For many years, one of my greatest wishes was to find love. Like many singles, I used to spend Valentine's Day utterly miserable, trying to ignore all my dating friends. I'd pretend I didn't see the glut of commercialized "love" shoved at everyone through TV, movies, and the internet.
I am fortunate enough to have found my soul mate. In fact, this was the best Valentine's Day I've had so far. Thanks to a snowstorm and President's Day, Rachel and I enjoyed a full 5-day weekend together. We made homemade chocolate-dipped strawberries, had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, enjoyed an in-home couples' massage, and best of all we wrote our wedding vows. My goal of finding love has come true.
For Young Adults, both in reality and in fiction, goals and wants are not always straightforward. As an author and teacher, I think it's important to note how many kids have goals that are forced on them by parents, peers, or even society. The school where I work is a particularly strong example. Roosevelt is a science and tech magnet school for the entire county. It has a huge arts program, including the massive theatre department I run, but ultimately most of the top kids who attend the school do so to take part in the advanced science courses. It is not a vocational school, but does provide intensive internships at places such as NASA (which is a block up the street), the National Institutes of Health, the FDA and other federal research facilities around the DC area.
Every kid has at some point been asked the question "what do you want to be when you grow up?" Personally, I think it's a terrible thing to ask, especially to younger kids. Who really knows their career path as a kid? Still, it's such a cliche question, I ask it myself. Before I started teaching at Roosevelt the answers I'd hear were usually along the lines of "I dunno, maybe a lawyer." Now, I hear "I plan to specialize in bioengineering and microecology." You're fifteen, I respond in my head.
However, that's just the problem. The better I get to know my students, the more I'm realizing that they say they want one thing, but in truth have no idea. Society today has moved far away from the idea of a person going to college with one major, getting one internship or apprenticeship, and working one career until retirement. I don't actually know anyone in my generation who has done that, yet our schools are becoming more and more geared towards this antiquated ideal. Now, students are required to take large numbers of their college courses while in high school (AP Courses), they often have to apply to extremely restrictive majors, and if they don't go to college, their parents and some of their teachers will emphasize their lack of success. What are we teaching kids? We're ultimately forcing them to have goals, whether they're ready to or not.
Of course a goal is not the same as a want. Perhaps the question shouldn't be what do you want to do when you grow up, but rather what is the goal you are currently adopting for yourself. For example, one of my students came to me very upset two weeks ago. She is a strong actor, and had told me how much she wanted to keep acting, even if it was just for fun. Acting and theatre was a true want, something she desired to do. Her parents wanted her to stop acting, since the time it took was interfering with what they wished her goals to be. Her goal was to have a successful career and be happy. Ultimately, goals need to intersect with our wants to be successful.
When writing YA characters it's important to keep the characters' goals and wants in mind, but recognize how severely society (or whatever the situation of your story might be) will impact them. It seems that often we ignore our own wants in pursuit of our goals. One must also keep needs (a separate category entirely) in mind. In my upcoming novel School of Deaths, Suzie's primary goal for much of the novel is to go home. Yet she soon finds herself in situations where other needs take precedent. Safety is a basic need, and when Suzie's safety is threatened, going home becomes a want, while finding safety becomes her current goal. Maslow's famous "hierarchy" works just as well for fiction as it does for life, with needs on the bottom of the chart needing to be met first:
Goals will shift in a novel and in life. To return to the question of what to do when you grow up, I've now noticed that students will answer differently depending on who they are with. The answer they give me when alone will be different than if a parent is standing there, and different again if in front of their friends. This isn't necessarily deceptive, since a child's goals for one group might be different for another. This too should be kept in mind when developing a YA character. The goals they relate, and even believe in, are dependent on their circumstance and situation, yet should remain consistent nonetheless. This is a simplification of life. It is expected in fiction, but in life doesn't always follow. For example, Suzanne Collins' character Katniss has several goals throughout the Hunger Games novels, yet the goals almost always relate to protection (protect her sister, protect herself, and eventually protect society itself from a corrupt government). Katniss is a strong character because her goals remain consistent. Do actual teens remain consistent in their goals or wants? Often the answer is an absolute no. If that is the case, perhaps fiction is one way even our authors are trying to encourage kids to stick with one goal, and one path. I don't agree with it in life, yet I find myself drawn to the same conventions in my writing. I like my characters to stay strong, and to remain consistent with the types of goals and wants they pursue.
To avoid having a character desire the same goal in every situation (something no true teen would do), I think it's helpful to write out a separate goal sheet for each character and break it into circumstances. Roald Dahl's Matilda for instance has a very different goal in mind when dealing with Trunchbull than she does with Ms Honey, and a separate goal set again when dealing with her parents. When teaching acting we focus on objectives and superobjectives that a character has in every scene. Goals and wants are not much different, the one important detail to remember with kids is that they're rarely truly sure. In a sense kids are trying goals as they mature. Ones that work are kept, ones that don't are abandoned. The closer a goal is to the kids' wants or basic needs, the more passionately they'll pursue the goal, and the more a goal is instilled from an external source, the more likely they are to abandon it at some point.
With that in mind, back to my next goal: more writing!