Today, we are proud to present an essay from Megan Cummins on writing complex young adult characters, and getting her audience to accept them.
“More than being misunderstood, I’m interested in how teenagers (and their fictional counterparts) might feel their experiences are discounted as lacking the insight of adulthood, when in truth they’re looking ahead at their futures more closely than they ever have before. It’s this tension—maturing while being called immature—that I find so rich and interesting about the teenage experience, and it’s why even though I’ve labeled one project as for teenagers and the other for adults, I write my teenage characters the same way in each.”
“I don’t believe a teenager would think this.”
This is a critique I’ve heard often while writing my YA novel, a story about a teenage girl who goes to live with her father in Sioux Falls one summer; when she arrives, she finds he’s left town. Rather than calling her mother, or the police, she gets a fake ID, gets a job at Hy-Vee, waits for his return, and writes her own YA novel about a girl transported to another world. “Why would she want to fend for herself?” readers have asked. “She wouldn’t write a sentence like this,” they’ve said about the novel-within-the-novel.
Writing isn’t successful unless the reader is convinced, but when applying this critique to YA literature, I’m beginning to believe in a self-fulfilling prophecy. We critique YA characters who appear too mature; on the flip side, we are quick to malign YA literature as non-literary. We scoff at adults for reading it. We sometimes scoff at children for reading it (“[Harry Potter] is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons,” wrote A. S. Byatt in the New York Times). We criticize teens for not advancing to adult literature faster. Even as YA literature now takes a lead in publishing diverse writers doing the difficult work of introducing challenging topics to their young readers, somehow there’s something “less literary” about it, say some. But it’s teenagers who are the ones coming of age in this fraught world, everyday facing fears that adults can hardly fathom.
For some, literary may be the quality of the sentences; for others the complexity of the plot; for still others the nuance of character. For many, it’s all of these, and more, working differently in every book. We offer adult literature the benefit of many ways of being, but when a book is about teenagers, its YA. The end.
“I don’t believe a teenager would think this” has been said about nearly all of my teenage characters, whether I intended the piece for teens, adults, or both. These characters are all girls. The lifeguard at the pool, struggling with her best friend’s relationship with an older man. The sixteen-year-old who avoids the hospital after being injured by an exploding aerosol can. And the girl with the failing grades and the big ideas of escape whose dad is in prison for vehicular manslaughter (drunk, he hit and killed the father of her popular classmate).
But no one questioned the voice of the teen, male dropout who uses the word “moribund,” a word choice I was sure would raise at least one eyebrow.
By creating a character, a writer is growing that character up, placing her at a point in time that’s a result of school, and family dynamics, and relationships, and everything else that goes into a life. Who knows better what a character would think than her author? The character has to feel the story as much as the author, and the author must do the work of making a character’s life real, complex, and believable. Readers, if they love a book, will remember forever the people they met while reading it. But if we limit what a character can think because of her age, we limit who they can be—and in that way we limit our readers, too. When I read strong girl characters who aren’t allowed to feel—following instead the trope that to be a strong girl one must also be hardened or cynical—I’m sad for the young readers absorbing the idea that love and strength aren’t compatible.
When I was growing up, and becoming a reader, what I loved most about reading were they ways it was aspirational. I liked reading the thoughts of characters precisely because I wasn’t having those thoughts myself—sometimes because I didn’t yet know how to have them. It’s Jane Eyre’s solitary and unchildlike behavior that evokes Mrs. Reed’s ire but makes Jane our heroine. Jane’s own imagination is inspired by History of British Birds and though “the letterpress thereof I cared little for,” the descriptions of the Arctic captivate: “Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive.” Because I loved these characters, I learned to observe as they did, use vocabulary as they did, and consider the ways they grew as I grew, too. And it all seemed to happen seamlessly, as though through osmosis. Then, in the second grade, my teacher asked where I’d learned the word “trudge” after I used it in a book report. I recall feeling perplexed by the question. The answer, of course, was from reading, but was I supposed to have been cataloguing the when and where of every new word I learned?
Years after that, in a writing class, the teacher pointed out a part of my story in which a teenage character takes a book off the shelf to give to her friend. “I liked that these people weren’t literary,” the teacher said, advising I edit the scene out. But can one not own and read books unless they’re part of the literary world—and does literary mean being a writer, or working in publishing? Did she say it because the character was a teenager? In retrospect, the book on the shelf was the least of the story’s problems, given the character who pulled it down was a manic pixie dream girl (though I didn’t realize that at the time).
It’s easy, when writing, to narrow oneself into types while walking under the banner of consistency; but it’s as important to remember the messy lives of human beings, the ways we are inconsistent, and to work that messiness into the self of the character.
My own current projects are a YA novel and a collection of stories for adults. Several of the pieces in the collection are about teenagers, and told from their points-of-view, and integral to these stories are the observations the teens make about their lives, observations the adults around them—locked as they are in their own dramas—often miss. More than being misunderstood, I’m interested in how teenagers (and their fictional counterparts) might feel their experiences are discounted as lacking the insight of adulthood, when in truth they’re looking ahead at their futures more closely than they ever have before. It’s this tension—maturing while being called immature—that I find so rich and interesting about the teenage experience, and it’s why even though I’ve labeled one project as for teenagers and the other for adults, I write my teenage characters the same way in each.
Maybe it’s true that in YA literature is more dramatic (just like teenagers listening to the stereo a little too loudly), with the characters treading new, deep waters, and there’s no shore in sight, but isn’t that what teenage readers, at least some of them, crave—life’s loudest dramas, and the feeling that nothing quite like this has ever happened before, at least not to them? And don’t some of the classics on high school reading lists offer this as well? The gloomy morning ending of Romeo & Juliet felt so poignant to me at fourteen, with the Prince’s promise of pardons and punishments, and his threat that the story would live on, uneclipsable:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet, and her Romeo.
Though I loved this ending for its melodrama, I imagine a teenager reading it today with a story of her own in mind, thinking: Wanna bet?
by Megan Cummins