to save their sibling, get revenge, steal an artifact that once belonged to their family. They will have to make tough choices and mistakes during that journey. If they’re likable in any way, the reader will care about what happens to them. And if they’re interesting, with personalities unique to them, the reader will be curious to see their reactions to conflict.

Creating Driven Antagonists

Quotes from the antagonists’ perspectives in YA fantasy novels

You can use a similar process to design a driven antagonist or villain. After all, everyone is the hero of their own story, and no one likes to read about enemies who are easily outsmarted or as bland as oatmeal. However, unlike YA fantasy protagonists, villains are allowed to have strongly negative traits: they can be stupid and powerful, or they can be judgmental and annoying.

Really, the antagonist is just a corrupted protagonist in that they lack empathy in one form or another. They often seek power over others instead of for others. They are driven to pursue their goals, but they don’t care about hurting innocent people to get there. In one way or another, they are formidable foes with their own relatable qualities and motivations.

Because of their intense friction with the protagonist, antagonists can even end up as love interests, which brings us to the next ingredient.

The Darkling is perhaps the most famous antagonist/love interest in YA fantasy — from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse

5. Contrasting Relationships

Picture a bubbly working-class girl who loves taking in stray animals and a pessimistic rich guy who despises cats. On their first date, she offers to make dinner — and her apartment is full of cats. A conversation between them is going to be entertaining precisely because they have such contrasting attitudes and backgrounds.

People are drawn to potential drama, and if two individuals have vastly different personalities or goals, that’s a natural source of conflict. It’s like the clean freak rooming with the lazy slob — that’s the stuff sitcoms are made of. In literary lingo, these types of opposites are often called foil characters.

YA fantasy often spotlights these types of contrasting relationships, with two characters standing on opposite ends of a spectrum. One might be rich, the other poor. Where one is optimistic, the other is pessimistic.

That contrast can come from external forces, like differences in race or class, or internal ones, like having different opinions about war, or a combination of both. I’m not talking about the hero vs. villain here, but rather love interests, frenemies, mentors, and family members — the people who are most significant in the protagonist’s life.

Let’s focus on contrasting relationships in terms of romantic pairings first. Those are the most common type in the genre, likely because first love is a big milestone for teenagers.

Romantic Contrasts

When two people are at odds, it creates friction and strong emotions. We know the characters will clash, but the outcome is unpredictable. It’s not so much about “opposites attract” as it is mystery. On the subject of attraction, author and therapist Esther Perel has said:

“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it.”

So that distance between two people is what creates chemistry, and that elusive spark can be difficult to depict on the page. But there are a few familiar contrasts you can use in creating a couple with strong chemistry.

You might rely on the old trope of enemies-to-lovers. The main characters in The Cruel Prince by Holly Black have some serious belligerent sexual tension going on. The saying goes that there’s a fine line between love and hate, and these two characters embody that idea. Their chemistry comes from the intensity of their shared hatred intertwined with their attraction toward each other.

But contrast doesn’t necessarily entail the characters disliking each other. Rather, they might just come from vastly different worlds. Many YA fantasy novels have humans paired with supernatural beings. Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl has an ordinary guy falling for a girl from the cursed Caster family. Conflict arises from the dangers of the two meeting and the secrets they keep from each other.

Other types of star-crossed lovers, à la Romeo and Juliet, might be on opposite sides of a larger conflict. They’re forced to choose between their lover and their loyalty to their family or homeland. The starring couple in the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy are on opposite sides of a war, and the hero has committed atrocities against her people, so their romance connects to the story’s larger themes about war and forgiveness.

Class differences also provide natural contrast, as seen in every prince and the pauper tale. In An Ember in the Ashes, Laia is a lowly Scholar while her love interest Elias is a member of the Martials, the elite military class. Societal norms make them an unlikely couple.

In The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, the main couple differs in terms of class and race, but it’s their personality differences that make their conversations pop off the page. Monty is a white, wealthy lothario, whereas Percy is a biracial, middle-class “cinnamon roll” — someone who is too good for this world. Monty’s innuendos and reckless behavior contrast with Percy’s more reserved and responsible nature, creating plenty of opportunities for witty banter.

