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The Secret to Great YA Science Fiction & Fantasy Characters


The other week, my girlfriend brought Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay home from work. I did what any reasonable fan would: I grabbed it out of her hands and locked myself in the family room to read it cover to cover in one sitting. Needless to say, I love Collins’ dystopian future, her characters, themes, the whole gripping plot. I think Mockingjay is the best YA science fiction published in the last several years. But this begs the question: why? What makes the Hunger Games series so good, when other “giants” of epic YA failed to grip me?

As a rule, YA heroes are young adults themselves, typically coming of age through the challenges they face. They wrestle with insecurities; face moral, physical, and emotional peril; and sometimes win out in the end. Any YA editor worth her salt will make damned sure that a YA novel addresses those issues adequately, because otherwise a YA audience will fail to identify with the characters. But too often in middle-grade and YA speculative fiction there’s a conceit that authors and editors let slip through the cracks: They expect the reader to believe that a child/young adult is the master of their own destiny.

Think back to your own childhood: Did you ever have the freedom of choice that an adult possesses? In the vast majority of cases (and I say this as a high school and college drop-out who left home when he was sixteen) the answer is a flat out no. Your choices were constrained by family, schools, friends, values, laws, etc. There’s a host of external actors who apply different rules to young adults than to fully-fledged adults. Unless your world is completely devoid of adult characters (which, BTW, might be interesting), young adult heroes will always face constraints.

Now, I’m sure some people will say “But wait! Don’t YA books as a rule get rid of the parents so the kids can have an adventure?” And yes, that is true. But parents are only one (and often the first) constraint that kids face. Even if you get rid of the parents, you’ve still got a hierarchy of other actors who have some influence over your hero. A back-of-the-envelope list might look like:

  • school
  • community
  • law
  • government
  • god(s)
  • and so on…

Will these actors be indifferent to the hero’s adventures? Unlikely. Depending on their own motivations, these “higher order actors” may try to either protect the hero or direct their path to suit their own goals. The best speculative YA uses that fact.

Consider three very different sets of YA characters:

Harry Potter Ender Wiggen Peter & Valentine Wiggen
  • The characters are thrust into a conflict / war that pre-dates them.
  • The characters are integral to resolving the conflict that they are thrust into.
  • The characters are (ostensibly) situated within a school-like setting.

SPOILER ALERT!

  • Harry Potter gets himself into ever-escalating problems.
  • The authorities (initially Dumbledore, subsequently the Ministry of Magic) are aware of Harry’s adventures.
  • An organization of adult supporters (the Order of the Phoenix) who reject the Ministry’s position support Harry.
  • Harry – despite his age – immediately becomes one of the primary figures in the Order of the Phoenix.
  • Harry ultimately ditches the Order of the Phoenix (trusting them to hold the fort) while he single-handedly takes out Voldemort.
  • Andrew “Ender” Wiggin gets recruited to Battle School because the military believes his mind and talents can aid them in the war against the alien Formic.
  • Ender’s conflict is with his peers: the other students.
  • Ender rises to the top of Battle School, winning over the other students. He is then sent to “Command School”.
  • Ender competes in a grueling series of war games against “simulated” Formic.
  • In the war games, Ender eventually destroys the Formic – wiping out the entire species.
  • The authorities tell Ender that the “war games” were never a simulation: that he did – in fact – just destroy the Formic.
  • Ender comes to terms with his xenocide, making a psychic connection to the last remaining Formic Queen egg, and seeks redemption.
  • Peter and Valentine secretly scheme to manipulate adult-run governments into war so that they can take power.
  • Because they are children, they must ensure that adult authorities do not realize that they are being manipulated by kids.
  • While Ender is at “school”, they manipulate their way to power on earth.
  • Valentine makes sure that Ender does not return to earth so that Peter can’t manipulate him for his own ends.

How do these character arcs differ? First off, Harry is the primary mover in his arc. The “adult” characters are either secondary supporters (cheerleaders, effectively) or opponents. Two “authority figures” (Snape and Dumbledore) are introduced who at varying times seem to have “questionable” motivation and methods, but these moments are incidental to the theme and often a convenient deus ex machina device. Always, the focus is on Harry – the boy who lived. He may make mistakes, he may be led into error by the forces of evil, but the reader knows that his “trusted authorities” (especially Dumbledore) have his back.

By contrast, Ender is a pawn in his arc. First, he is a pawn of the adult military who intends to use his talents to win against the Formic. Eventually, as his brother and sister rise to power he becomes a pawn in their hands as well. At no point does Ender recognize himself as the primary mover of the epic. At the end of the book, he rises above that to become his own primary actor and to repudiate his actions and supposed heroism.

Peter and Valentine – ostensibly supporting characters – realize that the world sees them as pawns. They alone – of all of the children in the book – take steps to surmount the constraints imposed on them by the adult world. And while they are the primary movers in their own story, they are not the primary movers in Ender’s Game. Years later, Orson Scott Card went on to write Peter and Valentine’s story as well, however over the years it seems as if the original resonates more strongly with young adults than the later sequels do. I believe this is because young adults identify more with characters who are not in charge of their destinies.

Laid bare like that, which of the three stories above do you think is more “believable” ? Which arc seems like a more realistic portrayal of the push-and-pull of young adults and their quest for independence? Which story is a more complete “coming of age” tale? Which character is easier to relate to: the single, unique “boy who lived” who after the first book everyone knows is important? Or the talented, engaging boy who sees himself as no different than everyone else, despite his unique talents? I would argue that Ender’s Game does a better job addressing issues at the heart of every teenager: trust, independence, self-confidence, the balance of right and wrong. I believe that Harry Potter deals with those issues in a superficial fashion.

I think that Collins’ Mockingjay (and the whole Hunger Games trilogy) does a great job addressing those challenges. One can read the entire trilogy as Katniss’ struggle to establish her own independence: In the first book, Katniss is the pawn of Panem (the faceless state). In the second, she is the pawn of President Snow. In the third, she is the pawn of Coin and the rebels. And throughout these books, Katniss is constantly wrestling with issues of trust and independence.

At no point in the series is she the “primary mover”. Throughout, she is depicted as trying to actively manage the situations thrust upon her by outside forces. She is not the leader of the rebellion: She is the figurehead, and she knows it. We as the reader know it as well, and we agonize with her as she tries to gain her independence.

Suzanne Collins pulls no punches in her books. She puts Katniss square in the face of impossible choices that would give mature adults pause, and forces her to deal with them. That is what being a teenager is all about. It’s not about defeating the forces of evil. It’s not about being a hero. It’s about becoming a fully-formed, mature, person capable of taking responsibility for one’s own calls no matter how hard they are.

And while YA books that shy from dealing with such difficult fare may be fun comfort food, I would argue that for a deep perception-shifting experience you should look to Katniss Everdeen and series like the Hunger Games.

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