Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Supporting Cast

by: Katya

A story is only as good as its supporting cast.

Would Cinderella have even contemplated going to the ball if her animal friends hadn’t sewn a dress for her? Would Prince Phillip have gotten to kiss Aurora if the good fairies hadn’t been good enough to bust him out? Would the Bold and the Beautiful air for so long if there weren’t so many men running around there for Brooke to fall in love with? Probably not. There is only so much hero-heroine interaction you can take before you get bored and change the channel.

Supporting cast is just as important as your protagonists and antagonists, if not more. Which is why I remain baffled that they are so underplayed in paranormal YA novels. Friends, parents, bullies, they’re not so much secondary characters as white noise in the background. So today, I’m going to look at some of the reoccurring stereotypes in popular YA to see if I can come up with a reason why this is so.


The Parents (a.k.a. “Yes, sweetie, of course you can keep that crocodile”)

Parents in teen fiction seem to have become an endangered species. There is hardly a popular paranormal YA novel that doesn’t have them dead or absent. One of the most popular examples are Mr. and Mrs. Brisbane from Maggie Stiefvater’s “Shiver”. There is a particularly comic scene in the book where Grace tells her father about how her school day went:

“Oh, it’s fine,” I continued, and Dad made a mumbling noise of agreement. I added, “Nothing special, aside from the load of pandas they brought in, and the teachers abandoning us to cannibalistic savages—” I paused to see if I’d caught his attention yet, then pressed on. “The whole building caught fire, then I failed drama, and then sex sex sex sex.”

Grace’s parents are the quintessential absent couple, although later on she admits to being actually bothered by their negligence. “Shiver” is actually a good example of what happens when parents are absent for too long – they lose their authority so badly that when they do act like parents (like expressing their concern for their daughter dating a potentially dangerous guy), their arguments are rebutted. In fact, this behavior grows from bad to offensive at times – in “New Moon”, Bella’s father is forced to clean up after Edward for months, but she endangers her life and finally takes off to Italy without so much as an afterthought.

The absence of parents is, however, not just an excuse for the heroine to sneak guys into her bedroom and act like a privileged little brat. It also stops her from having any sort of good role models. But I’ll scratch this one later on.


The Mean Girl (a.k.a. “You’re worth something because I’m worse than you, beyotch”)

Mean Girls aren’t the villain in popular YA, but they might as well be since your main antagonist doesn’t show up until the last fifty pages. They’re also pretty easy to conjure up – they’re always rich, blond (but not naturally so), endowed (surgically) wear too much make-up and flirt. They’re also cheerleaders. Their main function in novels seems to be putting down the main heroine by playing petty pranks on her and flirting with the love interest.

My favorite example of a YA mean girl is Marcie Miller from “Hush, Hush”. Now, as far as villains go, Marcie is very standard in the first book – she does little other than take verbal jabs at Nora and flipping her the bird. In the sequel, however, her bullying evolves into something obscene, and we are shown that her reasons for hating Nora are pretty legitimate. However, other than discovering a shocking thing about Nora’s family, that does very little to outline the character of that particular mean girl.

In fact, the text reminds us again and again that we’re not supposed to like her by focusing on her actions, rather than the reasons behind them. The fact that Marcie does a lot more than flirt with boys is emphasized on a lot (her clothes, her behavior, the rumors about her flying around). Now, whether enjoying sex and not being afraid to partake in it is a different discussion altogether, but the fact is that this is the main thing we know about her. She’s promiscuous, ergo, she’s evil.

In other words, because the mean girl is portrayed as a cruel waste of a human being, the protagonist is supposed to shine. Does it work? No, not really. For me, Marcie just made Nora to look even more like a self-centered brat who doesn’t see past their own nose.

If I had to name an example for excellent characterization of this particular archetype, I’d say Isabel Culpepper from “Shiver” is one mean girl well done. She’s hard as nails and generally doesn’t take shit from anyone. She’s mean, but she also has her soft spots. She realizes that she’s not perfect, but doesn’t worry about it too much. She and Grace are an odd match – very different and yet fundamentally alike.


The Friends (a.k.a. “This guy wants to kill you. You should TOTALLY go out with him!”)

How many heroines from Young Adult novels do you know who associate themselves with being cool?

*crickets chirp*

How many of their friends act like they really care for them?

*tumbleweed*

And how many of these heroines make their boyfriend the center of their universe?

*riot*

The thing with relationships in Young Adult novels is that they are all-consuming. The heroine is completely obsessed with her boyfriend, and expects the boyfriend to do the same. Friends are often ignored and forgotten in the raging sea of hormones.

Now, teenage love is all consuming, but the friends are rarely made up to be worth having. They’re either vein and superficial, like Jessica from “Twilight”, petty and mean, like Heaven from “Evermore”, or boy-obsessed and jealous, like Vee from “Hush, Hush”. In the event that they do have some nice qualities (like putting up with the MC even though she is a complete bitch to them), they’re quickly forgotten and remembered only when they’re of any use to the heroine (Penn from “Fallen).

