I know because I thought the same thing as I was flipping through my eighth grade yearbook. Who is that boy? I don't remember him from school....until I read the name listing and found my own at the end. Did I completely forget what I looked like or did I erase it from my memory along with most of the horrors of middle school?
Unfortunately in writing young adult literature, I dredge up those horrid memories and think about that time a lot. Both of the photos above are of me. The first one I was thirteen. The second was three years and six inches later. But when I write about sixteen-year-old girls, I have to think about where they came from, which means I have to think about where I came from.
Thirteen-year-old me was NOT cool. She was overweight. You can see the retainer, a welcome blessing after three years of braces and headgear. She had no boobs, but had to wear a training bra because she changed out for gym. But because of the flat chest, she often forgot the bra and had to shamefully change in the restroom. The whole point was moot, because she was awful at sports, teased for that on a daily basis and also riduled for her appearance. She was spit on, bullied...oh and she was in the National Junior Honor Society, straight A student and later in the year had the brilliant idea of getting a perm.
Finally puberty came late and fast, adding six inches over the course of two years. All that baby fat turned into a figure. (thank goodness) But the second girl still felt like the first girl. Her freshman year of high school, she collected six dollars and eighty two cents in change because she always looked at the ground.
And do you have any idea what it's like to all of a sudden add six inches to your body? It's all arms and legs. I was tripping all over the place, constantly knocking things over with my butt and I had a permanent bruise on my hip from running into tables and counters. And now I love being tall, but not in high school when most of the boys were shorter than me and I felt like this huge, awkward, hormonal giant. I may have been outwardly attractive then, but I didn't see it.
So when I'm working on a new character, I try to get into her head. Maybe she wasn't a chubby dork turned Amazon, but where was she in middle school? Where was she as a child? How was her upbringing? What were her friends like? And what lingering childhood traumas followed her into adolescence?
Answering these questions often tells me how she perceives herself and the world around her. Someone with confidence sees things very differently than someone without. Or some people use confidence as a shield against their low self-esteem, so internally they're as miserable as the rest of us. All of this starts before your story, but it makes your story.
Often I start a new document and write a short story on a historical event for my character. Sometimes I add it into the manuscript as backstory, sometimes I don't. Either way I think it helps me build a real person.
Do you do this in your character development phase? Do you write an outline for your character's past? Jot down some earlier events? Or do you just plan it all out in your head?