Being a Cybils judge taught me a few things about writing for YA – many good things and also many things we could be doing better. While I hate writing about the negatives, I think the good things will be easy for us to get our heads around and accept while the negatives are going to taste funny and make some people annoyed with me. But I think talking about them will make our stories stronger.
I’ve picked three trends to share with you that quickly drove me bananas and the first one is the most painful for me personally. I read a lot of books back to back very fast and too many of them to count had one (or more) of these three qualities. Take it for what it’s worth. I’m not picking on any particular books or authors and many of the books I loved have exhibited at least one of these three traits. I just think we can do better. These are not trends I want to see made into the norm.
Bananas Trend #1: Adonis Protag Syndrome
If I asked all of you the question, “Describe physical beauty,” I’d get something different from each of you, maybe several somethings. I’m not being cliché, like, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc etc. I’m talking about “beautiful” in the word craft sense. “Beautiful” in that it has no direct meaning. When you pop open a Webster and flip to the B section, it does not say Beautiful: ballerina thin with sky blue eyes. Must think she is average but we all know better. Webster says: having beauty; having qualities that give great pleasure or satisfaction to see, hear, think about, etc.
She’s beautiful. He’s hot. I don’t even know what these phrases mean anymore.
And yet I would not be hyperbolic to say that every book I read for the Cybils collapsed under the weight of this word. Wonderful, thought provoking, intense plot lines and gorgeous prose fell face first into a pile of wordcrap the moment any of the main characters were described. Oh how beautiful our YA heroines and heroes are! I don’t know what any of them actually look like, couldn’t pick them out of a line up, but I know they are hot and that is all that matters. Protagonists, I have learned, only come in size beautiful and extra hot, and in case you might forget, the reiteration of it is made every four and a half paragraphs. Like clockwork.
If I sound bitter it’s because I am. Not bitter enough that some of my favorite books were not among the culprits of this offensive wordtrap, but still. Bitter. Because the rest of these wonderful books prove we can do better. We’re capable of making dynamic characters on the inside, so why do we go a little cross eyed when it comes to making our characters dynamic on the outside too?
On the craft side of things, I’m so sick of the words beautiful and hot that I could just scream my lungs out. It’s like saying, Describe the color “blue” to a blind person. Describe the essence of justice.
What do these words even mean? I have no idea, except that whatever effervescence these characters possess makes everyone within a two mile radius pant like dogs. Girls and boys both. If the crown prince, the hero extraordinary, and half a dozen minion boys aren’t vying for the beautiful heroine’s affections, than she’s clearly doing something wrong.
And the boys? Oh the muscles. Chiseled even. Like marble. Feverish, bulging muscles. Their muscles have muscles. Their mega hot cockiness knows no muscly bounds. We girls, apparently, pray at the alter of honey colored muscles. Give me muscles, or give me death.
I don’t know what’s wrong with us as writers when we can create knock-out prose describing the roiling events of a fist fight with such clarity our stomachs turn a bit when blood spills, and yet we hand over these paragraphs about the hotness of a protagonist and then repeat it every once in a while, just in case the reader forgets. They don’t tell me anything except maybe I should be jealous of them, I guess.
But often, especially when repeated constantly, “hot” and “beautiful” feel more like bragging. The annoying, eye-rolling inducing kind. My first instinct is to think yeah right. If it were true you wouldn’t have to try so hard to convince me.
The Problem with Beauty
The other, less describable problem is this: Judging by our current obsession with beautiful, unique heroines, you’d think that the only people who can be heroic protag material are the beautiful, special people. Most of us are lovely and average and possess a variety of flavors.
Let me back up for a second before I hop on some unforgivable soap box. Think back to when you were a teen. Go on, even if it takes a second. If it helps, open an old yearbook. I was surprised to discover that a lot of the popular girls I was so jealous of back then were all pretty awkward looking, just like me. TV and movies have skewed us a bit because girls who are 23, 25, 27 are cast as 16 and 17 year olds and we’ve started to think this is a normal look for teens. (Teens think so too.)
Anyone born before 1993 would be more than 19 years old.
Robert Pattinson of Twilight? 1986
Jennifer Lawrence of The Hunger Games? 1990
Nina Dobrev of The Vampire Diaries? 1989
Thomas Dekker of The Secret Circle? 1987
Kristen Stewart of Twilight? 1990
Alex Pettyfer of Beastly and I am Number Four? 1990
Blake Lively of Gossip Girl? 1987
Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl? 1986
Penn Badgley of Gossip Girl? 1986
Troian Bellisario of Pretty Little Liars? 1985
It’s not normal. Teenagers, boys and girls alike, are still growing into their bodies. They wear the trends of the moment (big hair, straight hair, permed hair, pixie hair, big bangs, straight bangs, no bangs). They’re still wearing braces or just got over braces or never got them in the first place. Teens are a little crooked, a little new, and both very similar and incredibly unique from each other. Not to say teens can’t be beautiful and hot but that’s such an oversimplification of it all.
Our novels walk a weird tightrope between needing to be honest by describing things how they are for the reader (She’s blond, a little round in the face, has a scar on her left elbow, is short and thick and built like a soccer player.) and describing things for the character (He’s so hot OMG.) I know I still pass men and experience something akin to a stroke and my brain turns to mush, but when I describe him to my girlfriends later I make sure to give such details as to make their hearts sweat, too.
I want to give examples, I really do, but I am uncomfortable with the business of laying down judgment on anyone. So let me just say this:
The world is filled with wondrous variety. Describe some of it.