On my Goodreads profile, I have a shelf entitled horrible-best-friends, and on it can be found a book by E. Lockhart. I love E. Lockhart. Her Ruby Oliver books are engaging, funny, quirky and insightful. But there is also a very clear distinction made between real friendships and those not worth having. Ruby’s friends are much like the Vees, Heavens and Jessicas you’ll find in other YA books – they’re nice to her for as long as she acts in the way they want her to act. Real friendship is not something that automatically happens if you just live next door to somebody.

Now Meghan might be that kind of solid friend. Sometimes I didn't understand her, and a lot of times she didn't understand me, but she cut me slack. And I cut her some.

- E. Lockart, “The Treasure Map for Boys”


A great example of friendship dynamics is Elizabeth Eulberg’s “The Lonely Hearts Club” – in it, a group of girls decide to swear off dating after they realize that having a boyfriend only turns them into drama queens. It’s a wonderful study of female friendship – how they support themselves through hard times, how they’re always together, and, most importantly, how they accept the fact that not all boys are jerks. They don’t automatically dismiss someone who wants to be in a relationship as being unworthy of their friendship.

Examples of authors who describe friendships realistically are John Green, Simone Elkeles, Shannon Hale, David Levithan.

You might have noticed that I’m always talking about heroines here. Why aren’t the guys’ family and friends ever mentioned? Well, for starters, the few guys whose friends are mentioned are protagonists of John Green and David Levithan books. In paranormal YA, the guy is always alone, and if he’s not a supernatural creature, he’s expected to drop everything and worship the heroine.

So what is the cumulative effect of all this? What happens when the heroine is tortured every day and has no friend or family to turn to? She dedicates herself to her boyfriend, in every single book, every single time.

The way relationships are portrayed in paranormal YA is not healthy, but when you think about it, can you really blame those girls? Apparently, the human race is so hopeless it just doesn’t cut it for them anymore.

11 comments:

  1. Great post Katya. I think one of the things that bugs me about supporting casts in a YA book, especially those where romance is front and centre, is not only do these characters take a backseat, when we do see them they're cliches of the highest order. The absent parent syndrome is far too common in YA right now. It's just a cheap get-out-of-jail-free card for letting the breeding pair run free without parental control. The token best friends follow a similar pattern and often descend into cringe-worthy territory (the token gay friend from House of Night series? I rest my case.)

    Don't even get me started on Marcie from Crescendo and Hush Hush. The sheer amount of slut shaming directed at her by the so-called heroine put me in a rage for quite some time.

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  2. I just have to say that your Google Friend Connect avatar scares the crap out of me. Otherwise you seem pretty awesome.

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  3. Sorry, wrong profile below. I have many names.

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  4. I know. I wish Marcie was the heroine - she was so much more badass than Nora.

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  5. Terrific post, and so true!
    This part made me lol: "crickets chirp, tumbleweed, riot" Hilarious.
    Obviously, the parents go missing because otherwise, the teens wouldn't be able to run everything themselves, thus being the heroes of the books.
    I liked the parent relationship in the Evernight books... Bianca's really close with them and I love how their loving concern is turned on it's head.

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  6. Recently, I loved reading "Unearthly" by Cynthia Hand. Her characterization is AWESOME. You want to know more about her best friend, her mother, her brother...It's so rare these days!

    I'm trying to balance friendship in my current WIP. I always feel muddled when I add multiple characters. I'll tighten it all in draft two. It's definitely something I work on, though. Characters need more dimensions in YA lit. :)

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  7. I agree with this post. In my WIP (which is more fantasy adventure than romance, admittedly) I have about five major characters who are the protagonists, instead of just focusing on the primary POV and her love interest. I think it's more interesting that way, and if the cast is diverse enough hopefully there will be at least one character for the reader to identify with, rather than trying to force the reader to like certain characters.

    I think friendships can be more interesting than romances at times, and when it does come to romance I think friends-then-lovers can feel more meaningful and natural than love (lust) at first sight.

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  8. I really should read that series. It's so rare to find healthy relationships in books.

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  9. Seconded so hard I thought my internet connection would break. Especially the passage about female friends, although I don't think it's just YA's problem, the phenomenon seems to be more general. However double-entrendee-ish it might sound, female friendship just doesn't get enough love. I would be hard pressed to list five famous femal friendships in pop culture - sure, there's Thelma and Louise, Anne Shirley and Diane, Buffy and Willow, the Sailor Moon girls (I'm grasping at straws here), but who else? I can't help but feel that writers/film makers just don't give female friendship the credit it deserves.

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  10. Care Bears, maybe, thought I'm not sure how that show feels about gender.

    For a really amazing post on other women in YA, I highly recommend Kat Kennedy: http://cuddlebuggery.blogspot.com/2011/03/other-women-in-ya-lit.html

    She puts it a lot more eloquently than I would, but basically, the implications of this phenomenon are not too bright.

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  11. Oh good lord, yes.
    I have to say, one of the things I loved about "Audrey, Wait!" was how the title character's parents and best friend dealt with with Audrey's sudden fame. The supporting cast was actually *gasp* supportive!

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