Reading YA literature, I am becoming disappointed in the messages we are repeatedly sending to young girls. I have teenage students who read a lot who seem to echo the messages of these books in their day-to-day speech. That can be good sometimes, like when we teach people to be tolerant and brave and curious. That can also be bad. Here are three things we need to STOP doing over and over again in YA literature, especially when it targets young women.
I know it’s probably not a great idea to start off a blog post about something as important as feminism with a quote from Hannah Montana, but here I go anyway:
We’re all human, and yet we’ve gotten to a point with social justice movements that we hone in on the mistakes in our entertainment and blow them out of proportion, rather than pointing them out and also holding up what was done right as a shining example.
When it comes to racism and sexism, it’s important to call out bias when we see it. Some things should become a taboo. A little bit of shaming when it gets to extreme racism, like chewing out someone who is horrible enough to use the N-word in 2015, can be productive: even if the offending racist doesn’t learn to be open-minded, at least he/she might think twice about saying the word in public and perpetuating their bias to future generations. The problem comes when we make people afraid to have a productive discourse about these issues. If we treat all racism and sexism equally, we’ll create and environment where people refuse to admit when they do something even slightly not-okay. When we do that, when we make it impossible to admit we have a problem for fear of the angry mob, we can never move forward and correct the issue.
I’m Going to Talk About The Avengers: Age of Ultron Now
You were warned. You were also warned by the GIANT IMAGE OF BLACK WIDOW at the top of this post. I’m about to talk about the latest Marvel cinematic universe movie. Some spoilers will be given beyond this point.
I’ve heard a few of my adult friends expressing frustration with the sheer amount of YA fiction out there right now. It’s a growing market– one of the only growing markets– and sometimes we grown-ups get frustrated with having to sift through mountains of high-school-themed work to read about adults behaving like adults. After all, we have to deal with enough adults behaving like teenagers in our daily work environments. Maturity is refreshing.
So why do so many adult authors write stories about high school students? Is it because it’s easy? I don’t think so. Is it because there’s still money there? Perhaps. Here are five solid reasons why authors are so attracted to YA fiction. It’s not as shallow as you might think.
1. It has a ready audience
I remember a conversation with a publisher back in 2008 where she told me that YA was the only growing market. Since then, eBooks have also joined the growing market club, but it is a small club. Young Adults now are more into reading than they were in my generation. I was dumbfounded when I interned in a local middle school and found myself overwhelmed with discussions about The Hunger Games. The students actually thought I was cool for recommending that they read The Graveyard Book. When I was in middle school, Harry Potter was just taking off and I was a nerd for being into it. Now reading may not be cool, but it isn’t uncool, and that’s a HUGE improvement.
The internet has made books more interactive. Teenagers can go online and share fan-art from their favorite novels. Roleplaying communities pop up on forums everywhere, allowing kids to stay immersed in the world they love on an almost 24-hour basis. They make for wonderfully passionate fans and they have enthusiasm to spare. They also have money to spare, which helps. These kids are one of the biggest markets in all general audience industries, because they have allowances and jobs, but no financial responsibilities. If Amelia puts in 20 hours a week at Target and spends $100 on car insurance and $100 on gas, that’s $440 a month in Massachusetts that she can spend on WHATEVER SHE WANTS. If you haven’t guessed, Amelia is me in High School. Why didn’t I save more of that money?
2. High school is a time of heightened drama
Do you remember your first break up? If it was in high school, chances are it felt like the end of the world. You probably didn’t behave too maturely about the whole thing, and you wondered if you would ever find love again. Looking back, most of the things that were such a big deal to us then, feel silly now. Why did I care that all the cool kids had Adidas shell-top sneakers? Why did it matter that an unfortunate-looking boy I had only kissed once, broke up with me and then took my ex-best friend to the 8th grade dance? Why did it matter that the same ex-best friend turned all my friends against me, when there was a much cooler group of people waiting one lunch table away to embrace me and my weirdness? Age, experience, and hormones. That’s it.
That said, while the dwelling in the heightened drama of high school might be a terribly tumultuous way to live, it’s great for writing characters. You don’t have to invent larger-than-life scenarios to make the stakes really high. Not having a date to a party is a minor inconvenience for an adult character. For a teenager, it’s the climax of the whole book!
Now, don’t assume I’m saying that these easy stakes are a cop-out. They’re not. They are fun, and they also serve a purpose. You see, an adult reader looking back might roll their eyes at the dreaded prom-date-plot, but to a teenage reader who still exists in those heightened times, it is enthralling and important. Important? Yes. I’ll explain that more at point 5.
