November 30, 2005

Clueless Characters: Why aren't these people THINKING!?

Time for a slightly cranky rant:

Maybe it's just hitting me wrong today, maybe, but I cannot bear to read one more cluess character YA novel. Yes, I know people make mistakes -- stupid mistakes, and yes I know that its rumored that they may make more of them in adolescence. (Though I doubt it- myriad and spectacular are the idiocies of alleged maturity.) Yes, I know that often people can't see what's right in front of them, and they enter into damaging behavior sort of blindly. BUT. If I, as reader, cannot tell WHY the character chooses to ignore the bright neon yellow signs warning DANGER: DROP OFF, then it's a pretty poor storyline contrivance that finds me longing to SLAP the clueless characters, and may leave readers truly annoyed. (Incidentally, my agent has a name for this -- 'the strained plausibility issue.' And yes, it was ascribed to a story of mine. It's definitely a problem when agents have names for it.)

I really liked the premise of Anna Fienberg's book, Borrowed Light. I, too, had a weird high school sorting theory that classified people as things like carnivorous and herbivore, or moons and stars. I could get behind the character believing that all of her choices were predetermined by her particular role as a moon - a borrower of light, and I could sense her deep alienation from the rest of the high school herd -- she was a junior astronomer, the other students were...distant planets. Been there. Get that.

What exasperated and annoyed me about the novel is that the character, otherwise cosmically hip and intelligent was "dating" a star, and she just sort of glossed over the fact that they were, oh, having sex, and oh, not using any prophylactic. And when she, oh, got sort of pregnant, it seemed all a huge surprise. I fairly itched to give her a clout 'round the ears. Her grandmother is an astrophysicist, and she can't figure out how babies are made? She has a telescope and can tell you all about Gallileo's theories and locate Ganymede, and she doesn't have a clue about sperm!? What a cop out to assume that because you're a borrower you lie back and just let the stars of the world run you into the ground! Fortunately, the novelist decides to allow the character to wake up, and her distraction and abstraction from reality is explored. The novel ends, if unevenly, reasonably happily, and the ALA thought it was good enough to put on their Best Books list, and she shoveled up other honors with the Australian writer types. So maybe it's just me...

But this book, Caught in the Act, by Peter Moore, made my head hurt. I know plenty of guys who've done dumb things for the sake of a girl, but this -- no. The series of incidents in this novel cause me to feel that its plausibility is officially strained. And that's a shame, too, because the title is excellent - especially because the main character is an actor at school, acts like the perfect son at home, and is generally all-round never being his true self, whomever that is.

But tell me: would you, or anyone you know be hot to hook up with a fellow student who threatens a teacher with a sexual harassment scandal unless he changes your chemistry grade? Would you think that person was normal?? Would you maybe be concerned about...oh, lawsuits, if you had no moral or ethical scruples about this? Would you maybe wonder what would happen to you someday if/when you pissed this person off?

Would you still speak to them after they manipulated them into getting a tattoo, and then paid the tattoo artist to ink a different word than you wanted -- their name?? No? I found that I wouldn't, either. Unless Moore is trying to make a statement about guys in theater, or high school sophomores in small towns in particular, it seems there's something lacking from this characterization. The character has parents who are mainlining him toward a medical degree. They're not artistic, they don't seem especially emotive or expressive. He's definitely the odd one out in his family, and so for him to hang on and hang out with someone who tends to be loud, keeps pushing him into bizarre situations, etc., seems... unbelievable.

I know. I know. Writers don't always write books about absolute never-can-happens, most of the time. Much of fiction has at least a tinge of fact. I've had scenes I've written rejected and have heard people tell me "no, it doesn't happen that way," and I've had to do my best to not bite their heads off because all I had written was exactly what had happened. So, in defense of the writer, I don't say this could not have happened. I just wish that the reader had been given a little more of an opening into the how and why of the character development.

The cranky rant, for today, is over.
Let's hope we don't have to go there again soon.

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