Young Adults Are In Transitionwhat we do makes more of a difference than what is done to us. The YA reader is neither child nor adult, so they are grappling with who or what, exactly, they are.
They are trying to define themselves with their actions, which can be translated into behaviors that alter their appearance, such as tattoos, piercings, and dying their hair, or where they choose to spend their time (church v. mall v. the downtown "strip" where they ride in each others' cars---you know you did this). All of it is an attempt to figure out the main question children this age want answered: "Who am I and where am I going?"
This can be summed up by saying a YA will have an identity crisis (Erickson was the one who is credited with coining this term). Life gets bigger and bigger the longer they live it, and they realize they no longer are the center of the universe eventually. They grapple with social and moral issues. Teens are building up their ideals, because at this time, it's easier to think in terms of ideals than reality, because a teenager has little experience. So give them something to idealize, care about, ponder.
Crass, but true. The most significant relationships teens have are with their peers. They most likely aren't
going to want to read about a teen hero's problems with his parents.
Romance is burgeoning during this stage, so not including a romantic
theme would be a mistake (according to developmental theories, anyway).
The main thing is for the reader to identify with the character, so your YA character should be struggling to find their place in the world, what they want to do with their life, who they want to be. It's cliche, but coming of age stories work for this age group.
A Warning: Don't Sell Teens Short
Books like Twilight, Divergent, and The Hunger Games fly off the shelf because of the character development. These are teens in transition, trying to figure out life, love, and survival. (Have you walked the halls of a high school lately? Not too different from post-apocolyptic descriptions of America, folks.)
Many YA books are written in first person point of view, and I think that's by design. Teens (and adults) are literally drawn in from page one....becoming the heroine or hero, feeling their conflicts and vicariously living them out. We can only hope that our books will give teens similar strength, commitment, drive, and integrity to jump life's hurdles.
So in closing, be real. Grapple with hard, strong emotions....because you can be sure the teens out there reading your stuff are doing the same.