So, last week, this hashtag, #VeryRealisticYA, was created by @ABoredAuthor (aka John Hansen), and it caught the online writing community by storm. The tweets people sent in were hilarious. (I’m too lazy to embed them, but if you want to see some of them you can go here, here or here.)
But although the hashtag was created largely for satirical purposes, it does hit home for a lot of YA readers and authors. A lot of YA novels aren’t that realistic. This is an even bigger issue for Contemporary YA novels, because the people who write them don’t get the kind of artistic freedoms that authors who create their own worlds do. They have to conform to the world we live in today—issues and all (especially with the issues). But think about it: how many popular YA novels feature a person-of-colour narrator or main character? How many main characters aren’t upper-middle class or rich? How many of them have disabilities, whether they be physical or mental? How many of them don’t fit the societal view of beauty? Answer: unfortunately, not many. I can think of a few, like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green (disability—both are cancer kids; one has a cannula and the other has a prosthetic leg), SAY WHAT YOU WILL by Cammie McGovern (disability as well—main character has cerebral palsy), IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY by Ned Vizzini (mental health issues—main character is depressed and suicidal), ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell (not society’s idea of attractive and POC—Eleanor is overweight and Park is half-Korean in an almost completely white neighbourhood), and BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson (POC—author writes about her struggles growing up as an African-American girl in the 60s and 70s). I mean, don’t get me wrong—a lot of my favourite books feature white, upper-middle class, not-unattractive protagonists, and I still love them and their characters. But it shouldn’t just be readers who want YA. It’s not solely their responsibility to push for it. It’s our responsibility as writers of YA novels to give them what they want: diversity. Diversity in ethnicity. Diversity in gender, sexuality, social classes, disabilities, etc.
If you were going to put out an APB for your average female YA protagonist, what would you say? Would you say awkward, pretty-but-doesn’t-believe-it, virginal, warm brown eyes, thin but still curvy and superbly witty at just the right moments? Or, for the male love interest, would you say longish blonde hair, iridescent eyes, jock-ish, tall, broad-shoulders, sharp cheekbones, serious abs and really nice biceps? What about for a story with a male main character? Would you say scrawny but tall, average-length brown hair, non-descriptive brown eyes, and slightly geeky and socially awkward but fairly attractive for the guy. Would you say sparkling blue eyes, long blonde hair, full lips, legs for days and an ample chest for the girl? Yeah, sure, I’m simplifying it a lot. Yes, I’m basically creating Mary Sues/Gary Stus. But honestly, think about it—how many characters can you think of that fit at least a couple of these traits? More than several, probably.
And it’s okay that they have some of these characteristics. It’s perfectly acceptable. There are people out there who look like the characters I’ve just described, but there are also people who don’t—at all. And you’ve got to remember that in order to make your characters realistic.
Maybe it’s easier for me to imagine YA characters because I’m a teenager myself, but one of the problems I’ve encountered with non-teenagers writing YA is that it seems like some of them have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager and have everything feel so important. And that’s one of the most important parts of being not a kid but not quite an adult, either: everything bad feels like The Worst Thing Ever and everything good makes you feel like you’re invincible. When you’re a teenager, every emotion is ten times stronger than it’ll be any other time in your life. (Also, though memories are always affected by time and any vaguely good memory will seem rosier in retrospection, for most non-popular people, high school super-really sucks.)
On the other hand, though, I’ve read novels written by teenagers where the main character gets away with stuff that would get me grounded until I hit menopause. Like, seriously. I know that’s how you wished your parents would be, but that’s not realistic. Think about it: does the average garden-variety teenager go to parties all the freaking time and get incredibly drunk but never have to face the consequences? Do their parents let them do whatever the hell they want (or, vice versa, are they total dictators and never let their children do anything ever)? Are they never scared? Do they manage to be head/captain of whatever sports team they’re on, get perfect grades, be the most popular person ever and the life of the party and still be alive and functioning without ten cups of coffee? Can they buy whatever they want whenever they want and never have to worry about the cost, even though they don’t have a job and their parents aren’t wealthy?
I hate talking about myself, but I’ll use myself as an example on diversity (sorta). I’m half-Latina (well, technically I’m one-quarter Latina and one-quarter Italian), and I’m pretty sure that by the time I die, I will have been mistaken for every single ethnicity ever. So far, I’ve gotten South African, Egyptian and Serbian. It’s sort of irritating but mostly irritating, because, like, what? Seriously? And I identify with the gender I was born with and like boys (a lot), but when I was growing up, I was obsessed with dinosaurs (signs you’re a 90s kid: you remember the Land Before Time movie series), and I had like twenty toy dinosaurs I played with all the time. My life goal was to become a paleontologist. I’m not kidding; I had a pair of fuchsia corduroys with T-rexes on them, for God’s sake. But I also played with Barbies and took ballet for a few years and also tried modelling (a dark, dark time), so there’s that. I was an interesting kid, and now, I’m not much better. I spend way too much time on the internet, don’t have many friends, am totally socially awkward, as straight-edge as straight-edges come, and get over-emotional about book (and TV show and movie) characters. And I’m still not good at being a “girl”—I swear like a sailor, crack fart jokes, genuinely dislike most romantic comedies, don’t spend hours on my appearance and have a pigsty for a room.
Admittedly, people like me don’t usually get books written about them. But there’s a few diamonds in the (very rough) rough, because what I certainly have are quirks. Everyone has quirks. And those, especially if they’re in moderation, are what make a person—and character—interesting and relatable.
We need diversity in personality, race and sexuality. We need characters with disabilities, whether they be physical, like being in a wheelchair, or mental, like having bipolar disorder. We need characters that aren’t perfect—emotionally or physically. We need girls that aren’t good at being society’s ideal of a girl and boys who aren’t good at being society’s ideal of a man. We need realistic YA characters.