3. It’s a common experience
This is really one of the simplest points to make. They say that you should write what you know. In America you have to be sixteen to legally drop out of school. Almost all American adults, therefore, have been to some high school. Of those students, only about 11% attend private schools. So it’s safe to say that at least 85% of all Americans over the age of fourteen/fifteen have been to a public high school and know what it’s like.
As for the books about private schools (such as John Green’s heartbreaking novel, Looking For Alaska, which was set at a private school based on his own in Pelham, AL), those are familiar enough, but add a sense of mystery (and a lack of parental supervision) to the familiar experience. Public or private, we all know it and we can all relate to it. It’s an easy way to make common ground with your reader.
4. Teenage impulses make great plot
In point 3 I went over the heightened consequences of everything in High School. It’s a more emotionally dramatic time, and therefore it is also less rational. I remember screaming at the TV when I watched the early seasons of Gossip Girl in my dorm. Why did Serena lie and turn so many people against her, when telling the truth would not have any real consequences? She was convinced that she had killed someone, by merely being in the room when a guy overdosed on drugs. I thought that it was the stupidest thing, to run away and hide the truth from the police and create so many more problems when she didn’t do anything except stick around when she probably should have said “you know, I’m going to go now.” The whole plot snowballed into so much unnecessary drama that I actually stopped watching the series.
But looking back, I realize that I wasn’t the intended audience and that Serena could not be expected to behave like and adult, because she wasn’t. She was a kid, and fear that she would get in trouble, not realizing that she wasn’t to blame for the actions of a stranger at a party, made sense as her motivation.
When you are writing adult characters, you have to give them a certain level of mental instability to get them to do the things you need for plot. I often find Jason Livingstone, the sane adult character in Olympia Heights, telling me “No, that’s stupid. I’m not going to do that” as I’m trying to write his story-lines. With the kids, however, all it takes is some lack of experience or knowledge or extreme emotional state and they are there.
Teenage impulses make great plot, because kids are constantly making mistakes and learning from them. They can make all of the juicy mistakes and still turn out emotionally well-adjusted in the end.
5. High school poses the most important question
One of the most important questions in philosophy is “what is the meaning of life?” Another is “what is reality?” These questions aren’t really answerable, so fiction about them usually turns out as The Matrix.
One question that everyone can answer, however, is “who am I?” Many greats before us have asked this question (Henry David Thoreau, Aldous Huxley, and the Buddha, to name a few). The brilliant thing about YA literature, is that all teenagers really have to do is discover who they are.
I know, all they have to do is not so simple. Knowing yourself is perhaps the most difficult thing you can do. Benjamin Franklin said that only three things were hard: steel, diamonds, and knowing yourself. And I know that it’s really much harder when those pesky things like school, college, romance, peer pressure, and drugs get in the way. But really, knowledge of self is the key to all of those problems.
Now, I find that adults who don’t know who they are can make for very compelling writing. That said, depicting teens who don’t know who they are is very important. This point gets to the root of why all of these other reasons aren’t cop-outs for lazy writers. They matter. So many teenagers are searching for their identity and trying to find it in a jar of Manic Panic at Hot Topic or with a flashlight at Hollister. What if they could find it in a book? Wouldn’t that be great?
When creating balanced characters, it is important to take an inventory of their merits and flaws to be certain that they are well-rounded. Flaws are interesting. They create obstacles and make our characters seem human (or elf, or vampire…) Flaws make the story relatable, even if the flaw is so awesome/detrimental that it alienates the character from your audience. If you can make your character flaws unlikeable and still keep the story interesting, more power to you!
Below is a list of 6 character flaws that DO NOT COUNT when trying to decide if your protagonist is balanced.
1. I am just too nice.
We’ve all heard guys use the excuse. “Girls don’t like me because I’m Too Nice. They only want to date jerks.” While I admit, some girls are CRAZY and prefer to date guys who are bad for them, the majority of women are perfectly sane. Too Nice isn’t a real flaw. Too Nice is an excuse to avoid admitting other flaws. Too Nice might stand for socially unaware and smothering. Too Nice might stand for weak-willed. I dated a guy who was Too Nice in college. What it really meant was that he was so worried about making me happy that he never gave his opinions on what we should do or see, even when I asked. Were you Too Nice because you smothered your girlfriend until she had to dump you to get you to get one night to herself? Too Nice might also stand for flaws that go well beyond personality. Are you Too Nice because you work in fast food, you’re not in college, and you’re twenty-three? Are you Too Nice because you’re 50 pounds overweight and afraid to talk to girls?
