Saturday, May 4, 2013

We Don't Need Another Hero

How we expect teenage boys to look
How teenage boys actually look

So I've been thinking a lot lately about our desire as young adult readers to cast boys in the role of hero. How the way we talk about them sort of predicates this because there's frequently an element of romance in a story. But I find myself more and more frustrated when I hear readers wanting this. Particularly because, to be honest, I don't write heroes and I'm concerned that people will assign my guys those roles anyway.

Why do we expect teenage boys to always make the right choices? Why do we want them to be heroes? Is reader insistence on this a projection of the world as we'd like it to be as opposed to the world as it is? And if so, what sort of message are we sending to teen girls and boys by assigning boys the role of hero?

In thinking about this blog post, I went back and reviewed some of my favorite contemporary YA books. Certainly not everyone's favorite, but definitely books that I loved: Boy Toy, 13 Reasons Why, Flawed, Sex and Violence, The DUFF, Dash and Lily's Book of Dares (yes, I can read "light" books). I realize that one of the things I loved about all these books were the bad choices that the guys in them made. That for one reason or another, they didn't always make good choices and therefore I connected with them in a way that I otherwise wouldn't.

This feels real to me. This feels like good modeling for our teens, and for all of us. How can we get boys engaged in reading if we can't give them characters that make mistakes? I'm not talking about bad boy alphas who end up doing good (or even bad boy alphas who are unapologetically bad), I'm talking about boys who are written in very real ways as being human "works in progress". Boys who make good choices and bad choices, but in the end, boys who are doing the best they can with the resources they have.

Next time you as a reader are about to slam a male character for not being likable, for having moments of being an a-hole or making stupid decisions, think hard about the importance of the message you are sending to teenagers. By not allowing for bad choices, but insisting on heroes, we are unilaterally saying to teens that they must only ever do the right thing. Which frankly is a disservice to them.


Jennie Bennett said...

Yes! I had my male MC take a video of the main girl without her knowing it. It was bad choice, but it ended up working out in the end. One of my beta readers told me he couldn't forgive the guy for doing that. It made me laugh. My character's can't be impulsive, seriously? ;)

Carrie Mesrobian said...

This is gets to the core question of why do we read - for entertainment, for instruction, for connection? Some people perhaps want to inhabit a world where all the trains run on time...not exactly my cup of tea.

I don't know why you can't learn from both bad and good examples, though.

Alexis Bass said...

Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes yes. I'm so glad you wrote this post. It's so true. :) Especially for realistic fiction, and especially for YA.

Suzi said...

This is an good post. It'd be interesting to know how many people will hold a grudge against a character for a big mistake, even if they do change.

I have this problem with one of my MSes. It's actually the first I completed, adult contemp, and i want to go back to it someday. But holy hell does it need a lot of work. :)

But it starts with my MC kissing another woman. Then the rest is about he and his wife working things out. But it was hard. Because in the end I want you to like him. But I had to make him cheat and it was a heat of the moment thing. And right as he was doing it, he knew it was wrong and stopped it from going further. And my intention is that you understand he'd never do this again.

But I worry about how many people will hate him just because of that. And yes, my character is an adult in his 20s, but adults make mistakes too.

I guess for me, it's all about how that mistake is handled. Or if it's repeated. Or if there is remorse. Of course I'm a pretty forgiving person in general. So maybe that carries over to fiction. :)

Matthew MacNish said...

Yes, exactly this. Personally, I want to read about characters that could be real, even if they're having an impossible adventure. That's why I write flawed characters, too.