Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Once Is (Obviously Not) Enough

Forbidden romance.  Love triangles.  Paranormal elements.  All have somehow become trends of recent young adult literature, and readers tend to either love 'em or hate 'em.  (Over the past few weeks, my fellow Torch Bearers have expounded on many of these common elements in various posts.) Now, I have my issues with those overused aspects too -- but what is another point that I could easily contribute to the list of 'Overdone Plot Elements'?  My answer:  Reincarnation.

As a tenet of a few major religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, reincarnation doesn't strike me as a bad choice to have as a plot element because, at its core, it does not have a set formula other than a rebirth cycle.  (Let's avoid the fact that, according to said religions' beliefs, your next rebirth is dependent on your behavior, meaning that you could be a human in this life but pay for your wrong actions by being an insect in the next.  Most YA books follow the human to human and creature to creature rebirth cycle.)  How endless the possibilities might be by having a character whose soul has passed through many time periods and known many lives!  Perhaps the character's journey could even show the message that a human soul can be like clay, shaped and molded by different circumstances and experiences in each lifetime.  However, all of this potential often seems lost on young adult offerings that choose to use reincarnation as a plot element.

Reincarnation takes a few recognizable forms in young adult books.  Sometimes the act of reincarnation is a punishment for past wrongs, as in Melissa de la Cruz's Blue Bloods series.  Other times it is part of some supernatural duty a la Angelfire by Courtney Allison Moulton.  Oftentimes, however, the element of reincarnation is the basis of an eternal love story (Evermore series by Alyson Noel, Fallen by Lauren Kate, The Eternal Ones by Kirsten Miller, etc.) that transcends time and sometimes even logic.  It doesn't matter the rhyme or reason of why reincarnation is so central to the plot, but as of late it seems to be an 'it' thing to put into a YA book.

Why?  Well, I think part of it comes down to this:  many people love the idea of the eternal, no matter if the glimpse of eternity comes through immortality or reincarnation.  Some of us like to fool ourselves that death won't be coming (youth, the central demographic for YA literature, are especially prone to this mind-set) or believe that, when death comes, it isn't a true end but a new beginning.  Immortality in a story plays on the former thought while reincarnation builds on the latter hope.  Is it any wonder why authors are drawn to this idea of reincarnation in a story and why readers find themselves drawn in spite of themselves by just the possibility of it?

But that doesn't mean all is well and right with these YA books centering on reincarnation.  True, I am of the ilk who is allured by books with reincarnation as major aspects in the plots, but I do not admire the element of reincarnation when it is used as a crutch for lazy storytelling, flimsy characterization, or easy backstory content.  If a character has had many lifetimes and somehow remembers some of those memories, you would think that said character would be a bit wiser for it and might not repeat the same mistakes (or at least not quite so often).  Granting that reincarnation itself is a cycle that ever shifts in favor of a person or against him, I can only see such an element helping a plot and its characters if it is used effectively and not just shallowly.

Just as reincarnation should not be wielded as a plot cure-all, it should not be used as a shortcut for building a love story between two characters either.  What happened to the slowly building relationships that occurred because of a nice mixture of conversation, attraction, and time?  Are our only options instant love connections or love stories based around reincarnation?  YA authors seem to think that all that needs to be said is, "Yeah, she knew him in a past life, so of course she loves him!  DUH!" NO, authors, NO!  It is not that simple!  Please stop trying to make readers buy these stories where the romance is simply based around the characters knowing each other in a past life!  People and feelings change even within one lifetime, so how would two souls change across many lifetimes?  One love in one life might not stay the same love in another.  A person might not stay the same person in another life.  Love, as much as we would like it to stay the same forever, is not an unchanging thing.  Anything from external forces to internal struggles to time itself can change its tide.  Even something like reincarnation is not immune to change.

That thought about love leads me to my next point:  what is so wrong about losing the one you love and then not getting him/her back in physical form again?  That is something that happens to everyone at some point, so I fail to understand why loss would not be more relatable than the 'eternal love through many lifetimes' (which, frankly, doesn't seem to be that desirable in the long run).  Why do people love movies like Titanic?  Because that kind of love is powerful but ultimately tragic as most great things in life end up being. Sure, it might have been a compelling story if Jack and Rose had been reunited by reincarnation, but wouldn't that have taken some punch out of their initial separation?  Think about it.

Maybe reincarnation isn't such a disgruntling trend as love triangles and forbidden romance are, but it's still prevalent enough to be troubling at times.  Personally, I do not mind it (at least in digestible doses) -- but, as with many things in YA, I wish it would be better and deeper. In the end, is that too much to ask?

