I was chatting to someone recently about how the adult characters are often absent in YA fiction. That’s absent as in deceased, missing, always working/on holidays … and generally of minor relevance to the plot lines.
As a case in point, take John Marsden’s fantastic Tomorrow When the War Began series. In the post-invasion Australia inhabited by Ellie and her mates, adults are few and far between. Those that do survive the invaders are often imprisoned or in chains metaphorically – stuck in inflexible jobs such as banking and real estate. With the adults out of the way, it’s the teenager characters that have the power to make decisions, take risks and shake up the world.
If you’re an adult, think back to your teen years. What would you have done differently if you didn’t have to contend with grown-ups cramping your style or imposing their will and rules? Now that’s fertile ground for story-telling.
When I wrote Game as Ned I wanted to get across a sense of the isolation someone with a disability can feel. Having Ned’s mother run away and his father killed at war when he was still a baby was designed to emphasise and compound this crippling loneliness. Ned’s grandfather is a loving character but limited by frailty in the support he can offer his grandson.
Five Parts Dead describes a family on holidays. The parents essentially deposit the teen protagonists in a remote setting and then disappear from the story. I did this so the young adult characters could be in full command of the adventures that follow – limited only by their own fears.
Funnily enough, one of the things I realised when reading over an early draft of 5PD was that the parents weren’t sufficiently credible characters and needed rewriting. I needed to flesh out their motivation for willingly leaving the young adults in the middle of nowhere. As I did so, I realised the parents needed more real estate for other reasons – and rewrote the conclusion to accommodate them. Even with this extra presence, they remain absent for much of the novel.
My point is that with adults missing, young adults run the show. The consequences of their choices determine the story. It’s exciting and a tad unpredictable. Adults wouldn’t act the same way.
The super-savvy sci-fi author Cory Doctorow says in a July 2008 column in Locus Magazine that this is one of the reasons he writes YA fiction:
“Writing for young people is really exciting. As one YA writer told me, “Adolescence is a series of brave, irreversible decisions.” One day, you’re someone who’s never told a lie of consequence; the next day you have, and you can never go back. One day, you’re someone who’s never done anything noble for a friend, the next day you have, and you can never go back. Is it any wonder that young people experience a camaraderie as intense as combat-buddies? Is it any wonder that the parts of our brain that govern risk-assessment don’t fully develop until adulthood? Who would take such brave chances, such existential risks, if she or he had a fully functional risk-assessment system?
So young people live in a world characterized by intense drama, by choices wise and foolish and always brave. This is a book-plotter’s dream. Once you realize that your characters are living in this state of heightened consequence, every plot-point acquires moment and import that keeps the pages turning.”