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.