Thursday, November 25, 2010


Second in importance to family is community. When creating believable characters, the writer considers what community that character will belong to/identify with. Often ‘community’ will default to a town or city, but in YA novels the default is normally ‘school’. And then further down into cliques.

Some ‘school-based’ YA novels have another division inbetween school and cliques. In the Harry Potter novels, it’s House. In the Percy Jackson series, in Camp Half-Blood (as in any summer camp story), it’s Cabin. What makes those two series a bit more interesting in the early bonding process is that people aren’t arbitrarily stuck into a house or cabin (as is done in real life) but are chosen – either by a Sorting Hat (which determines by the candidate’s temperament, psychological analysis, magical ability and the candidate’s own desire which House is best for the candidate) or by parent. What this means for the characters in those series is that they have an instant group of people with whom they have similar interests (hmm, this also fits with the recent Tinkerbell DVDs, too – the tinker fairies, the water fairies, etc.).

As a writer, it’s fascinating to observe this shortcut – you don’t need several chapters/pages explaining what drives each new character. Throw a bunch of mechanical parts in front of some tinker fairies or kids from Hephaestus’ Cabin and instantly their fingers are itching to create something. Students in Ravenclaw House are scholars. The teens in the vampire hall are bad guys (unless it’s a series where vampires are the good guys and the dryads are the ones you need to watch out for).

But, hang on, isn’t this encouraging stereotypes? Where’s the opportunity for individuality? For the equivalent of a ‘jock who writes poetry’ story or a ‘vampire who is actually a vegetarian/vegan’ story?

I say the opportunity is still there. It all depends on the writer. For every writer who locks the high school students into cliques (jock, cheerleader, smart students, bullied students) for the whole story there is a writer who starts off with the cliques and then shakes everything up.

But the community for those stories is the starting point. Will it be a community that supports the character, that stands behind him/her when there are problems, but also allows the character to grow and discover who she/he is? Will it be a community that locks the character into a role and that character spends the entire story fighting that role? Is the community just a background note that helps introduce the character but is never mentioned again?

Thanksgiving for me is a day of both family and community. I stop by my youngest sister’s house for Thanksgiving on my way to attend Chicago TARDIS, a Doctor Who convention. There’s a Doctor Who convention on that weekend because Doctor Who, the television show, first aired November 23, 1963 (the day after Kennedy was shot, but that’s something for another blog).

I’m a science fiction fan, which is one community, but within the science fiction community, I’m also a Doctor Who fan (a smaller community). I’ve been attending science fiction conventions since 1979, but the ones I most enjoy are the Doctor Who conventions. Not only because of the topic (the Doctor) and not only because these are the ones which have a greater concentration of friends I’ve known for years. But because of the combination of those factors, I also feel welcome. I know the language/jargon, I know the history, and I share a love of the program with everyone else who is attending. It's a community I've chosen to join.

In a story, the community the character chooses to join can be just as important as the family he/she was born into or where she/he grew up. What types of communities do you enjoy finding in books?


  1. Personally, I'm kind of over the whole prep or boarding school settings in recent YA books. My own books have kids in public schools as I know this is more realistic. I joked to dh the other day, "So do all boarding schools have paranormal activity? Sign me up!"

    I do have Lupe in EARRINGS attending a private school but that's not the main setting of my story which has her in the alternative world of Ixtumea.

    Now that I'm homeschooling(a recent trend throughout the US) I might have a future character involved with that.

  2. Interesting insight about why readers can be so vehement about defending the books they like to read: it gives them a kind of "shorthand" to have topics to discuss with anyone who is also into the same books. This is applicable to any other kind of medium as well, but since books readers are a small percentage of the population, it's an even smaller group with whom you will share a love of those particular books. I taught all 4 of my kids to love reading...they had no choice, their mother is an unemployed English teacher!

  3. Great article. I enjoy finding communities that are different to the norm. My first thought was the Hunger Games series. I also think it's fun to take a "normal" school or house or town and add a twist too it, something that is unexpected.

    Your post has started me to thinking about my character's community more.

  4. Finges of communities, or where two different communities rub against each other, are what interest me the most. Especially when individual characters bring their peoples' histories and cultures with them into modern teen life. Very good article, Kathy. You've given me much to ponder.

  5. Communities. I do have them in my YA stories and I kind of tend to work on how these private and supportive communities are formed. The latest has sixteen with eight of them taking the spotlight roles. Differentiating them was difficult.

  6. A tricky one for me. I have never belonged to (or felt comfortable within) a clique and have always had few friends (one or two if any). I tend to write loners/outsiders if/when I write because that is who/what I was/am. Then again, the clique setup was probably less solid when/where I was at school (80s/UK) than in the US. I do wonder if there would be a market/readership for such stories, though.