The couple could also have ideological differences. Shadow & Bone by Leigh Bardugo pairs a noble heroine with a villain who’s drawn to her power and potential. This is in contrast to her childhood best friend, who seems to represent the side of moral good — and she must choose between the dark and the light, as represented by her two love interests.

Of course, love triangles are considered overdone nowadays. Most readers absolutely hate them because they feel like forced conflict and the romance tends to overtake the plot. They’re best avoided unless you can seriously subvert the trope and tie it into the larger conflict or character goals.

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Insta-love, or love at first sight, also sends readers into a spite-filled rant, so it’s best to let romances develop more organically. Instant attraction definitely exists, as you can dance with a mysterious stranger at a masked ball and feel sparks as your hands touch. But the all-consuming, this-is-the-greatest-love-in-the-universe soulmate bond shouldn’t happen instantly.

It’s certainly possible to fall in love with someone over the course of a few hours or days, but if the couple is constantly fawning over each other’s perfection, it becomes unbelievable for a lot of readers. There seems to be a growing demand for friends-to-lovers and slow-burn romances.

Let the characters bond over deep conversations and shared experiences before labeling their feelings as true love. Show that this is true love within those scenes instead of telling us in the characters’ thoughts.

The Foundations of a Good YA Romance

So, the foundation of a good romance combines different facets, and that might include characters who have…

Fun flirting. Especially in dialogue. Whether their relationship is steamy and sexy, or sweet and romantic, they should genuinely enjoy each other’s company, even if they don’t admit it at first. Talking to the other person should light their fire, sparking witty banter or silly inside jokes or intense debates that get a little too physically close.

A key part of character chemistry is the build-up, that subtext of attraction, the moment right before the kiss. There’s a certain intimacy in knowing someone well enough to tease them in a friendly way or push their buttons.

Good romance also features couples who have…

Mutual respect. They admire something about the other person. While not a healthy relationship, in The Cruel Prince, Cardan finds Jude’s persistence both annoying and admirable.

And this sense of respect ties into…

Attraction based on shared values, not just physical hotness. Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan features a slow-burn romance, where two female characters are drawn to each other, even though they’re meant to become consorts of the King. Both of them value giving each other a sense of freedom and strength that others have tried to quash down. The narrator says:

“Instead of disappearing, she makes me feel reappeared. Reimagined. Her touch shapes me, draws out the boldness that had been hiding in my core.”

But just because they agree on important things doesn’t mean they don’t have…

Flaws in their relationship. It’s not realistic to have characters who are perfect for each other in every way. In real life, partners disagree about one thing or another. They acknowledge the others’ flaws and their own, recognizing those flaws as something they’ll need to work through. That might involve jealousy or disagreement over the best course of action.

They both have things to learn from each other to help them grow as people. These flaws might even end up tearing them apart in the end.

From ELLA ENCHANTED, based on Gail Carson Levine’s novel

Above all, each character should have…

Identities independent of the other person. This is part of the reason readers get frustrated with romance in YA fantasy — because it tends to overshadow the main plot so much that the characters’ only concern is being with this other person. They lose their individuality in that quest for coupledom. As writers, we have to be careful about writing fiction for young adults that sends the message that we need another person to complete ourselves in order to be happy and fulfilled.

Kristin Cashore’s Graceling works against that message by providing a happy couple where both characters maintain their independence:

She could never be his wife. She could not steal herself back from Randa only to give herself away again — belong to another person, be answerable to another person, build her very being around another person. No matter how she loved him.

Katsa sat in the darkness of the Sunderan forest and understood three truths. She loved Po. She wanted Po. And she could never be anyone’s but her own.

And then there’s this exchange between Katsa and Po:

“He thinks it’s dangerous for us to leave each other so much freedom and make these vague plans to travel together in the future, doing Council work, with no promises. I told him I’m not going to marry you and hang on to you like a barnacle, just to keep you to myself and stop you loving anyone else.”

“It’s all right, you know. Other people don’t have to understand.”

