Friday, July 19, 2013

Joss Whedon (y'all know who that is, right? Buffy, Firefly, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Avengers?) recently gave a brilliant commencement speech at Wesleyan, and in it he talked about embracing the contradictions within ourselves.

(Bold emphasis added by me.)
You have, which is a rare thing, the ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself. To at least give it the floor. Because it is the key, not only to consciousness, but to real growth.

To accept duality is to earn identity, and identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just “who you are,” it is a process that you must be active in.

And it’s not parroting your parents or even the thoughts of your learned teachers, it is, now more than ever, about understanding yourself so you can become yourself.

To me, that is so much of what Young Adult literature is about. The protagonists are not just learning who they are, but deciding it. Making their own identity. Shaping themselves out of the clay that they've been given.

I think that's why people of all ages like to read YA lit. Because we're all doing that too. Every day, we're figuring out who we are, and how to become who we want to be.

So here's my/Joss Whedon's advice: Make your shape complex. Don't be a cube, don't be a sphere, don't be a pyramid. Give yourself curves and angles, nooks and crannies, breadth and depth. Don't worry about whether it's good or bad, pretty or ugly, normal or weird. Just embrace the unique combinations that you come up with.

Writers, this goes for your characters, too!

Good, or bad. Black, or white. Blue, or red.

We’re not that. We’re more interesting than that. The way that we go into the world understanding is to have these contradictions in ourselves and to see them in other people and not judge them for it. To know that—in a world where debate has kind of fallen away and given away to shouting and bullying—the best thing is not just the idea of honest debate, the best thing is losing a debate. Because it means you’ve learned something and you’ve changed your position.

That's what story and plot are all about. You put a character into a situation, and in order to get through that situation, they have to face themselves, question themselves, accept themselves. They have to stand strong when they're right, and back down when they're wrong. They have to grow and change.

A few examples of YA protagonists who cannot be easily categorized as "good" or "bad":

Mackenzie in THE ARCHIVED - She became a Keeper at a very young age, "shelving" dead spirits for the greater good. She considers her responsibility noble and important, and she prides herself in doing her job well. But she also breaks rules, and keeps secrets, and betrays people who she loves.

Quintana in the Lumatere Chronicles - She is frigid and unmannered. She is vicious and wild. She is sensitive and afraid. Due to the traumatic nature of her childhood, Quintana fractured into several distinct personalities, and over the course of FROI OF THE EXILES and QUINTANA OF CHARYN, she has to learn to accept them all. (More importantly, so do the people around her.)

Alina in SHADOW AND BONE - Initially a plain and unskilled orphan, Alina discovers that she has incredible supernatural abilities, which could help save her country. And yet, becoming powerful doesn't erase her past. Nor does it necessarily determine her future. How Alina chooses to wield her new powers will be influenced by the person she was, and will have a huge impact on the person she turns into.

The Archived (The Archived, #1) Quintana of Charyn (Lumatere Chronicles, #3) Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)

The complexity of these heroines is what makes them interesting. It's what makes us eager to read 300+ pages about them. It's what makes fiction seem real.

The same goes for antagonists too! (And all characters, really.) Snape in HARRY POTTER, the Darkling in SHADOW AND BONE, the White Wolf in DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE  -- these guys are not the evil cackling villains of our childhood cartoons, with no redeeming qualities, no reason to root for them. They are just as deep and multi-faceted as our heroes, and that's what makes them so fantastic to read about.

So in closing, I say again, embrace your contradictions, allow for your complexities.

Don’t just be yourself, be all of your selves. 

 What other characters (heroes, villains, or sidekicks!) do you think embody this idea? Who have you found yourself loving, then hating, then loving, then hating, then...?


Unknown said...

Awesome post! Personally, I love contradictions in my characters. Contradictions make them realistic and help us connect to them more because lets be realistic none of us are sure 100% of the time. I'm almost never sure :)

-Mari @ The Sirenic Codex

Anonymous said...

This post is BRILLIANT. My favorite kinds of characters are the ones that are multi-faceted. The Darkling is the best part of Shadow and Bone because he is so complex. Augustus Waters from TFIOS is perfect because he's imperfect. I could go on about a bunch of different characters, but I'll restrain myself. :)

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

The Darkling is a huge example of this for me-I had so many feelings about him, ranging from the very positive swoony to the very negative hate at some of his actions.

Michelle Santiago said...

"I think that's why people of all ages like to read YA lit. Because we're all doing that too. Every day, we're figuring out who we are, and how to become who we want to be." i like that! great post! and i'm glad you mentioned quintana. i read finnikin of the rock a few months back but i haven't read the rest of the series (though they're in my tbr)--makes me want to get to them sooner rather than later.

Stephanie Mooney said...

I loved that speech so much! I also loved the Make Good Art commencement speech that Neil Gaiman gave. So good.

Unknown said...

I love this post. I notice this a lot in myself, that I contradict myself a lot, and it used to be something that drove me insane. I'd try to be either A or B. People aren't that clean and tidy though, so they can be both A, and B, and sometimes C too! I also just realized, reading this post, that I need to read Shadow and Bone and The Archived. :p


Kristan said...

Yes, Augustus Waters is another good example! As is a certain author from that same story... (No, not talking about John Green.)

So glad you guys enjoyed the post! Thanks for commenting.

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Stephanie, Ingrid, Sarah & Kristan — we read, write, discuss and celebrate Young Adult lit.



on the shelf

The Bitter Kingdom
Wild Awake
The Raven Boys
Mind Games
Eleanor and Park
The Shattered Mountain
The Shadow Cats
Froi of the Exiles
Days of Blood & Starlight
Every Day
Jellicoe Road
Finnikin of the Rock
Guitar Notes
The Dead-Tossed Waves
The Crown of Embers
New House 5: How A Dorm Becomes A Home
The Fault in Our Stars

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