I’ve been thinking a lot after my Haunted at 17 post about specialness. I don’t think I’m alone in having spent most of my childhood and adolescence wanting to feel special, to stand out in some way or another. Parts of me still want to do that. I can always feel the pull to doing things that are not Authentically Me but would make me feel special.
I remember that I wanted to be pretty as a child, and realized soon enough that I would never be the prettiest. Then I decided that I was going to be the smartest, and soon realized I was never going to be the smartest. Then I decided I was going to be the thinnest, and realized I was never going to be the thinnest. That led me down a dark path for several years because I didn’t realize there was anything else to be in the world. (Spoiler alert: there is.)
A quote comes to mind here: “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful fool.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald
What drives us, as humans, to find something we are the “-est” at? The prettiest? The smartest? The best? There’s sociological data out there that can tell us that, but there are other reasons too.
We want to be the hero of our own stories, but we also want to be star of everyone else’s stories. If you tell me that at some time in your life, that wasn’t true, you’re lying to me and yourself. It takes awhile, but this damn world often stomps on the second part of that sentence. Falling in love reignites it, and that may or may not stay. But the first part remains. We want to be the hero of our own stories. We want to be the best, the smartest, the prettiest, because we think that being the “-est” is how you become the hero.
I think that’s the value of YA lit. Increasingly, we’re seeing characters who are morally gray, and they aren’t the “-est.” They get outsmarted, outplayed, outmaneuvered, and still turn out to be the hero. Because YA lit is about a different quote. YA lit clings to that oft-quoted Dr. Seuss quote, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than you.”
I think the goal is that characters develop that self-realization within the course of the book/series (look at Neville, whose character arc is one of the most subtle beautiful things to occur in kidlit recently). You’re aiming for truth (but not truthiness) and youer-ness. You have to hack away at the pursuit of “-est” to find the pursuit of “youer-ness.”
And still, chipping away at the pursuit of “-est” (or, arguably, the chipping away at this pursuit IS the pursuit of “youerness”) does not negate a character’s desire to be the hero of their own story.
I’m thinking about this a lot lately with characters.
What are the “-est” things they’ve pursued in the past? How have those pursuits led them to be the people they are? How have they hindered this character? And ultimately, what’s my character’s arc towards being the most authentic genuine self she can be, something truer than true? Am I staying true to that arc?
In my current WIP, my MC was a doormat in her previous life. The youngest of five siblings (including a twin brother who is “two minutes, twelve seconds” older), she’s used to being left out, left behind, forgotten about, even being the only girl. She goes along with others’ decisions because she wants to be the good one (the “good-est” so to speak). This means when her boyfriend pressured her into having sex before she was comfortable, she said yes. This means she did whatever her domineering twin brother and best friend said on a school trip, that landed her in a lot of trouble. She was a doormat. She was the best doormat ever. That was her pursuit of her own ‘-est.’
Sure, the story’s about political intrigue, danger, magic, fantasy, and falling in love. It’s also about her realizing she doesn’t have to absorb everything and just take it very passively, lying down. She’s not a doormat. She learns to say no. She learns to do things that are painful, but very right. And it HURTS (it hurts to write it too!). But ultimately, the last 7,000 words of this story? I smile at my screen a lot because she’s the most her version of her she can be, even if it isn’t the ending people may be expecting. She’s everything you could almost see simmering at the beginning.
So that’s my new test for characters. Do they end up “more truer than true” and most “you” at the end of the story? If they haven’t, then they haven’t changed enough and I didn’t explore them enough.
That’s all for today!