Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tough Topic Tuesday: Where's the Responsibility?

Hello, lovely peoples!  It is a beauteous Tuesday here in Southern California, and I have been PONDERING.

Also, whichever one of you got me hooked on alliteration (points up at post title), I suggest you start running, for I am mightily vexed.  You don't even want to know what my manuscripts look like these days.  It's like Old English Poetry decided to just take a dump all over them.


So I've been thinking a lot lately about the responsibility of an author, especially a YA author, in regards to difficult or morally gray subject matter.  A lot of YA (particularly contemporaries) tackle some pretty heavy stuff these days.  I mean, we all remember the Wall Street Journal kerfluffle, right?  But it's not subject matter that's got me thinking, but how we approach those subject matters.

Sometimes you have the Voice of Moral Authority, that heavy-handed author who ordains from her writing desk that CERTAIN THINGS ARE BAD AND YOU SHOULD NEVER DO THEM.  'Mary Ellen caved to peer pressure and smoked a joint one day and it ruined her life and broke up her family and she flunked out of school and never went to college and worked at a gas station the rest of her life and died miserable and alone, DO YOU WANT TO BE LIKE MARY ELLEN?'

Fortunately, most of us keep our Voices of Moral Authority tucked far, far away from our writing desks.

But then we have Buddy-Buddy/I'm Just Like You Kids Syndrome, that lackadaisical approach wherein we're all just good friends and its just a story anyways and kids'll make the right choice on their own.  'Mary Ellen got high every single day and it was totally awesome and she never had to be sober once all through high school and yet she still graduated with honors and had a totally cool boyfriend and they both went to law school and had two point five kids, a golden retriever and a house with a white picket fence and lived happily ever after while still occasionally getting high with their now teenage kids, DON'T YOU WISH YOU WERE JUST LIKE MARY ELLEN?'

Fortunately, this particular syndrome is rare amongst capable writers as well.

Obviously, these are two very extreme ends of the spectrum, and most of us, and most published works, fall somewhere in the middle.  The question is, where do you fall in this spectrum?  What do you see as your responsibility to teen readers?

I think most of us would like to be as true to life as possible and let readers draw their own conclusions, and decide for themselves.  But drugs are a fairly easy example.  There's not a lot of gray area when it comes to strictly illegal substances and breaking the law, so you don't HAVE to be heavy-handed as an author to still feel comfortable that kids aren't going to put down your book and immediately go in search of a crack pipe, no matter what tack you take with it.  It takes some of the pressure off.

But what about something where there isn't as clear a right or wrong?  A lot of YA deals with complex social issues like eating disorders, abusive relationships, etc....so let's extrapolate from one of those.

This is a purely hypothetical writing exercise, not based on a real book:

Say you're writing a story that involves a boy with a history of being abusive to his girlfriend - but he's not with her anymore, he's done his best to make amends, he's been through therapy, he's doing his best to be a different person, a better person...and he meets a new girl.  What does this new girl in your story and in his life do?  Does she trust herself with him, even knowing he has a violent past, believing in second chances and that he's a different person now?

What message would you, the author writing that narrative, want teenage girls to take away from reading that book?  And how much, and in what ways, would your writing of that book be shaped by the choice you'd hope your readers would make if they found themselves in that situation?



  1. First of all, I'd have abusive-teen-trying-to-be-better (hereafter ATTTBB) facing prejudice, because realistically if it was known that he used to be abusive (or 'used to be') then of course there's going to be backlash. Who wants to date the actually violent kid? Who wants their kid dating him?

    The new girl is going to have all the other girls telling her to stay away. ATTTBB is going to have to be on his best behaviour 24/7, because heaven forbid he look at a girl the wrong way; he's probably thinking about laying the smackdown on her.

    I'm leaning towards portraying the new girl as some kind of Bella-- you know, the naive girl who thinks she's the one to change the bad boy. And I kind of want her to be wrong, because that's my cynical leaning. I don't *like* the idea that girls, and women, are out there thinking they can tame the bad boy, because more often than not they're going to get hurt. So I'd focus on how it's actually pretty dysfunctional for a teenage girl to put herself in the way of someone violent, even if it's supposedly all in the past.

    Although obviously I don't think of all that as 'what do I want teenage girls to learn today?'; I just of it as the most realistic story option.

    Long comment is long.

  2. Very interesting Sophia!

    Hmm, to play devil's advocate - you say you kinda want her to be wrong about being able to change the bad boy, because you don't like the idea that girls and woman are out there thinking that because usually they end up hurt - so by playing out that ideology in your story, isn't that kind of making a lesson of it after all?