Now I send out the questions to you Book Lantern readers:  Does reincarnation bug you in YA books?  Why or why not?  Do you find the love stories as engaging as other non-reincarnation related ones in the paranormal genre?

As always, recommendations for great books dealing with the topic at hand are very welcome.  (I know for one that the next reincarnation-related book I'll be reading is A.S. King's The Dust of 100 Dogs, which has many favorable reviews to its name.) Just drop a line below with any thoughts, comments, and/or recommendations.

16 comments:

  1. Reincarnation is one thing that has haunted me in several media. I pretty much hate most of the representations of the concept for many of the reasons you outline.

    Actually, it was a review I read of one of the "lovers in a past lives" books that spurred me into starting to work on my own reincarnation story where, by the nature of it, that trope is impossible. It really is cathartic.

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  2. Haha, this post is making me think about about how different/super derp Titanic would have been if Jack and Rose were reincarnated and re-united in the next life.

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  3. Reincarnation is a fantastic and highly interesting idea to tackle in YA, but the instances I've seen it used were just as cheap get-out-of-characterisation-free cards for the author to establish an amazing, life-long true love without any of that development relationships usually need, then it plods along the same route as every other paranormal YA romance. The last time I read this was in "The Eternal Ones" and it was such a disappointment. So much potential wasted to an extremely derivative execution.

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  4. I want to cuddle this post and feed it lots of candy for being so awesome! :)

    I hate when people mess with time without having a proper concept of what it means. Blue Bloods' theory of reincarnation was so stupid and badly-thought out. It made no sense. Also, I don't care how you justify it, but brother-sister pairs outside of Greek mythology are just icky.

    Also, as a (non-practising) Hindu, I have a deep reverence for the theory of re-incarnation and the reason behind it, and I think using it to reunite stupid Mary Sues with their Gary Stus is just wrong.

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  5. Same for me. I hate when reincarnation is messed with in an illogical
    way. This is part of religion, not a plot device for your dumb
    characters. The explanation in Evermore was the worst by far I've ever
    read.

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  6. Reincarnation is an incredibly interesting theological idea. I wish books would stop using it, because it seems to be used only as a crutch for a stupid and unrealistic love story and an excuse for flashbacks. The allure of reincarnation is in the fact that
    a) one never truly dies,
    but also that
    b) the characters can die tragic death after tragic death.
    The problem with this is that dying again and again really lowers the stakes. After all, why should it matter if the main characters die if they have several lifetimes to get it right?

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  7. Personally, I like the idea of reincarnation as it is presented in Indian mythology - that you will get punished for your past actions, but also that you will receive a chance at redemption. Unfortunately, the way this is played in YA is ridiculous, and I agree with you - the idea that you'll end up with the person you love no matter what takes the fun out of reading the story. If you already know that the two leads will get together, what's the point of reading?

    Great post!

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  8. I haven't read any of the above mentioned reincarnation-themed books, so I can't judge them fairly. But it sounds like they use the concept as a shortcut to true love, which is unfortunate. I personally love the idea of reincarnation as something that becomes an obstacle or conflict between two characters - the idea of knowing that your reincarnated soul-mate is out there somewhere but being unable to find him/her could drive a very interesting story.

    As for the religious aspect of it, I can't quite understand why it would be offensive or wrong to use reincarnation as a story theme simply because it is based in religion. Writers use angels and demons and Christ-like sacrifices all the time these days as constructs for paranormal stories. To take religious concepts off the table as far as possible bases for stories, we'd have pretty much nothing left. Once upon a time, Greek and Roman myths were a religion, and so much of literature is based on some form of those.

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  9. I can see where you're coming from, but the main problem is that many of these writers are being lazy. It's obvious they didn't research where reincarnation came from or how it actually works. It's basis is karma. Without karma, you don't have reincarnation. Therefor, you wouldn't have your soul-mate principle because a soul mate doesn't literally mean love mate. Your soul mate could be your mother, your sister, your best friend. It's someone that your soul is connected with. Technically, you could have multiple soul-mates.

    Without God, you don't have angels. In Harry Potter, without wands, wizards can't preform certain types of magic. If Zeus isn't a womanizer and Hera isn't jealous, you aren't writing Zeus and Hera. If there are rules already in place, you shouldn't break them. If you respect the original concept, I don't care what you do with it. But the writers Jillian mentioned just don't care.

    I like the idea of having a reincarnated soul mate in a story too, but the point of that soul mate being there is that they were born near, or around you. Why have one if you're unable to find them? It sort of defeats the purpose because they exist to help you better yourself.

