This is actually a jump-off post, inspired by Meredith’s about how teens are sometimes poorly and unrealistically portrayed in YA literature…not a tearful goodbye to HP and the gang.
Recently I’ve noticed, in online stories as well as mainstream published YA literature, that a lot of main characters don’t have cheerful lives (which I suppose in itself is up for interpretation). I know there has to be conflict, some angst in there. Bad things happen, usually in threes. No human is perfect, flaws must be seen. Blah, blah, blah. But seriously the heartache and drama is getting a little excessive. It’s, I fear, becoming the new cliché.
Again, I am no expert. I’m not published but am offering my advice anyways. It’s free. Take it?
*Alert: Minor spoilers, rants and assumptions ahead, read at your own risk.
Case One: Parenthood, Say What? Half of the stories I’ve read in the last few weeks propose some sort of horrid home life. One or more parents are dead. One might be an alcoholic or dying of disease, the other insane in grief, or a complete witch of a character who berates his children daily. Honestly, I think it is important that writers remember who they are writing about. As annoying as writing adults can be, as hard to work them into the plot, as much as they might get in the way of an epic love triangle…don’t just write them out. And if you do, for goodness sake make it believable and pertain to the plot. Most teens, and heck even the group slightly older, have parents in their lives in some shape or form (even if it is a monthly phone call or awkward family dinner). True story. I’m not saying you have to pack your chapters full of it, but a glimpse can be grand. This, in my opinion, can add to a plot.
The Harry Potter Effect: Harry was an orphan and his parents died tragically. This was an epic win for YA literature, why is my story different? Well…it’s all in execution as they say (no pun intended). That affected the rest of his life. It just didn’t make him broody and insecure (though he had his moments). It directly affected him getting to Hogwarts, they showed up on his quest, supported him in his not-so-last moments before death, they taught him about who he was, and let readers know about other characters (That young love Snape-Lily thing for one, who saw that coming? I didn’t). They did not just die so he could be miserable and angry and push people away. I mean he had Lily’s eyes…that meant something. They did not just die so Rowling didn’t have to write them in the story (proven by the fact they appear later on). This contrasts to Bella’s parents being quasi-present and just terrible parents who didn’t care some sparkly creep was watching their daughter sleep every night. Though, I must admit, even the Swans had their points where they progressed the plot…I digress.
The Solution: Aim for balance. Justify events in your story, even if the situation seems unjust. I’m not saying parental tragedy can’t be a good thing (wow, that reads weird). It can enhance a plot and define a character if an author does it correctly. It can’t just be that once or twice mentioned event. Even if details are never put in a story it they can still be written, as back up or to be inserted later. The event’s impact on not just the main character, but other family members, friends, the town are crucial. Does it affect how the child (insert other connection) is treated, their actions, if they share emotions, how they are perceived by others? If more goes into it than my “parents were killed and I got shipped off to a boarding school”, I can usually stomach it. Even that scenario has potential if enough detail is present. But sometimes I think a quasi-positive, strong relationship with parental figures can be just as satisfying.
Case Two: Why me? Murphy’s Law states that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. He just forgot about the part where it happens in the first five chapters of a book. This has been the case in three of the last six books I have read and nearly had me chucking one across the room. I’ve had my share of terrible days, unfair friends, fights, break ups, drama etc. You name it. I don’t mind if a character dies (I might even cry a little, or a lot). I don’t mind if there are some broken relationships, trust issues, heck even a cat fight, what have you. In moderation.
The Hunger Games Analogy: Collins used somewhat depressing, and even downright disturbing events to her advantage. When one looks at it, Katniss was starving, lost her dad, almost could have lost her sister and was fighting, literally, for her own life. People died, some more crushing than others. But all of the events (scratch that, most of the events besides Prim and the parachutes) had some feasible reason. The reader could see how they altered the plot, shaped her as a character or shaped other characters. Everything was spread out, details were revealed over time after ample hints were dropped and not dumped on us at the very beginning and then never touched again.
The Solution: Realism is key, even if it boarders on the slightly unrealistic. Personally, I go to a book to escape, sometimes to feel better about my life or to get sucked into someone else’s. This high is diluted when I am beaten over the head with bad event after bad event. Sometimes a tad bit of sympathy for a character builds, but often it makes me want to stop reading, especially if it is all thrown at me at once. It annoys me even more if there seems to be no justification for it in the plot (even more if I still see no relevance after the halfway point in the novel). In my opinion, unless you have an intricate and layered plot all figured out, it’d be best to stick to a few tragic elements and you can always tuck another in here or there after you at least get the first draft under your belt. If you write the main events well then readers will be more forgiving about what you do later on (sans the Mockingjay epilogue, again, my opinion).
Case Three: I’ve Got Enough Angst to Fill a High School Cafeteria I don’t mind characters reflecting on life. I don’t mind them being broody, or strong and silent, or somewhat bitchy (though that depends on the day). What I do mind are whiners. This is why I suggest authors, especially those who write first person, read their story out loud. I do it all the time. You can’t imagine the looks I get. I know that sometimes that is the point, the author doesn’t want you to like a character. It can be a risk: any character that is too cliché, too harsh in speech or complains too much is highly unlikable (especially in a MC). Why would a reader want to read about someone they don’t like. Make them care, it is the great equalizer.
The Bachelor(ette) Bruhaha: I liken this to a reality television show, not a clever book reference here. Supposedly episodes are unscripted, but often packed with drama, interesting characters and what not. Like certain MCs, sometimes I find myself wanting to smack participants upside the face(which is why I stopped watching the show). I mean, you are crying your crocodile tears about a guy not loving you, and complaining about how he is off kissing another girl. Hello, you are on a television show where you knew you were competing with other women for his “heart” and a wedding ring (not to mention a horribly promised happily ever after)…why are you so surprised? You kiss him, don’t you think other girls are saying the same thing about you? Same goes for whiny characters in books, or forced stereotypes and clichés. The other day I read a story about two friends…and throw in a boyfriend for good measure. All I could think was: This girl is a jerk, why are they even friends? (The MC even pointed the fact out.) This guy is her complete opposite, how did they get together? (The author never mentioned it halfway through the book.) It didn’t make sense to me and I stopped reading.
The Solution: I am by no means exempt from creating shoddy characters. But I do try to make sure that the angst level is at a medium setting. If a character is angry all the time they wouldn’t have friends, let alone let the quiet new girl into their lives and fall for her. Again, I don’t mind tension or explained circumstances. I love creatively crafted twists on clichés. It’s when things go unexplained it’s a problem. As long as you can realistically rationalize your characters’ thoughts, actions, relationships, then fine…do as you’d like with them. As a reader, I don’t need to understand it all, but some of it is always nice. But remember to incorporate things about them that are realistic: quirks, thoughts, obsessions, secrets, habits, family, friends.
In conclusion, I think it is best to use discretion when it comes to drama, demise and other depressing elements in a story. Especially if they are introduced in a rogue fashion in the first few pages of a book. Let the boy who lived, live or die, not hang in the middle. Or give him a chance at a normal life. After all, most people have horribly mundane lives with events that spice them up (or bring them down) every now and again. Though nowhere near 500 pages worth, keep this in mind as well. I’m all for good conquering evil, and overcoming struggles to grow and become who you are. In fact, these are some of my favorite reads, if done in clever ways with moderation.
What are your thoughts?