    (Not saying you're wrong to do so, just saying that maybe we end up 'teaching' or trying to teach through our fiction more than we realize, even when we're trying not to).

    And further exploring this, what happens to your story if we change the perspective or motivation of the girl? Say for instance the boy's family moved him to a new school to get away from everyone who knew his past, and so she only knows of the old, violent him because of his own confession - not because she's ever personally known him as violent or a 'bad boy' to be tamed? The 'him on his best behavior' is the only version of him she knows? Does that change things?

    And for the record, I personally think I'd side with you on the dysfunctional aspect of things, and write it as being unhealthy to pursue a relation with him....BUT that makes me wonder too, if he really HAS changed....then at what point does he get to escape the mistakes of his past and move on, and actually be happy again himself? College? After college? Is it a time limit or an age/maturity thing or what factors have to go into him being 'fully rehabilitated'?

  3. The over all question here is whether or not you believe rehabilitation in this case is possible, and where that change comes from. In the case of the male character, I would really want to see him explore where this abusive side is coming from. Was it reactive to his environment or does it stem from a need to control?

    I would have to believe that he really wanted the change to happen, which means he would have really examine what went wrong and understand why he was trying to change. Was it for himself, or was it for her? That's where the line in my mind is.

    If he's holding on tight for the new girl and not acknowledging the importance of change for himself, then there in is the path to failure. And that's what I would want someone to get from Kalen's scenario. Yes, he might do it again. And again, depending on his motivation, he might. A lot of people put themselves in bad situations in an attempt to prove that they can have some control this time.

    This time it will be different.

  4. Hmm, well I guess then the question is - who's telling the story, and who's story is it really? Everyone is the hero of their own story, and this story told from the perspective of the boy is going to be a VERY different story (more likely about his struggle to prove himself better in the face of people who have already judged him based on past behavior) whereas the story from the perspective of the girl is going to be about second chances and are you willing to trust someone has changed if it means putting your own safety on the line, and if that's healthy or not, etc, etc.

    Both books would come with some pretty big hurtles from an author's perspective. How do you write the boy's book and make him sympathetic without overlooking the gravity of the things he's done? And with the girl's book, how do you write it without making a clear judgment call one way or another?

  5. I think the point is to deal with the question responsibly and rationally -- in a way that isn't trying to teach a lesson, but deals with realistic consequences to actions. If you want rehabilitation for that character, you go about it in a way that is realistic, and you have a great story. If you want backsliding, you go about it properly, and have the other characters react in a realistic fashion with realistic consequences.

    If you ask me (which... you... sorta did? Well, you asked in general!), that's the only responsibility an author has, YA or adult or whatever. Anything else is patronising.

  6. I have many thoughts on this. Many. Too tired to type. Don't ask for rational responses during Nano. Please? and thank you.

  7. LOL stated well and succintly as always Katey!

    And Genn, I make no promises.

  8. I think for him to escape his past he has to do just what you suggested-- genuinely change, aka be the good guy 24/7, and get away from the old crowd who knew him as the bad boy. That could be moving or going away to college, but I think if he stayed in the same environment there's always going to be that memory at the back of people's minds about how he used to be. If he stayed where he was it would take someone new to the situation to have the chance to see him beyond what he did, and then they'd be informed by others, so that could still colour their perception of him to a degree.

    I agree with Bookseller Chick, the way the author handles the story will depend on whether he/she believes the MC can change. And Katey phrased the answer much better than I did-- realistic consequences to actions should be the driving force for the narrative direction, not the author teaching a lesson. I just happened to think the boy backsliding into his old ways (maybe not into outright violence, but he should definitely struggle with the urge) was the most realistic option, because I'm a cynical old witch.

  9. Katey stole my answer.

    BTW, I take full responsibility (see how I tied my comment into your title?) for your aggravated alliterative anxieties. I've been diagnosed with the condition and failed to let my writer pals know that they've all been exposed. *sorry*

    There is a support group: AAA, or also known as Triple A, for our condition. Look it up online for further info...

    Having done my civic duty, I will now crawl back to edit cave.

  10. Hmm, I see what you're saying Sophia. And I do tend to agree that a change of environment 'fresh start' would be essential for believable rehabilitation in this case.

    LOL very clever Anita. So glad to see you! I missssss you. Enough that I shall forgive you for my addiction, you enabler.

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