I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of the central character in YA novels – namely, her personality.
Someone once told me that the key to the success of a particular, wildly popular novel was that the central character, a teenage girl, had hardly any personality traits at all. No obvious quirks or flaws or qualities. No distinguishing marks. Even her appearance was indistinctive. She was attractive, without any details.
The reason, he said, was simple. This allows every reader to put herself into the story, to imagine that she is the protagonist of the book, to fantasize that she is the heroine. Sure, things happened to the central character, and around her, but it is what life does to her that is important, not what she does with her life, he said. If a central character has a distinctive way of acting or thinking, it can interfere with the average reader imagining themselves being her.
I wondered about that at the time, and I still do, but it seems a little cynical to me. Maybe it is a good strategy for some YA writers, but I couldn’t imagine bringing such a girl to life. The only way I can bring a character to life on the page, to make her talk and think and feel, is to make her real to me – which means giving her all the complexity that I see in myself and in the people around me, and especially in the girls that I remember in my teenage years.
That means imagining a person who isn’t perfect, isn’t an angel or a saint or a genius or empty-head either. It also means imagining someone with a checkered history, with both precious and painful memories, with insecurities and doubts and fears and desires. She has to have scars, hang-ups and emotional baggage. She sometimes makes mistakes and has regrets. She isn’t a role model. She’s a human being in the midst of huge change, ie teenagehood.
I’m thinking about this because I sometimes get feedback from Apparition readers that they aren’t wild about my central character Amelia, saying she lacks confidence, suffers from too much doubt, and too much indecision about the boys in her life. Also, she thinks a lot, and ruminates about everything too much and seems to contradict herself sometimes.
But I’m happy knowing there are quite a few readers out there who do like Amelia, and cut her some slack. After all, she is suffering from grief and loneliness and depression, but she still has a sense of dark humour and she doesn’t run away when the going gets tough. She will walk alone into a haunted barn if she thinks she should – knowing that she won’t actually be in there alone at all.
In the end, I’m totally okay with readers who don’t identify with Amelia so much, because we don’t always identify with everyone we meet in real life and that’s okay. But I hope they will give her a chance, see that she is struggling to be a better person, and that, over time, she might even gain a little wisdom!
During Word on the Street in Toronto last month, I took part in a panel discussion with two other YA authors entitled “Love in a Hopeless Place”. Just as we were running out of time, a gentleman in the audience asked an interesting question: whether a story about love must rely on a ‘love triangle’ to provide the plot with dramatic tension, or whether there are other ways to create tension in a ‘young romance’ novel without triangulating.
Well, my two fellow authors on the panel gave thoughtful responses, reassuring the young man that No, a YA novel does not have to rely on a love triangle for tension, and there are lots of other things that can threaten a relationship, thus driving up tension, stakes, and drama. But by the time it came round to me, having a clear ‘love triangle’ (Amelia, Matthew and Kip) in my book APPARITION, and feeling that we’d run out of time anyway, I responded rather glibly, just saying “Yes, definitely!” in a joking way.
Afterwards, I kind of regretted not taking the question more seriously, especially given the look of disappointment on the questioner’s face – making me think he’s spent a little time waiting for some gal to make up her mind himself. But then, who hasn’t? Who doesn’t know what that feels like?
So here’s my more considered response for YA writers out there:
Of course a YA novel, a romance, or a love story, doesn’t need a love triangle to make it work! A relationship, as we all know, can be threatened by many, many things, thus making for the kind of tension and drama that engages a reader. There are lots of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ style barriers to love, two people coming from worlds that are simply too different – with all kinds of external things working against them, or coming between them – class, race, ethnicity, timing, or lifestyle, not to mention prior commitments. There are countless internal things that can come between two people who love and desire one another. Different needs, dreams, even fears, that can threaten to tear a loving couple apart.
But what I think the questioner was really asking was Why are there so many goddam love triangles in YA novels? Ahh! Now, that’s a good question. I think it’s because the love triangle can capture something profoundly true and revealing about character and experience. Namely, that most thinking human beings, especially when they are young adults, but also at times throughout life, are complex, evolving, and wrestling with inner conflict. Which is why feelings about a person can be mixed, even when those feelings are extremely intense, and perhaps especially so.
Young people know something adults can sometimes forget – that life isn’t always straightforward and neither are our innermost desires. Which is why a decent love triangle story often rings painfully true. It’s rarely some crass comparison going on between two candidates for one’s affections, and more often two very different parts of oneself that respond separately to two distinct people. Can you love two people at once? Yes and no. You see? Nothing’s simple, for most of us. And if it does seem simple, well, count your blessings. You’re a rare bird.
If this weren’t the case, well the word commitment wouldn’t have to play such a vital part in our love lives. Because the point is, love is an experience that demands a choice, and a love triangle is a vivid way of driving home that we don’t choose our experience of love necessarily, but we do choose what we do about it. We just don’t get to choose what the other person does about it. Lucky people are the ones who wind up choosing each other, without regrets, despite the options.