The Making of a Y.A. Character: A Q&A with Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman's Just One Day is a love story mixed with a coming-of-age tale featuring the character of Allyson Healey. Allyson can be a little bit frustrating. What's a Y.A. author to do about that? We asked Gayle Forman, who created her.

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It would be hard to name my favorite Y.A. book character of all time, and if I had to pick, I would probably reach back in time to one of the fictional heroines I grew up with, because I'm nostalgic like that. But there's no shortage of great Y.A. characters in contemporary novels—a few widely popular examples would be Katniss Everdeen (the heroic everygirl of The Hunger Games) and Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace (the teen couple you fall in love with in The Fault in Our Stars). More recently, there's Allyson Healey, from best-selling author Gayle Forman's latest novel, Just One Day, a love story mixed with a coming-of-age tale mixed with a European travel guide (in the best way possible!).

Allyson is a good girl who's always done what her parents have told her, to the exclusion of figuring out what she really wants for herself. On a European tour with a bunch of high school graduates the summer after her senior year, she has a chance meeting with Willem, an intriguing Dutch guy who's on his own European tour, performing Shakespeare with an underground theater company. There are sparks between the two, and when he asks her to go to Paris with him for the day, she abandons her good-girl Allyson self for a moment and becomes "Lulu," who's not afraid of adventures, or of getting lost. The book covers that one day in Paris, and then, when Willem mysteriously disappears, Allyson's return to the U.S. and her old self—until she can figure out who she really wants to be. (That, fortunately, requires a trip back to Paris.)

Aside from the fact that reading about Paris and love in Paris and macarons in Paris can never be an unpleasant thing, I was totally drawn in by the character of Allyson, who is, it must be said, entirely frustrating at times, when she's closed off and foundering. But she's also relatable, and witnessing her growth is rewarding. If life-changing, self-actualizing experiences don't get you, there's also the compelling mystery of what happens to Willem. (There's a companion book, Just One Year, out in October to tell his story). But how does an author come up with and then wrangle a complicated character like Allyson? I asked the source, Gayle Forman.

What goes into the development of a Y.A. character for you?
Gayle Forman: It's different for every character. If I Stay's Mia, for instance, arrived, fully formed, and she was incredibly strong and centered from the get-go and therefore was able to withstand what I put her through without crumpling into a little ball like the rest of us would. I got to know Mia's history as I wrote but she didn't change.

A character like Just One Day's Allyson is different. Allyson goes on such a journey of transformation, ending in such a different place than she begins, so she grows on the page and I get to know her as I write.

What qualities do you think are most important for a Y.A. heroine to reflect? 
I don't know that I want to imbue my heroines with any particular qualities. I just write them as true to the people I feel they are. (And yes, I consider them people. They are real to me like friends. I certainly spend more time with them than I do my friends.) I suppose I want to write the kind of people I want to be with, so my characters are kind and fallible and thoughtful even as they screw up. And they do screw up. I think my girls are strong, too, but in subtle ways. Sometimes, the greatest act of strength is discovering what lies in you, not coming out punching.

Allyson embodies some contradictory characteristics (like all of us). When she does know what she wants, she's not sure how to get it, and it seems she's willing to repress what she wants out of fear or desire to make others happy. Except, of course, with Willem ...
I wouldn't say Allyson's willing to repress what she wants. I'd say she's spent her whole life repressing what she wants, unknowingly and unwillingly because of the way she was raised. When she meets Willem and goes to Paris, it's a tiny act of rebellion and it cracks open this massive wall she's built around herself.

How did you manage that relationship? 
Writing their relationship was incredibly tricky because I had to have all these balls in the air: Allyson unfurling herself, falling in love with Willem while also being a bit suspicious of him, falling in love with Paris, and Willem seeming to have some growing feelings for Allyson, all the while keeping a lot of things veiled from one another.

What is it about Willem that changes Allyson, or allows her to change herself?
For Allyson, this is a girl who needs to learn how to get lost, and Willem is a boy who knows how to do that. He allows her the spontaneity, but he's also kind of a quirky guy himself in that Allyson can also reveal some of the less Lulu-like sides of her (like not enjoying traveling, or thinking Willem dumped her on the train). Willem reacts to to these admissions without pity or any kind of falseness but just an openness that is exhilarating for Allyson. It's that which lets her "drop the robe" so to speak, be more open and intimate with this stranger who doesn't even know her name than she has with any other person in her life. It's a huge risk for her to take, and it doesn't completely pay off, because he's gone the next day, but it does because sometimes the point of taking a risk is taking a risk.

The points in the book in which she figures out who she needs to be are pretty inspiring. Do you think this kind of realization is necessary for Y.A. characters?
I think every book has moments when characters rise to their occasions. I found Allyson quite frustrating in the beginning. All her self doubt, though I understood it, I wanted her to push past it. But it had to happen slowly, and in bits and starts. I loved her for admitting to Willem that she thought he was a kidnapper. But the real moment for me when Allyson becomes heroic is when she stands between Willem and the skinheads. It's both incredibly brave and stupid and it gets her in trouble, but from that point on, I felt Allyson was heroic, even when she was at her mopiest. Because I had seen what she was capable of.

What's your favorite quality that Allyson exhibits? 
I love that Allyson is both a chickenshit and totally brave. Those contradictory traits we just discussed. I love that she gets all uptight about Willem and jealous but also calls him on his shit (incidentally, Willem likes that too). It takes much more courage to do something you're scared of. Allyson has guts!

What about Willem?
I know lots about Willem now because I've spent the last year with him in his own book, but what I loved about the Willem of Just One Day was that he was so generous, not just in spending money and time but in allowing Allyson all her quirks and allowing himself to be affected by them. Also, he's pretty sexy.

Who is your favorite Y.A. character of all time, and why?
My favorite Y.A. character is probably one of Melina Marchetta's, though it'd be hard to pick who. Maybe Francesca or Tom from The Piper's Son. These are people I would like to be friends with.

Any hints about what's next?
You mean after Just One Year, which is from Willem's point of view and comes out this October? After that, a break. Seriously, I've written three books in two years, which for me is a lot. Oh, what's the third one ...? It's a new standalone, a mystery, a gritty intense love story. And that's all I'm saying about that.

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