If you aren't the protagonist of a YA novel, you are an idiot.

on Friday, July 23, 2010
Here's another rant, because they are fun and require less of my brain. The lack of brian usage, however, doesn't mean this is any less true. So, here we go.

I've read a lot of YA recently. The Maze Runner, Forest of Hands and Teeth, I Am Not a Serial Killer, The Hunger Games etc. My wife has also torn through a lot and talked with me about them (she just finished the Uglies "trilogy"), so I am well informed about that to. In all this, I have discovered a trend that actually sort of pisses me off in most modern YA novels. No, I'm not talking about "distopias," though those are certainly all the rage these days (next to vampire/monster teen romance novels). I'm taking about the fact that your protagonist always, no matter what seems to fall into one of these two categories:

1. Super genius who has the one key to saving the world and everything, and usually it's something everybody else overlooked. Also, everybody else is a moron.

2. A complete idiot who thinks she (it's usually a she) isn't popular, but for some reason boys won't leave her alone, except the one boy who she wants. She's also a totally dense idiot but somehow is completely special in every single way. It's like her very existence is an oxymoron. 

As you can guess, #1 usually ends up with distopians, and #2 ends up in those fluff romance monster crap. Let's focus on #1 first.

This is really starting to bug me to the point of making lots of YA unreadable. I'm perfectly fine with a protagonist being competent. Heck, I despise novels where the person the author decides to be the main character is, in fact, a nobody. Why are they the main character then? I don't to hear about Timmy Twoshoes who picks his nose and just can't save the world today.

So, we go the opposite direction completely. We have main characters who are insanely, ultra competent. So competent, in fact, that they can't possibly ever do anything wrong. They are super geniuses in everything they do, making it very easy for readers to Mary Sue all over them (more on that later).

But, even this isn't enough. What if somebody else in the world is almost as smart as them? Well, they've taken care of that problem: everybody else is a complete idiot. Sure, they may look like they can take care of themselves at first, but truthfully they are about as smart as brainless monkeys.

Example time!

In The Maze Runner, we have our main character, Thomas. He's thrown into some creepy maze place without any memories, a weird past, and a bunch of kids who are more "YMCA" than Lord of the Flies. Everybody's been in the maze for like two-three years, and they've been running the maze and writing maps of the ever-changing maze outside this whole time. However, in all this nobody has figured out anything minus basic survival tactics. Seriously, it's like none of them had ever been to school before (which is funny, considering the final plot twist).

But, never fear, retarded sub-characters: Your protagonist is here! Thomas immediately starts trying to figure out what's going on. At first the retarded side characters keep shutting him down  (everybody just tell him it "isn't important" or to "not ask questions," which was probably one of my biggest complaints about the book). Luckily, Thomas is like a rogue cop who plays by his own rules, so he goes off and just does whatever the crap he wants. Of course, the morons want to punish him, but they can't  because he's the protagonist. Within a week, Thomas cracks the code a group of 30+ geniuses have been working on for two years, solves a bunch of other riddles, uses the painful method of memory-unlocking for something useful rather than just going insane.

So, in the end, it's all about Thomas and how he fixed everything, and how everybody else sucked. Interesting? Sure. Realistic? Not even close.

Round two, a book that is also extremely popular: The Hunger Games books!

Ok, these things are super popular, so I might get some hate for this, but they totally have the #1 YA protagonist syndrome. Badly. The only difference is in this one, they add another character (Peeta) who is surprisingly as competent (if not more so) than Katniss (the main character). However, this doesn't stop the fact that it fits snugly in #1, and even lingers in #2 a little bit (mostly in the second book).

Katniss isn't anything to extraordinary, if the initial few chapters of the book are to be believed. She's good with a bow, can hunt well, and that is about it. So, when she gets selected for the Hunger Games (basically an arena where a bunch of kids run around killing each other), it doesn't seem like she has an enormous chance. Especially with like all the "pro" kids (called "careers") team up in one huge group to hunt down the rest of them. Basically, Katniss is screwed.

Except for some reason she isn't. Kat makes a friend (who quickly gets killed) and then is off on her own. She runs into Peeta again, but he's hurt, so she has to both take care of him and herself. And, huge surprise, the girl who we believed had no chance just can't die. Even with all the weird things that are suddenly thrown at her time and time again, she survives with hardly a scratch. In the final situation, she impulsively manages to pick the one option that can "beat" the games. Just like that. Like magic.

Book two (Catching Fire) starts with a switch from #1 to #2, mostly by throwing the "love triangle" thing in. Katniss doesn't think she's all that special, but the two boys in her life do. Suddenly, Peeta becomes the super, impossibly competent one, and Katniss gets thrown around by her emotions. This changes, of course, in the second half, but not by much. They go (small spoiler) back to the Hunger Games, but this time Katniss doesn't seem to do much of anything. Everybody else figures stuff out, and Katniss just sort of sits around until it's over. Occasionally she shows a flash of extreme competence, but usually she is just lead around. #2.

I can rattle off a few more like this. In the Uglies books, she starts a #2 and becomes a #1 right quick. In I Am Not A Serial Killer, he's very much a #1 (though Dan Wells manages to make us believe it is feasible). Ender's Game, with Ender in a school of geniuses but he is a super genius, is very much a #1. Until Ender's Shadow, where we learn Bean is the real super-genius (#1). Weird, he didn't come off like that when it was Ender's story...

Then you have Twilight, which is very much a #2 (until the 4th book, where's she's some weird hybrid between #1 and #2. She becomes a vampire but magically has no setbacks? What?). Forest of Hands and Teeth, very much a #2. Eragon books, so much a #1 (Mary Sue all up in that).

It's the YA syndrome! Everywhere!

Heck, even Paradise Seekers falls into this trap, somewhat. The difference being the other kids don't care about solving the puzzle, but that's just an excuse I'm using to justify my story. It's the same problem; Sam is a #1, and everybody else acts like idiots.

Somebody needs to fix this. Write a character that has flaws, but not a billion flaws. Write a character who is competent, but not freaking like a deity. Fix this, people.


Derek Bown said...

I shall fix this! Just as soon as I figure out how to make a likable character. I'll get back to you on this.

Anonymous said...

Dude, watch for spoilers. I didn't finish reading your Hunger Games rant because you were giving too much away (in my opinion.)

Other than that, I actually liked AND agreed with this rant. Way to be.

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