Meet Cyndy Etler.
Cyndy Etler is the author of young adult memoirs The Dead Inside and We Can’t Be Friends (Sourcebooks Fire). Her books take readers into her sixteen months in Straight Inc., a teen treatment program the ACLU called “a concentration camp for throwaway teens,” and then back to her “druggie high school,” packed with dangerous jockos and cheerleaders.
Guest post: How to Write Relatable, Angsty YA Main Characters
So here’s the thing about angst: we’ve all got it. And it’s all basically the same. Seriously, what are you anxious about? No, wait, I’ll go first.
• When my friend said, “Be chill,” what she meant was, “You’re an embarrassing spaz.”
• If my other friend shares that grelfie on social, the world will think I’m an ugly hag.
• If I don’t get up at 4:00 a.m. and do these trillion things, I won’t be successful, and people will think I’m a loser.
What do they all boil down to? OMG, people don’t like me. That’s it. Once our basic needs for food, water and shelter are met, that’s everyone’s basic fear. People don’t like me.
To write a realistic, relatable, angst-driven main character for young adults, you start with that fear, and you let it run through the plot line. The upswing at the end can be that moment of bliss, when your main character perceives, OMG, people do like me! Follow these four steps and you’ll have your ideal, true-to-life, dread-filled YA MC (…who I describe as a “she,” because that’s what my MC is. Tweak to fit your narrative).
Step 1: To keep a plot line interesting, you’ve got to change it up. It can’t be bald-faced, nonstop whining, “Nobody likes me!” You pull that mess, and nobody will. Instead, build your plot out of the things people say and do to either make people like them, or make it seem like people do.
To find those tricks, all you gotta do is look around. Observe strangers. What’s interesting about them? Write it down. Here, I’ll go first.
A: The yummy-mummies pushing strollers past, all speaking at once, all clad in Lululemon, rocking the full-on makeup face.
B: The balding executive rolling by slow in the windows-down S-Class.
C: The gaggle of tight-jeggings teens, shrieking and smoking and cutting their eyes.
D: The pair of pimple boys leaning in, heads together, studying some Lord-of-the-Rings-looking card game cover.
Okay, all of these folks become characters in your book. Now.
Step 2: How’s your main character connected to them all? Maybe…
A: The yoga moms live in main character’s neighborhood; they’re always out and about (read: nosy and bored).
B: Your MC watches leased-car rich-guy leave his shabby apartment each morning from her school bus window.
C: The smoking teens, vibrant and loud at the mall, are cafeteria castoffs at school. MC studies them from the sidelines.
D: The card game warriors stop to help MC pick up her junk, when a mean girl trips her down the stairs…but MC, not wanting loser status by association, shoos them away.
Fantastic. We’ve now got the people readers see in their lives, and a main character who observes them. In other words, we’ve got your reader feeling like he or she’s in your MC’s shoes. We’re ready for…
Step 3: Have your main character interact with these characters in more depth. Each could threaten, or educate, MC in their own way, right? Create interactions that mirror real life. For instance…
A: Designer mums stop talking and stare when they see MC, then turn and talk to each other. The message, clearly, is, “We’re in, together; you’re out, alone.” What are they judging? What does MC imagine she’s doing wrong?
B: Bald man pulls up to a red light as MC approaches the crosswalk, absorbed in her phone. Man honks; MC jumps, and man waves frantically, telling her to cross, doing her an angry favor. She complies automatically, gripping her phone and accidentally hitting send on the wrong text. Crap! She simmers over the incident all day; what does she take away from it?
C: One of the loud smokers, separated from the pack, is singled out for epic meanness in the shower after gym. She makes quick eye contact with MC; in that glance, MC reads a plea for help. What does MC do? Why? How does she feel about herself for doing it?
D: Fighting an anxiety attack, MC pushes the door outwards and lunges into the green behind the school. As her heart slows, she notices one of the card game players off in the woods, holding his face up for the first time, like, ever. He’s—he seems to be talking to a squirrel, up in a tree…and the squirrel seems to be talking back to him. His smile is calm; he looks maybe beautiful. What dawns on MC, observing this scene?
One by one, these very different characters, with their own tactics for seeming liked and included, help your main character evaluate her own need for the same. In the end, she understands that nobody is immune to insecurity, but…
Step 4: …you have her figure out a strategy for dealing with her own. And of course, too, she gets that gift of somebody—maybe nerdy beauty boy from the woods?—telling her unequivocally, I. like. you.
To come up with your own As, Bs, Cs and Ds, get up at 4:30 a.m.—seriously, try it!—and spill your own anxieties out in a list. Nobody needs to see it; that’s the joy of 4:30 a.m.
Then take a field trip, and make that list of the people you notice.
Then connect the dots. Give your anxieties to the characters; have your MC study the characters as they act out their drama; have your MC learn and grow.
Then flip back through your pages, and watch her fly: from huddled, angsty, relatable girl to less-huddled, still-angsty, super-relatable, wise girl. In other words, human, and main character, perfection.
Want to meet one of Etler’s angsty, relatable character?
Check out The Decide Inside’s sequel, We Can’t be Friends.
In her debut memoir, The Dead Inside (April 2017; Hardcover; Young Adult Nonfiction; Memoir), Cyndy Etler detailed the harrowing reality of 16 months inside an infamous teen rehab facility.
In this powerful follow up, We Can’t Be Friends (ON-SALE: October 3, 2017), Etler discovers that while Surviving Straight, Inc., was hell, readjusting to the real world is even harder.
High school sucks for a lot of people. High school extra sucks when you believe, deep in your soul, that every kid in the school is out to get you. I wasn’t popular before I got locked up in Straight Inc., the notorious “tough love” program for troubled teens. So it’s not like I was walking around thinking everyone liked me.
But when you’re psychologically beaten for sixteen months, you start to absorb the lessons. The lessons in Straight were: You are evil. Your peers are evil. Everything is evil except Straight, Inc.
Before long, you’re a true believer.
And when you’re finally released, sent back into the world, you crave safety. Crave being back in the warehouse. And if you can’t be there, you’d rather be dead.
This is the story of my return to my high school. This is the true story of how I didn’t die.