The Anatomy of the YA Novel
Today I found myself reflecting on the YA novel, and the underlying formula that makes them work. After all, a lot of writers really want to develop these – partly because the market is so active (and likely over saturated, but that’s a different article).
There are a lot of elements that go into making a YA book a success. It should be imaginative, challenging, and focused on teenagers. The characters are also typically faced with a situation – usually early on, that forces them into a specific mold. YA characters seldom choose their plot arcs. The nature of their adventure is almost always dictated to them by circumstances beyond their control.
The idea that a novel about teenagers should focus on the tension between the developing individual and the expectations of their society is hardly surprising. And it is this dynamic that lies at the heart of the teen novel. Being a teenager remains as difficult as ever, and learning one’s place is still an overwhelming, and often depressing transition in life. The teenage novel takes this dynamic to a new level: the characters within are generally spared making a choice in the first place. In other words, protagonists in teenage novel are given first, a place in the world, and second a specific set of duties that result from their new station. The elements of choice are effectively eliminated. They never need to find their own way, and as a result and characters are largely stripped of their free will.
The most recent teen explosion began with Harry Potter. I wasn’t the biggest fan – I never bought a Hogwart’s robe and waited in line for hours to get the next book (though plenty of my friends did). But I read them and I enjoyed them. It was a fun set of novels, but part of its appeal I think, was that the fantasy world of Harry Potter has rules and system that are empowering, easy to learn, and automatic. The students of Hogwarts know precisely what their role in life is. In fact, by being inducted into the wizarding world, one is granted a purpose and a place within it – a birthright. Questions are taken away, free will is restricted (in the most pleasant of ways of course), and one knows always what is expected. In other words, the society dictates purpose to all of its members. Young people don’t really have to worry. They have been selected by the powers that be to take their place among the other wizards. No one chooses; no one works for it (magical powers are innate after all); no one finds themselves cast out – they can’t be. Wizards have to stick together.
The moment that young Mr. Potter gets his invitation to Hogwarts everything changes for him. But he never would have gotten out from under the stairs if they had not come for him. Harry Potter had to take no action of his own to change his life. He just got it all, for free, and without ever making a single conscious choice. He is told, clearly and simply, what he is going to become. The rest of the books are basically the consequences of a decision that is made about him, and without any real input from him.
This pattern is repeated again in the distopian series The Hunger Games. The story is considerably darker of course, but this underlying pattern is the same: a powerful society chooses victims, puts them into a special place, and mandates the performance of a special set of duties. While the system is portrayed as a murderous and deeply corrupt one, it grants purpose to the characters. They don’t have to choose, and the society gives them a place and a role. Of course, unlike Harry Potter, this role might be ultimately tragic, but it is a form of greatness and security of belonging. The games are unavoidable, and even embraced by the participants. They provide an opportunity and a place to the protagonists. Therein lies the fantasy (Full disclosure: while I haven’t finished the series, the first book is the one that hooked folks. I only mention this because I understand that the society in question is destroyed in the end).
The His Dark Materials series is similar. Teens get picked up by an organization that embraces them and grants them a place within it. In The Golden Compass the main tension is between the characters and the Church, which like The Hunger Games is an institution that chooses teens for some purpose that could either be embraced or resisted. The notion of being brought into something greater is, as per normal, dangled in front of the characters and they are not forced to select the direction that life takes them in – the notion of choice is again eliminated (or at least highly restricted).
I understand Twilight follows a similar pattern, but I couldn’t handle that book. People I talk to all laugh at the basic passivity of Bella though, so I’d be willing to bet that stuff just happens to her throughout the books.
What does all this say? Teenagers especially, but many adults as well, spend most of their lives struggling to figure out what is expected of them. The novels they like to read provide simple, straightforward, and easy instructions on social acceptance. Moreover, this happens without any input being required of the characters. And that, I think, is the core element that really resonates with teens. The guesswork and insecurity that could come from making the “wrong” decision is dissolved into some organization that is bigger and all embracing. The teen novel might hold up the virtues of courage, bravery, friendship, etc., but it does so by eliminating the need to self-select one’s place in the world.
This is different from say, The Hobbit. Bilbo ultimately must choose to take on his adventure. He could, and very nearly did, stay home (the film leaves this a bit more ambivalent, but the Bilbo of the book is a bit more empowered). By leaving, even if pushed, he makes an active decision to go forth, come what may. Harry Potter, Katniss, Bella, and the rest just go along for the ride – circumstance forces them into the action of the story. The call to action is handled through the diktats of the setting. In this interpretation, Bilbo’s is an adventure taken on by a self-actuated character. The teens in most YA fiction are ultimately victims, unable or unwilling to choose what fate befalls them.
Of course, there are numerous other reasons that a YA novel might succeed or fail. But the point is that most of the characters don’t actually choose what happens to them. At some point, they are told clearly and succinctly where they need to be and what to strive for. And that is a key element of the fantasy.