Untangling Your Characters

I love character motivation! When done right, it gives stories depth and texture and makes the characters seem like real people.

I also hate character motivation! Sometimes I just want to get my characters from point A to point B in my story without having to worry about why. 

But if you want to write books with characters that people hate to part with, then you have to really get into your characters’ heads. As young as I feel, though, I’m pretty far removed from my teenage years, and those struggles and feelings that are so monumental to a 15-year-old can sometimes seem a little overblown when seen through an adult lens.


Using her own experiences as a psychologist at a girls’ school, a private practitioner, and a parent of girls, Damour explores the physical and psychological stages of development that girls ages 11-19 go through as they struggle to reach adulthood.

One of the most fascinating tidbits was about the teenage brain, and how it goes through a process of rewiring to become an adult brain. Those wild emotional swings we all attribute to hormones? That’s not so much hormones as the brain starting that process in the limbic system, where emotions begin!

As Damour explains, girls travel along seven strands of development, some sequentially, many simultaneously. They are…

  • Parting with childhood
  • Joining a new tribe
  • Harnessing emotions
  • Contending with adult authority
  • Planning for the future
  • Entering the romantic world
  • Caring for herself

Each strand comes with its own characteristic behaviors and challenges. And while many YA books focus a lot on Entering the Romantic World, Joining a New Tribe, and Contending with Adult Authority, each strand is incredibly important.

The book outlines what’s involved in the range of normal development, but it also devotes a section into what can happen when something gets off-track. Peppered with stories of real kids and parents facing the challenges that crop up, it gave me an incredible window into how different families and girls approach this critical time.

Reading UNTANGLED sparked several ideas for editing my YA WIP. I found scenes where my protagonist was working on Harnessing Emotions, and others where she was
having difficulty Caring for Herself. I could see that her ability to Plan for the Future was being compromised by her decisions, and I was able to ratchet that tension up even further.

Understanding character motivations is key for all writers. UNTANGLED cracked open that teenage world for me again. And I know my characters will be richer for it

Now to find a similar book on adolescent boys!


rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children, mischievous beagle and long-suffering cat. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

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