OK, so this is basically a discussion post, but it’s more specific: these posts will focus on various archetypes in YA books.
What is an archetype, you ask? Well, if you don’t ask, skip this definition from Dictionary.com:
the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.
This definition doesn’t necessarily cover what I plan on talking about in these posts, but I liked the title, so archetypes it is. I’m basically focusing on the “model” part of the definition, in that I going to look at various models or types of characters in YA.
This is a pretty big pet peeve of mine: the characters who only like old, “better” music or books and are obviously superior to all the idiotic and shallow teenagers around them. I mean, nothing good came from this era right? It’s not like the book they’re in is from this millennium or whatever.
Part of this is personal – I can easily admit this. Growing up, we always listened to the old music my dad had grown up with, so I was a little tired of it by the time I was able to discover my own music. I don’t listen to the Top 40 hits exclusively or anything, but there are quite a few popular songs and singers that I love (before they get overplayed on the radio, but that’s another issue entirely). If you look at my Monthly Rewinds, you’ll see some of the music I like. I rarely listen to music not from this millennium, so I obviously get annoyed when people are dismissive of all music from the 21st century or whatever. Same goes for books – I rarely read books pre-21st century, so I also get annoyed when people are dismissive of 21st century books. So, obviously this is something that I take a little personally when I see protagonists that fit this.
I think this is a problem that goes beyond something I take personally, though. You see, a lot of YA protagonists seem to think that they’re more cultured and intelligent and interesting when they only like older books and music. Oftentimes it’ll be more of a telling than showing thing, a way to make the protagonist seem better than their clichéd, pedestrian peers who like whatever music is currently being overplayed on the radio or whatever books are being adapted on the big screen.
This is pretty much the attitude of these protagonists – they may not say this explicitly, but it seems like they’re always screaming this at me if I read between the lines.
I definitely want to see all kinds of protagonists, including those that like older music and books, but it seems like they’re starting to almost all be like this. When there’s a glut of this type of protagonists, it doesn’t seem like a revelation, it seems like we’re being overrun by protagonists who are too pretentious to care about anyone else’s interests in a serious and accepting way.
At least I hope this it what you’re saying right about now.
Yes, there are “low-brow” books being published and songs being released right now, but there were plenty of books and songs like this in the past. Yes, the “classics” tend to stick around for a reason, and it would be hypocritical of me to look down on the people who enjoy them, so that’s not what I’m trying to do here at all. It’s not just that there are a lot of characters who are like this, though – it’s the way they treat their peers, even if it’s just in their head. I’m trying to be courteous to their interests, but it doesn’t seem like many of these protagonists are capable of the same thing.
For instance, one of the main reasons that I ended up DNFing the 2013 debut, That Time I Joined the Circus, was because it irritated me how dismissive the protagonist seemed to be of all recent music and those who liked it. It was more a small thing at the beginning, and at least she was able to admit that she was a bit pretentious (at least I think she did – I read it last year, so I don’t remember for sure), but it was still frustrating that it seemed to be presented in a way that you were supposed to be more impressed by the protagonist. She loves old, obscure music – she must be cool!
It’s that attitude that really gets on my nerves. If you have a protagonist like this, you could be alienating many of your readers, and that’s really not something you want to do. Even if I liked reading and listening to classics, I would feel bad for everyone else who doesn’t, and that would damper my enjoyment of the book.
Using this tired archetype also invites other tropes that I’m tired of. If the protagonist is dismissive of his or her peers for their uncultured musical and literary tastes, what’s to stop these peers from falling prey to tropes such as The Mean Girl or The Jock or other tired clichés? It won’t necessarily happen, but it does make it easier for the author to rely on these tropes instead of fleshing out characters who just happen to enjoy listening to Ke$ha and Beyoncé and reading James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks.
Basically, this is the attitude that this type of protagonist is putting out – it might be funny to hear from the grumpy, mean character on a sitcom, but it’s not the kind of attitude you want from a supposedly relatable protagonist.
You can use this type of protagonist, or any character with this trait really, and still have a fully fleshed-out and relatable character, but you have to be careful. If this character is accepting of other’s interests or it’s acknowledged by the text that one should really be more accepting, then it’s not too much of a problem. Basically, don’t be Ellie:
Honestly, this is one of her nicer moments, and she was still being pretty dismissive of poor Laurie.
If you can write or point me in the direction of a character who listens exclusively to, say, the Beatles and Queen but makes plenty of time to hang out with her friend who spends much of her time singing Taylor Swift, then I congratulate and/or thank you. Like most archetypes that I look at, it’s quite possible to create interesting characters using this archetype, but you have to be careful and original.
Oh, and just don’t be pretentious. There’s probably a little bit of pretentiousness in all of us (it’s a trait I know I have and need to and am working on), but if we can be still outwardly accepting of other’s interests, then that’s a step in the right direct. Basically, if you can be a decent human being, then this is my response: