Character motivation in YA Decision Story

by Jennifer

Question: I have a YA WIP about a 17 y/o who wanted to be a musician and train at Juilliard. However she is diagnosed with a neurological disorder which means she has to give up her beloved cello. Her future is very unclear. She doesn't even know if she has a future. Whilst this is going on, her parents decide to separate. Both them assumed she would follow them into law. During summer break she meets a boy who is very much carpe diem. Unbeknownst to her he is living his final summer. My protagonist has already abandoned the idea of love and doesn't see it in her future. I've had feedback on my story outline but most people are saying that I don't have a goal for my Protagonist or any stakes. I'm playing around with a subplot where her best friend is sexually assaulted and my MC has to choose between a summer music program or staying behind to support her. If i go with that, I'll have to move timelines and delay her diagnosis. Any thoughts on how to handle this?

Answer: First, two caveats. I can't tell you how to write your story. And I only know the few facts you have mentioned.

That said, it sounds to me like your protagonist's goal may be to find a meaningful purpose for her life, since her previous purpose has been taken away from her. Sometimes stories like this are called "decision" stories.

Decision stories often don't have the same kind of stakes you would expect in stories about urgent, external problems (e.g. "Detonate the bomb within 10 minutes or everybody dies").

Dilemma stories are about a protagonist who is confused about what decision to make or what direction to go in. The story is about her agonizing search for a new direction. The crisis is the moment when it seems impossible for her to find a good solution (before a flash of insight occurs). The resolution then sees the protagonist moving in a new, positive direction.

The stakes in a dilemma story may have
to do with how the protagonist imagines the consequences if she fails to find a good solution -- if she fails to find a meaningful new direction for her life.

It's important that the reader can relate to the protagonist's internal struggle and the difficulties she encounters as she searches for the right decision. You do need to present that internal struggle in an engaging way. Get the reader involved in the problem. Make it a fun philosophical problem for the reader to solve as well. Don't make the solution obvious. You want your reader to keep reading to find out a) what choice she makes and b) what the right choice is. (There can be doubt as to whether these are the same.)

Done well, an internal problem can be just as engaging as an external problem for the right readership. In your case, you're writing for a female YA audience who often enjoy decision stories. I think many teenage girls relate to the problem of finding a meaningful purpose to their lives.

It also sounds to me like the boy she meets is the impact character. By that I mean, his "carpe diem" approach to dealing with his problem should be very different from your protagonist's usual approach to problems, so that he can cause her to reconsider her approach. Her personal dilemma then would come down to whether it's best to stick to her usual approach or take a leap of faith and adopt his approach.

As for your subplot... I think you have to consider whether/how it will support the main plot. Will it heighten the issues your protagonist must weigh when searching for a purpose for her life, or will it just be a distraction?

The danger I see is that the best friend could be an additional impact character, which would be redundant. You only need one impact character -- one internal dilemma, one key decision -- for your main character to wrestle with. Two problems may create a lack of focus.

But again, I'm just speculating from limited facts.

Best of luck.

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