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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Writing Young Adult Fantasy: The Challenge of Darkness

How dark is too dark for young adult readers?  How dark is too dark for a young adult character?  Not long ago, I responded to a Wall Street Journal post by Meghan Cox Gurdon which argued that YA fiction has become exceedingly dark.  I didn't agree with the author's assessment, largely because it was a "conservative" political manipulation of reality rather than anything approaching legitimate criticism of the genre.  In a lot of ways, the thematic shift in the YA literature field to a more active engagement with the things that plague teenagers has been a good thing for me as an author (of YA and other "genres").

When I first began writing The World in the Satin Bag, I intended it to be a quirky fantasy romp a la Leven Thumps, but the deeper I got into the world, the more I found my darker side taking over.  WISB is not fluff.  In a lot of ways, the novel tricks you into think it is just that.  Is there humor?  Absolutely.  Are there quirky creatures and characters?  You bet.  But is it a novel that avoids taking its 13-year-old character through the ringer?  Nope.  WISB is a novel about the limits of young adults.  James, my main character, experiences some of the darkest things imaginable for a child, from murder to child kidnapping to the terror of children as soldiers and the horrors of power.  And, if you've been listening, you'll know that James has to constantly deal with the fact
that his very existence in the world of Traea is the catalyst for near-genocidal behaviors in others.  I don't want to say more than that, because you should listen to the novel (or get the ebook when it comes out).  The point is:  I might be on Gurdon's list of depraved authors simply because I've written a book which puts a poor 13-year-old character through things that no child should experience, and most children probably won't.

But I hold a very different opinion of young adults than Gurdon.  I don't view them as children in the traditional sense.  Young adult is a category which should be taken literally:  they are young adults.  They may not have the same rights as those of us over the age of 21, and, perhaps, shouldn't have all those rights for very good reasons (mental growth, etc.), but they are in a long transition phase between childhood and adulthood.  As I mentioned in my response to Gurdon, young adults are already dealing with things many adults want to hide them from.  They treat young adults like they treat little children, which I find grossly offensive.

It's for that reason that I don't feel a need to hold back when I punish my main character.  The only limits in my story are the limits of James.  That doesn't mean James can't die (or that he won't), but it does mean that I know where the line rests and what will happen to my story if I cross it.  The challenge of darkness isn't about public morality or, as Gurdon suggests, avoiding reinforcing bad behaviors.  It's about exploring the limits of the potential of young adults as thinking people.  In my mind, it's also an issue of respect.  You drag your characters as far as you can imagine your characters going, and you put a foot over the line to test them.

With James, that line is his own cowardice (or, more accurately, his disinterest in things that might get him hurt).  But he's also a character who places extraordinary value on the people who matter to him, and it's because of this that he has to challenge himself to do something beyond his nature.  His strength and resolve will be tested throughout the book, even beyond his initial leap of courage; in fact, James will have to explore the farthest boundaries of his disinterest and experience the very things he has spent his short life avoiding at an exaggerated level.  I won't tell you what happens to him, but it's not "good," if you get my meaning.

For other authors, those lines are very different.  Some authors may want to put a young adult character through the trials of molestation or the scary experience of teen pregnancy.  YA fantasy authors might include these themes in their work because they want to show that even characters who use magic and wander around in mystical worlds experience such things too.  There's nothing dark or wrong about exploring these issues; in fact, I would argue that exploring the "dark side" of teenage existence is essential for young adult literature, whether fantastic or otherwise.

Perhaps a lot of this discussion comes from the fact that I interact with young adults on a regular basis.  As the co-owner (and, more or less, the only "boss") of Young Writers Online, I talk to a lot of teenagers of all ages.  Many of them are people I would consider my friends, even if I am older than them.  And through my interactions with these folks, it's become very clear to me what kind of world they live in.  Reading a book like WISB, which does contain a fair deal of blood and violence and, if I'm being honest, downright wicked stuff, won't destroy their minds.  They might find it a good deal of fun, or they might enjoy the underlying "messages" compelling and find themselves thinking about things they might not have thought about before (or might not have expected someone else to write about).

And that's really the point.  Darkness or not, YA fantasy (and YA literature in general) is an exploratory process, for authors and for young adult (and even adult) readers.

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  1. Ever since I became an Old Adult, and then once I started writing, I've had trouble understanding YA. I actually wrote what amounted to a YA novel once, but I struggled with it in revisions because I either had the characters doing things that I couldn't conceive anyone accepting as the kind of things you portray kids doing (despite having done them myself while one), or I cut the scenes with them doing those things and then felt like it was unauthentic. But then, I don't read YA, so I don't even know the expectations. Suffice to say, kids are a lot more, uh, "grown up" than most people (read: parents) would like them to be.

  2. The expectations are really not that far from those of adult fiction. The difference is that young adults are also dealing with other issues. In WISB, for example, James has to do a lot of things that would normally be reserved for adults. He's capable of doing most of these things (although he fails precisely because he's only 13 sometimes). What differentiates WISB from adult fiction is that I have to deal with the fact that my 13-year-old main character is doing things that typically wouldn't be required of someone his age.

    So, yeah. I agree with you on your last sentence!