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  10. Well, as with anything else, there's always a good way to make it work. You can make concept work (even the dumb ones). But there's going to be a lot of pressure to use it to fit into the "Girl Who Is Just Like You Falls In Love And Stays That Way Forever Despite Terrible Secret" formula these days.

    I wrote a book when I was 15 or 16 about a criminal who is cryonically frozen at death, reincarnated as a starving artist, and then gets reanimated and goes to get his soul back, committing crimes so the new owner will suffer karmic consequences along the way. It has never seen the light of day (thank goodness), but I still think it's a kind of neat concept.

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  11. I agree about the lazy part - nothing excuses a writer who uses reincarnation as a shortcut to true love. And to just say "well, they were soul mates in a/many past life(ves)" as the reason two people are together is definitely lazy. There has to be some underlying world-building to base such a premise on, some logic and set of rules behind the concept in order for it to be believable in that fantasy world.

    I'm just saying that to take reincarnation out of its original religious origins doesn't bother me so much. I'm okay if a writer makes up a new set of "rules" or reasons for reincarnation to exist that don't necessarily follow the original basis of karma. It's like making vampires sparkle - take something and twist the normal conventions. As long as it makes sense within that construct, however.

    As for the idea of reincarnated "soul mates" who can't find each other serving as a conflict, I can only say that I remember a movie from a long time ago (1987) called "Made In Heaven" in which two souls meet while in Heaven, fall in love, and then the woman is sent to Earth to inhabit a mortal body. The hero is given the chance to go to Earth as well to find her, but the caveat is that souls sent to be in mortal bodies don't retain any memories of their time in Heaven. Thus he has to find this woman without knowing that she even exists or that he is supposed to find her. It was very moving and after over 20 years I still remember well. So I think you can make it work. It is far more compelling of a use for reincarnation than just a throwaway line about why two kids are in insta-love just from seeing each other once.

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  12. PS - you can watch "Made In Heaven" on Netflix :)

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  13. I see your point, but I'm a purist on these sorts of things. I hate
    the idea of sparkling vampires and I pretty much hate creative
    license. I'm not religious, but I don't believe in altering things
    from religion to suit your story unless you explain why they're
    different in a convincing way.

    If it works, I'm for it. But so far I've never seen it used in a way
    that made me go wow. And if I didn't say it before, I hate sparkling
    vampires. :D

    I will be checking out 'Made in Heaven' though. I watched 'Sliding
    Doors' a couple of weeks ago. It also kind of deals with soul mates.
    It isn't bad.

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  14. I can see where you're coming from, but the main problem is that many of these writers are being lazy. It's obvious they didn't research where reincarnation came from or how it actually works. It's basis is karma. Without karma, you don't have reincarnation. Therefor, you wouldn't have your soul-mate principle because a soul mate doesn't literally mean love mate. Your soul mate could be your mother, your sister, your best friend. It's someone that your soul is connected with. Technically, you could have multiple soul-mates.

    Without God, you don't have angels. In Harry Potter, without wands, wizards can't preform certain types of magic. If Zeus isn't a womanizer and Hera isn't jealous, you aren't writing Zeus and Hera. If there are rules already in place, you shouldn't break them. If you respect the original concept, I don't care what you do with it. But the writers Jillian mentioned just don't care.

    I like the idea of having a reincarnated soul mate in a story too, but the point of that soul mate being there is that they were born near, or around you. Why have one if you're unable to find them? It sort of defeats the purpose because they exist to help you better yourself.

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  15. I can see where you're coming from, but the main problem is that many of these writers are being lazy. It's obvious they didn't research where reincarnation came from or how it actually works. It's basis is karma. Without karma, you don't have reincarnation. Therefor, you wouldn't have your soul-mate principle because a soul mate doesn't literally mean love mate. Your soul mate could be your mother, your sister, your best friend. It's someone that your soul is connected with. Technically, you could have multiple soul-mates.

    Without God, you don't have angels. In Harry Potter, without wands, wizards can't preform certain types of magic. If Zeus isn't a womanizer and Hera isn't jealous, you aren't writing Zeus and Hera. If there are rules already in place, you shouldn't break them. If you respect the original concept, I don't care what you do with it. But the writers Jillian mentioned just don't care.

    I like the idea of having a reincarnated soul mate in a story too, but the point of that soul mate being there is that they were born near, or around you. Why have one if you're unable to find them? It sort of defeats the purpose because they exist to help you better yourself.

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  16. Err, as soon as I read the author's point about Jack and Rose, the first thing I thought was...the movie ends with them being re-united, eternally young, in heaven. So not the best example, perhaps?

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