Writing YA Fantasy without a Romance

A list of YA books without romance

Romance is an important part of life for many people, but it’s not the only part of life. Moreover, a YA fantasy novel does NOT need to have a romance. It’s a common feature that many readers enjoy — and it’s part of what makes YA fantasy so popular, especially with female readers who crave those close character relationships. But romance is not necessary to tell a good story.

In fact, a lot of readers on blogs and forums have expressed a strong desire for YA fantasy novels without romance, since they’re hard to find.

So don’t shoehorn in a romantic relationship just because you think it will appeal to readers; you have to be genuinely invested in the romance for them to have chemistry. Romances that feel like afterthoughts actually harm the readers’ experience of the book by watering down the authenticity of the story’s emotions.

There’s plenty of room in the genre to have characters in established relationships, or who are single and happy that way, or who are asexual and/or aromantic, or who simply want to focus on themselves and improving their world. And men and women can be just friends, as demonstrated in This Savage Song, where the two point-of-view characters, August and Kate, become allies, despite August being a monster and Kate a monster hunter.

Other Types of Character Contrasts

Instead of a romance, the contrast might come in the form of a friend, sibling, parent, or mentor. It’s simply someone the protagonist has a complicated relationship with due to conflicting love-hate feelings or standing on different sides of an issue.

As a book without romance, We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett focuses on two female fighter pilots who start as enemies but slowly become friends. The characters share a lot of chemistry that borders on romantic but remains platonic.

A family-oriented example comes from And I Darken by Kiersten White, which gives the perspectives of a sister and brother with opposing personalities. The sister is brutal and ugly, while the brother is sensitive and beautiful. The narrator states:

“If Lada was the spiky green weed that sprouted in the midst of a drought-cracked riverbed, Radu was the delicate, sweet rose that wilted in anything less than the perfect conditions.”

This results in clashes in ideology between them. Despite how harsh Lada can be, there’s an undercurrent of protectiveness. This scene captures their contrasting relationship:

Radu went perfectly still, head down. Lada did not have to see his expression to know how he looked. Terrified. “He will be angry. And Mircea will kill me. I am scared to die.”

“Everyone dies sometime. And I will not let Mircea kill you. If anyone is going to kill you, it will be me. Understand?”

Radu nodded, snuggling into her shoulder. “Will you protect me?”

“Until the day I kill you.” She jabbed a finger into his side, where he was most ticklish, and he squealed with pained laughter. The look he gave her was one she recognized — the same hungry, desperate look she used to give their father. Radu loved her, and he wanted her to feel the same for him. For the first time since he had been introduced into her life, placid and beautiful and worthless, she found Radu interesting. Perhaps even useful. And more than that, in Bogdan’s absence, she felt like someone belonged to her again.

Make sure you have at least one important character the protagonist has mixed feelings about and have their relationship affect the plot.

6. Meaningful Friendships

The supporting cast is oftentimes more interesting than the protagonist. Because they’re on the sidelines, secondary characters have more freedom in terms of flaws and personalities. The main character’s friends in particular can help readers feel more emotionally invested in the story. These are people the protagonist can talk, argue, laugh, or cry with.

Friendship History

When creating meaningful friendships, you’ll first need to decide how the protagonist and their friends met: have they been friends since childhood, or does the hero meet them along with the reader? Try to have a memorable character introduction or a scene that solidifies their friendship.

In the first Harry Potter book, Harry meets Ron and the Weasleys during an act of kindness — they help him figure out how to enter Platform 9 ¾. On the train, Harry buys sweets for Ron:

“Go on, have a pasty,” said Harry, who had never had anything to share before or, indeed, anyone to share it with. It was a nice feeling, sitting there with Ron, eating their way through all Harry’s pasties, cakes, and candies (the sandwiches lay forgotten).

Soon after, a wild Hermione appears and uses a spell to fix Harry’s glasses, showing off her wits. But the moment that truly secures the trio’s friendship is when Harry and Ron go out of their way to rescue Hermione from a troll:

There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

Defining Moments

Those defining moments of shared hardship cement their friendship and make it feel real to the reader. This strong bond lasts through the seven-book series. Even as the difficulties pile on, Harry’s friends show their loyalty and willingness to stand by his side. When Harry decides to leave school in The Deathly Hallows, he doesn’t want to endanger his friends by having them come with him, but Hermione says, “No, Harry, you listen. We’re coming with you. That was decided months ago — years, really.”

