Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cliché VS. Reality: Character Tropes and Life in the YA Novel

Writing characters that ring true in a YA novel is a daunting task considering the very real melodrama that is adolescence. The emotional and intellectual changes a teenager faces in that microscopic decade of development can seem like concentrated evil or helium-stuffed fluff to our grown-up, weathered hearts and minds, but they are very real and potent to the kid going through it. Like it or not, there are certain patterns that repeat themselves no matter what era we look at.

This question has been pounding my brain particularly hard ever since I began to consider my antagonist. Thinking about bullying and teasing and the typical kids my children have been facing at school everyday, I find that it is hard to put them on paper as they are without them bordering on cliché.  Then the issue becomes do I sacrifice authenticity for originality? If the mean girl really exists, shouldn't she be part of my novel? My main character is absolutely fodder for the vicious, self-absorbed teen.

The next problem is the back story. That is where these characters could leave the world of cliché and enter into something richer. Too much back story, however, can get in the way of my main character's story. I don't want to clutter my novel with a million digressions and explanations, but there should be some indication of how these characters are "real" and 3-dimensional rather than just cardboard cut-outs with an addendum. So where do I go?

I can't help but use a certain classmate of my child's as a map for one of these irritating characters. As I begin construction, I am reminded of the conversations that I've had with my girl, wiping away her tears as I explain why some kids are so mean. That need to find a reason haunts most of us. So I have decided to write a "needs" assessment of each character to help me keep them in perspective. Rather than go into a long story about their trouble childhoods, I'll just make a list of what each character truly needs. I can elaborate later, if need be. That doesn't exactly fix the problem, but it might help keep me on track.

But what of the tropes?

The mean girl who is pretty but lonely—come on...we all knew at least one. Wherever that insecurity comes from, it's real and that need to hold power over someone else is the best way to satisfy it. Of course, I have to ask, "why is she so insecure?"  The kid is not a cliché, but the answers to that question might be. That is where I will pick at the details until I have something real.

The friends who decide social elevation is better than victimization—right around 4th grade this shit hits the fan. Kids start to become aware of their appearance and their place in the pecking order. Nobody wants to be pecked in the head every day, so they jump in line and follow instructions from the power-hungry mean girl. These are the "paid assassins" that end up doing the mean girl's bidding. I am watching my own child deal with this. People she thought were friends are turning on her and doing mean things simply to avoid being picked on themselves. When you add in a kid who has some special need or difference, there is even great motivation for distance. Nobody wants to be connected to the "weird kid."

The clueless boy who follows along because he's hoping to score points or avoid being the victim—another wonderful bit of adolescence we can all relate to. Weak minds are everywhere and they probably find roots in childhood. These kids often don't even know what they are saying. Amongst the newly minted teenagers or tweens, they might cast aspersions such as "you have rabis!" while the full-fledged teenagers will embrace their new fascination with their changing bodies and rapidly evolving libidos and play the "slut/skank" card freely.

The lonely genius—nerd or not, smarts can be very isolating unless you have either charisma or a never-ending supply of self-confidence (without the arrogance). The creative minds tend to get the most play from the bullies. What is it about their particular talents that intimidate other kids? Why can't they have faith in their abilities? Like anyone else, they need to feel connected to other human beings, but somehow, they lack the subtlety or the common thinking skills that let them do that.

There are so many more, but these are some of the characters I have to deal with right now. They are all inspired by real-life kids not only from my own childhood, but from my kids' current experience. The bottom line is that adolescence is a crucible where the most complex emotions and intellectual awakenings are set on fire and concentrated into the most potent experience of our lives.

Yes, adulthood can be hard and the decisions we make have significant consequences. When you compare that to the far-reaching effects of the choices we make as teenagers, however, our grown-up lives seem easier somehow. Perhaps it's because we finally have power over our own bodies. Or maybe it's because we have real independence and our brains are finally capable of rational thought and maybe even real empathy. As teenagers, all of this chaos rushes in and consumes us for a few years, yet in this tiny, little window of time, we are expected to learn how to make the decisions that will define us for the next 70 years. How scary is that?

While it seems as though teenagers are constantly blowing things out of proportion or over-dramatizing the minutiae, I must return to the advice that Ghost Hunk always gives me, "Go big or stay home." That kind of sums up the life of a teenager in spades.


  1. The funny thing is that while these are literary clichés, we know these people in real life.
    But yes, I so agree with you that in stories it pays to stir away and around them. (And maybe in real life too ;-})

  2. "Go big or stay home." I might have to adopt that.

    While reading your post I was thinking about my 5 year old granddaughter who entered K this year and is so enamored with all that involves. Wondering how hard it will be for her to stay unencumbered - to retain her love of the school social world & to keep feeling good about self without falling into the gang mentality.

    It's a little scary.

    1. I know, Joyce. I still remember Maisie as she started school. She loved it so much, and still does, but the trials of being different have certainly taken their toll. We are hoping to help her embrace her gifts, because she has many, and love being different. It's a tough road.

  3. I have definitely seen these tropes! Especially the first one, which I admit really bothers me. The super-shy introvert who happens to be GORGEOUS, lol.

    I'm so sorry to hear about your bang-up! Walmart just isn't good luck for anybody... (they recently got voted as the worst company to work for in America...).

    1. Thanks, Charlie. Our Walmart is particularly bad here. I got rear-ended there 2 years ago. I hate shopping there and thought I would save a little time and money. Got that wrong! Now I have a repair bill and time wasted standing around waiting for the cops to arrive, not to mention the time my care will be in the shop. ((sigh))


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