Writing for Young Adults – Identity Formation


So high school wasn’t a complete disaster for me. I wasn’t popular or unpopular, athletic or un-athletic, smart or stupid. I had plenty of good friends, a couple of really cute boyfriends, and—all in all—nothing should have been all that memorable or traumatizing.

An invitation for my class reunion arrived one day.

I was a mess.

I should add: I’m not normally a mess.

I wanted to drop five pounds, buy a new dress, and finish my master’s degree in time for the night. I didn’t. I wanted to grow two inches, lighten my hair two shades, and publish my book.  That didn’t happen either (except the hair, that was easy).

I’m guessing this does not shock you. It’s almost intuitive that high school and its memories remain inordinately significant to adults. This phenomenon has even been named. It’s called the “reminiscence bump,” which is a scientifically quantified relationship between the amount of memory older adults recall from the period of time roughly between adolescence and young adulthood. There are several theories why we disproportionally remember those otherwise unmemorable teenage parties—for me—the most interesting of which is the relationship between that period of time and identity formation.

Erik Erickson, developmental psychologist, suggests that adolescence includes the “process of identity formation” that is ultimately achieved through the interaction of an individual personality with society (Sprinthall-Collins 36).

And, according to Sprinthall and Collins, authors of Adolescent Psychology: A Developmental Approach, peers may influence identity formation in teens in two ways.

First, “in informational influence peers serve as sources of knowledge about behavioral patterns, attitudes, and values in their consequences in different situations” (Sprinthall –Collins 269).  Informational influence is the way in which teens mine from the people around them, extracting ideas that they may or may not put to use.

Let’s use soccer as an example. A girl who makes the varsity team may decide, after observing her teammates, to stop wearing those small, tight shorts normally associated with cheerleaders. When playing soccer, she reasons, it’s probably better to have looser, longer shorts. She gathered some information and went with it.

Peers also exert social pressure through “normative influence,” which is the pressure on adolescents to behave as others around them behave (Sprinthall – Collins 269). Normative influence is a form of social comparison: using others’ behavior and skills as a standard against which to evaluate yourself. This is more like peer pressure.

So, in our example, our girls soccer player goes to practice and her teammates rip her apart for wearing Soffe shorts, and—even though she likes the Soffe shorts better—she buries them in the garbage when she gets home.

Informational influence and normative influence work together to help create newly emerging identities in teens, and these newly emerging identities may make this period of our lives super-memorable.

Here’s the cool thing: books can influence teens in these ways as well.

Characters and stories that allow a point of contact between the reader and the text act like informational influences otherwise found in real-life peers: no judgments are made, and passive observation is used, and therefore there is no attempt to control decisions. This lack of control and ridicule allows teens to try out new roles without fear. These stories invite teens to watch, and then consider. These books are thus like peers without the pressure—as long as they don’t try to teach.

Books that provide a normative influence, or a pressure to behave in a certain way, may also influence teen identity. In these books, a certain type of behavior is used as a conduit for teaching. These stories are preachy and smug, favoring conformity over information gathering.

I wonder…. Which stories are best for young adult readers and their emerging sense of self in this period of time that they will likely remember with disproportionate clarity?

Which type are you hoping to write?

Sprinthall, Norman A., and W. Andrew Collins. Adolescent Psychology: a Developmental View. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1984. Print.


Creating Multi-Dimensional Characters: The Synergy of Fact and Fiction



In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp suggests that hard work and discipline leads to creativity. But where do the two seemingly opposite disciplines interplay? What allows pragmatic, left-brained reasoning to synergize with freethinking, right-brained artistry?

One answer might be found in writing, and in the creation of characters.   

Writing often begins with data collection. When writing, surface waters of inquiry spread far, gushing over ground that includes—for my recent manuscript—an understanding of issues that make up young adult life, the culture of football, the physicality and mentality of fighting, all in the backdrop of a particular type of town, school, and parental upbringing. This information is gleaned from books, newspapers, interviews, personal experience—research. But data collection is not enough.

At some point the writer must stop researching and drill deep. At this point—when the auger spins through the surface—the writer creates the unique internal topography of her character. 

Let’s say you decide to include a football player in your story, like I have. Let’s say you attend a local game to do your research. You pick two jersey numbers on the sidelines to study. Both are getting ready to jog out, let’s say, on defense.

One player is pacing, his fists are clenched, his eyes look wild and unfocused. He’s muttering. If he’s my son, he’s foaming at the mouth (his recollection, not mine).

Next to this player stands his teammate, quiet and nearly still. His eyes are locked on the jerseys across the field—his opponent.

Two comparably talented players are on the same sideline in the same game playing for the same team…yet they are clearly different.  

This is where the fun starts. Is this a first varsity game for one of these players? Is either player masking an injury? Who does the coach favor? What role does the father play in the young man’s life? Is the player uncertain of his ability? Or afraid of being hit? 

In other words: What internal issues does the player bring to his game? What external forces are working on him? And how do these manifest themselves in his behavior?

By mining deep, and not stopping until you know exactly how your player is going to act and react to the events on the field—and how his actions and reactions are different his teammate’s—we go beyond static, single-dimension characters and snap our players to life on the page.


Tharp, Twyla, and Mark Reiter. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life: a Practical Guide. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print.