When writing a teenage hero’s backstory, take your cue from James Dean: think loner, rule-breaker, & tortured heartthrob. Despite almost 50 years since the premier of Rebel Without A Cause, James Dean still embodies a modern feeling of teenage rebellion. A tough hero with a troubled past will be better prepared to handle any adventure, and the friendship that develops along the way will mean more to him.
The Hero comes from a fractured family.
James Dean’s character has a dysfunctional home life and he struggles to connect with his parents. Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of The Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers explains that the most popular heroes come from a fractured family. (Hit Lit Ch.11). In our YA novels, the hero’s dysfunctional family forces him to grow up quickly. (We already know that the hero is mature enough to prepare his own food.)
- Harry Potter‘s parents died when he was a baby. “As soon as he found his voice he said, ‘Blown up? You told me they died in a car crash!'” (HP Ch.4).
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s father died in a mine explosion and her mother suffered from severe depression. “My father . . . taught me some before he was blown to bits in a mine explosion.” (HG Ch.1). Katniss’s mother “sat by, blank and unreachable, while her children turned to skin and bones.” (HG. Ch.1).
- In Twilight, neither of Bella’s parents can properly take care of themselves so Bella feels forced to take on the parenting role. “How could I leave my loving, erratic, harebrained mother to fend for herself?” (TW Ch.1).
The Hero does not have many friends.
Hit Lit describes the most popular heroes as “rebels, loners, misfits, or mavericks.” (Hit Lit Ch.10).
- Harry grew up without friends: “No one, ever, in his whole life, had written to him. Who would?” (HP CH.3).
- Katniss does not have a large group of friends: “Since neither of us really has a group of friends, we seem to end up together a lot at school.” (HG Ch.1).
- Bella struggles to connect with her peers: “I didn’t relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period.” (TW Ch.1).
The Hero does not fit in.
In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean’s character tries to fit in at his new school but he is immediately singled out by the bully.
- Harry is considered odd by his muggle classmates: “Everybody knew that Dudley’s gang hated that odd Harry Potter in his baggy old clothes and broken glasses, and nobody liked to disagree with Dudley’s gang.” (HP Ch.2).
- Katniss can’t even pretend to fit in when preparing for her interview: “‘I’m awful. Haymitch called me a dead slug. No matter what we tried, I couldn’t do it.” (HG Ch.9).
- Bella’s physical appearance does not fit in: “Maybe, if I looked like a girl from Phoenix should, I could work this to my advantage. But physically, I’d never fit in anywhere.” (TW Ch.1).
The Hero breaks the rules.
The most popular heroes “reject pressures and deadening effects of conformity.” (Hit Lit Ch.10).
- Harry gets caught sneaking out at night. “Excuses, alibis, and wild cover-up stories chased each other around Harry’s brain, each more feeble than the last. He couldn’t see how they were going to get out of trouble this time.” (HP Ch.15).
- Katniss is the most rebellious hero. Besides using her bow and arrow to illegally hunt and shoot at the Gamemakers, she also has small moments of defiance: “But I hate Effie trinket’s comment so much I make a point of eating the rest of my meal with my fingers.” (HG Ch.2).
- Bella lies to her father about spending time with Edward. “I grimaced, wishing he hadn’t brought it up so I wouldn’t have to compose careful half-truths.” (TW Ch.11).
The reader is “looking for a vicarious connection with another troubled soul.” (Hit Lit Ch.11). Write a backstory for your hero that involves a dysfunctional family. The broken family elements should be severe enough that the hero must take responsibility for his own upbringing (and possibly the care of other family members). Imagine what society would consider the hero’s ideal future, and show why the hero rebels against that idea. Then let the hero break a few rules as he finds his own path.
P.S. Rebel Without a Cause is another example of the winning 2:1 gender ratio: The group of three friends include two guys (Jim and Plato) and one girl (Judy).
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