I know most of you have seen The Breakfast Club, an 80's film by the late John Hughes (apparently, according to rookieriter, I'm the only person who hadn't seen any of John Hughes movies. If that assumption is correct, then you'd all should be able to follow this post with no deer-in-the-headlights moment.)
This is YA in a nutshell. I know it seems cliché when we talk about stereotyping in high school, but even though this movie is more than two decades old there is some truth to this story, a truth that still exists in our society today.
Labels. We're all fond of putting labels on each other.
I've read a lot of YA books--not as extensive as I would like, but enough to know that writers often box their characters into cliched labels. We have the girl who is beautiful but clueless, and is the quintessential damsel in distress albeit in modern surroundings. The brooding, unapproachable hero who has magical powers. The sidekick who buoys the hero's or heroine's self-esteem--a sort of comic relief at times, or possibly a foil for the main character. A villain who exists for the purpose of creating conflict. And many, many more....
In The Breakfast Club, these labels were clearly printed on these teens' foreheads, at least that's how they were seen by the principal who gave them detention. The kids themselves lived by these labels because it was what expected of them. When Brian asked the question (me paraphrasing it), After today, what happens next? Will you say hi to me if we see each other in the hallway? And the heartbreaking truth was that, neither one of them would. Claire aka the popular, rich girl responded: You don't understand. It's not that easy.
And why not? Why is it so hard to break the social barrier?
It's because real life is the way it is. We are simply too fond of labeling each other.
So you read a YA book and you see the peppy blond cheerleader giving the heroine a hard time...yes, it does happen. You see the good-looking quarterback going for the flat-chested nerdy sophomore...yes, it can happen.
The thing is, if we're going to write cliche characters, it's okay AS LONG AS THERE'S A REASON FOR IT. Why is peppy blond cheerleader mean to the heroine? What's in her background, her life story that accounts for the meanness?
Why is John Bender aka The Criminal so hateful? Because he's been physically abused by his father.
Why is Allison Reynolds a basketcase? Because her family ignores her.
How come nerdy Brian Johnson had a flare gun in his locker in the first place? Because he had contemplated suicide.
And so on, and so forth.
Give your characters depth because cliché or not, no one is one-dimensional. Do not put cheerleader in the path of your heroine just because. There has to be a reason for everything.
At the end of the movie, they all left Mr. Vernon, the principal, a letter or an essay, and it says:
- Brian Johnson: Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong...but we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who (sic) we think we are. You see us as you want to see us... In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain...
- Andrew Clarke: ...and an athlete...
- Allison Reynolds: ...and a basket case...
- Claire Standish: ...a princess...
- John Bender: ...and a criminal...
- Brian Johnson: Does that answer your question?
- Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club. (Source: Wikipedia)
Don't be a Mr. Vernon.