Later on, Harry and Ron have a falling out, and Ron storms off. But Ron comes back, finding them using the Deluminator from Dumbledore that lights the way. Ron sheepishly tells Harry, “He must’ve known I’d run out on you.” Harry corrects him: “No, he must’ve known you’d always want to come back.”

Shared hardship, loyalty, and support are important components of strong friendships.

Friendship as Dialogue Fodder

Friends can also serve as a sounding board for ideas rather than the main character being stuck inside their own heads. Dialogue between characters is an important way to reveal their personalities and advance the plot. Here’s an exchange between Karou, the protagonist of Laini Taylor’s Dreams of Gods & Monsters, and her best friend Zuzana:

So instead she said, “Do you think I wouldn’t rather be with Akiva, too?” and this time maybe a little bit of her own frustration sounded in her voice.

“Well, it’s nice to hear you finally admit it,” said Zuzana. “But a little Machiavellian maneuvering would not go amiss here.”

“Excuse me? I think I’ve been pretty damn Machiavellian,” said Karou, as though it were an insult not to be borne. “There is the matter of hijacking an entire rebellion.”

“You’re right,” Zuzana allowed. “You are a conniving, deceitful hussy. I stand in awe.”

“You’re sitting.”

“I sit in awe.”

These meaningful moments of friendship can add levity, even when the main plot is filled with death and despair. Readers appreciate the ordinary moments of playful banter — a hallmark of true friendship.

Friendship as Conflict Generator

But friendships aren’t always unicorns and fairy dust — they’re also a great source of conflict. Even friends disagree on what should be done and can in fact have goals that run counter to what the protagonist is trying to achieve.

In Maggie Stiefvater’s urban fantasy novel The Raven Boys, a group of teenage boys often clash, even though they’re friends. Their personal baggage creates subplots that flesh out the story world and make the characters feel real.

Adam has a hard home life; his family is poor and his father is abusive. Gansey, on the other hand, comes from wealth and is constantly trying to convince Adam to move in with him and the other boys, which leads to heated arguments like this one:

“What is your problem, Adam? I mean, is there something about my place that’s too repugnant for you to imagine living there? Why is it that everything kind I do is pity to you? Everything is charity. Well, here it is: I’m sick of tiptoeing around your principles.”

“God, I’m sick of your condescension, Gansey,” Adam said. “Don’t try to make me feel stupid. Who whips out repugnant? Don’t pretend you’re not trying to make me feel stupid.”

“This is the way I talk. I’m sorry your father never taught you the meaning of repugnant. He was too busy smashing your head against the wall of your trailer while you apologized for being alive.”

Both of them stopped breathing.

Gansey knew he’d gone too far. It was too far, too late, too much.

Friendship as Personal Stakes

Lastly, giving the protagonist close friends also increases the personal stakes; it gives them something to lose that’s more important than their own life.

As you create these secondary characters, flesh them out as you would if they were the lead character. What do they want more than anything? What do they argue about with their best friend? How are they similar and how are they different from the protagonist?

Questions to Ask Yourself

It’s not the plot or world-building that resonates most deeply with readers — it’s the characters. By establishing a bond between your cast of fictional people and the reader, you will create a more memorable story.

If you’re writing a YA fantasy novel, try answering these questions about your characters:

1. How does your protagonist drive the plot forward?

2. What character contrast creates tension in the story’s primary relationship — romantic or otherwise?

3. Who are your protagonists’ friends, and why will the reader love them?

Although YA fantasy is primarily designed for entertainment, the books that stick with us are those that make us feel strong emotions alongside the characters. Readers want to be dazzled, to fall in love, to laugh, to cry, to escape into worlds that are harsh and beautiful, fantastical and larger than life, exciting and dangerous — or simply unforgettable.

Whatever you do, keep writing.

Who are your favorite characters from YA fantasy? Introduce them to me in the comments.

This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below!

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Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer.

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