Sometimes Too Nice is not your fault. Sometimes she broke up with you because she just wanted to be with some other guy. That sucks, but it happens. At least she broke up with you instead of cheating. Maybe you think you’re Too Nice because she chose your more charismatic friend who is better put together. I guarantee, when a guy says girls won’t date him because he’s Too Nice, everyone who hears that excuse is making a list of the real reasons. A sane girl will date a guy who has his stuff together, who she is attracted to, if he treats her right. If you have a job, can dress yourself, and know how to speak to people without putting your foot in your mouth, you will never be too nice to find a great girlfriend. She just might not be the girl you thought you wanted. Too many “nice” guys have it in their head that she is obligated to fall in love, just because you’re friends. That is not so.
Therefore, if a character is Too Nice, it rings false, because we know that is just a sad excuse.
2. I’m too pretty.
Too Pretty can be a real-life flaw. Plenty of pretty girls ar discriminated against because they are attractive. Clearly, others think, they must be stupid or spoiled. Emilie Autumn’s song, “Thank God I’m Pretty” outlines the woes of the pretty girl very well. At some point we decided that attractive people can’t be taken seriously. I’m not telling you that this isn’t a real problem. I have experienced discrimination because of my appearance. I’m telling you that this is not really a flaw so much as a social repercussion of a merit, and that when it’s the protagonist, it doesn’t count at all.
The audience is with the protagonist. We’re on his/her side because the structure of the story tells us to be. When a real person gets passed up for a job because she is pretty and managers assume she’s not qualified, she is isolated in that experience. She feels alone because it sounds vain to complain that someone didn’t like you because of how pretty you are. Readers are with the protagonist, and so she is not alone, even if she cannot perceive the fourth wall.
Further, the protagonist will have the chance to prove their worth. If they don’t, this is just a vehicle for the plot. She loses the job at the law firm because she is pretty, which brings her to another occupation that leads to plot. Too pretty is nearly impossible to use as a legitimate obstacle in a narrative. All flaws need to become obstacles to actually count when balancing your character. Being pretty might be a social obstacle, but if your only flaw is also a merit, your character might be a Mary Sue.
3. I have this non-disfiguring scar with a really cool story behind it.
These scars do not count as flaws because they are awesome. They give him street-cred. Scars only count as flaws when your character needs to be incognito and their scar is infamous. Your character had better be crippled by his wound or look like the Phantom to count a scar as a flaw.
4. I’m afraid of this one particular thing that’s not really related to the plot.
If your character has a phobia that is unlikely to come up, it doesn’t count. “I’m afraid of dogs” is only a flaw if there is a pack of dogs guarding the building where the love-interest is being held prisoner. Further, it’s only a flaw if your character can’t just buck-up and get past it for the sake of the plot.
5. I’m really bad at this one thing that I won’t have to do in the story.
Gary Stu is a handsome, billionaire, playboy, Kung-Fu master, but he’s terrible with computers. Unless he needs to get information off a computer to save the day, Gary’s lack of skill with computers doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of the story, it doesn’t count.
6. Everyone is jealous of me.
I’ll admit, Ron’s Weasley’s sporadic jealous fits were emotionally distressing to Harry, but they were always resolved before the climax of each book because Rowling didn’t expect Ron’s envy to be Harry’s balancing flaw. Everyone is jealous of me is not really a flaw, just a downside to some merit. Is everyone jealous because you’re rich? Well good thing you have tons of money. Is everyone jealous because you’re so smart? Being smart is not really a problem. Jealousy might become an obstacle in the plot, but like being Too Pretty, if your only obstacle is actually a merit, your character is probably a Mary Sue.
The Wrap Up
I am sure that I will get plenty of comments telling me how these flaws could actually be obstacles. I know that there likely a handful of good ways to use them. If your character has one of these flaws, I’m not hating on you. I have created characters with these flaws before. The difference is that these were not the only flaws. These flaws are a guidelines, not a standard. Creative writers could use them well, WHEN MIXED WITH OTHER, LEGITIMATE FLAWS, but if these are your only flaws, you need to seriously reconsider your character.
If I had to sum this up with a golden rule, I would say this: If nobody cares or it doesn’t come up in the plot, it doesn’t count for character balance. Flaws have to become legitimate obstacles to matter within the context of a narrative.