The Breakfast Club: YA in a Nutshell

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.)

The Breakfast Club: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Five teens found themselves serving detention together on a Saturday for doing stupid things: Claire Standish "The Princess" for skipping school to go shopping; Andrew Clark "The Athlete" for playing a prank on one of his teammates; Brian Johnson "The Brain" for keeping a flare gun in his locker; John Bender "The Criminal" for setting off a false fire alarm; and Allison Reynolds "The Basketcase" who actually didn't do anything to be sent to detention--she came because she had nothing better to do. They are all separated by their stereotypes, their cliques, but by the show's end, they come to realize they're not all that different after all.

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.


Bethany C. said...

Wow--you nailed that on the head. That's the beauty of YA, in my opinion, and of this movie in particular. Teenage life is about stereotypes. (Actually...adult life isn't much different--we just hide it better). It's human nature to classify people. People need to "fit" somewhere. For some reason we assume it's a bad thing to place people somewhere--it's not. We just have to be willing to let them wander out of that box once we get to know them. That's true for our characters, too. Give them room to stretch their legs and proclaim who they are outside of the stereotype.

(I don't think this even made any sense...in my head it worked).

Anyway, GREAT post, sister. I'm so glad you're discovering the talent of Mr. Hughes!!

cherie said...

It makes perfect sense to me, Bethany! A cliche is cliche because it's been the truth at some point or other. So in a way, this post is a little bit contradictory--we say it's ok to have cliched characters as long as we let them wander out and not be totally cliched.

Mind boggling, I know.

I guess my point was to say even cliched characters have multiple facets. So yes, we can have them exist in books as long as we ALSO showcase that that's not all they are.


Bethany C. said...

You need to read my book :)

Mandie Baxter said...

Anarchy! OMG...I can't evenexplain my love for this movie. Hands down fav JH film. My dad introduced it to me in HS & I was in love. You nailed all the key points. Man, must watch again soon!!!!

Jessie Humphries said...

Holy 80's flashback! I am ashamed but I've never seen it...although, I totally know the whole story and seen enough VH1 highlights of it to know whats up. This was a great post, and made me have a second look at my contemporary YA.

Angela V. Cook said...

Everyone has a backstory, and it's our job--as writers--to explain that backstory; to give our characters depth and to show they're more than just a label.

Great post, Cherie :o)

Royce A Ratterman said...

Great film. Good films, audio books, etc. related to your work-in-progress seem to always inspire me.

Jeana said...

I love this movie! And I love your insights on writing!

Kate Evangelista said...

I love this post. It's quite eye-opening. :-) Thanks, Cherie!

julie fedderson said...

I don't mind a cliched character--but you are absolutely right, there needs to be motivation for that behavior or else they just come off as two dimensional. Great post!

ali said...

I loved the movie, and I agree, cliches in books and movies exist for a reason--which you stated. I think our job as modern writers is to find a way to speak the truth without being so transparant or predictable about it.

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Anita Grace Howard said...

LOVED this post, Cherie. And of course I'm a HUGE John Hughes fan.

BTW, you totally need to read Bethany's book. Her heroine is the perfect example of this post.

And I see you're over halfway done w/your WIP! Way to rock the wordage, sparkles. :)

LTM said...

John Hughes is DEFINITELY a master of the teen predicament. And I'm finding it hard to believe you've never watched his stuff.... get viewing, girl! 16 Candles next... LOL! :D

cherie said...

Bethany, I WANT to read your book!

Jessie, you need to see it. It's so fun to relive the 80's. Plus these characters are a riot!

Angela, right on, princess! (I'm calling you princess from now on. ;) )

Royce, hi and thanks for the follow. Yes, certain books/films also inspire me when I'm working on my WIP. ;) It's nice to meet you, btw.

Jeana, thanks! So good to see you ;)

Kate, thanks for dropping by, lovely.

Julie, yep. I don't like characters who exist for the sake of torturing the mc, and with no real motivation.

Ali, you're right: put the twist on cliches. ;)

Claudia, hi and thanks for the follow! I'm glad you like my blog. I'll check out yours in a minute. ;)

Anita, hello my dear lovely friend! I so want to read Bethany's book. ;) Also, the WIP is at a standstill though the word count is wrong in that ticker since I forgot to update it. :D Will have to get that fixed then.

Leigh, yes, I am now A FAN of John Hughes, thanks to Bethany! And yes, I have seen 16 Candles and Pretty in Pink (lest Bethany kicks me out of her underpaid fan club). Thanks for stopping by!! ;)

Kimberly Krey said...

Okay, this post is brilliant! I couldn't agree more. First off, I love The Breakfast Club, along with any other movie with "The Brat Pack". But we really do have to give reasons for these things. Acknowledge that we're are pressing the norm, and then show how and why. This is what makes the reader buy what we're selling.

Caitlin Vincent said...

I've never seen The Breakfast Club before. I'd never even heard of it, actually. It's going on the list :)

This was a most excellent post. Truly enjoyable and insightful.

T.S. Welti said...

I love this post! I've watched The Breakfast Club a million times and Pretty in Pink two million! Haha. I totally agree that cliche characters are cliched because the author did not take the time to give them depth.

Samwise is the quintessential sidekick who offers the occasional comic relief. The reason we don't see Samwise as a cliche is because we know he has hopes and dreams waiting for him on the other side of their journey. You root for Samwise as much as you root for Frodo.

I'll never forget the day my little sister finished reading my book and she started sobbing when she talked about my main character and his friends. She said, "They were all alone until they found each other." It's one of the moments I cherish as a writer. Though each character is different, you understand why they're drawn to each other.

Building characters is time-consuming and difficult, but it's worth the time and effort. Don't skimp on characterization.

Great post, Cherie! :D

Rachna Chhabria said...

I have not seen the Breakfast Club...but it sounds good. Actually, I had never heard of it.

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