Let Characters Be Who They’ll Be: The Rest Will Follow

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about ‘issue books’ lately, and their long-established lineage in young adult and children’s fiction as well as their current incarnation. A lot of people don’t like them, and make the mistake of confusing any sort of book with a minority protagonist as an issue book, no matter what’s going on. Whether it’s a heavy-handed parable intended to make readers think about their lives and their choices or a more straightforward story, the idea seems to be that having anything other than ‘normal’ people makes a book fall into the issue category.

For me personally, I tend not to be a fan of heavy-handed books. But I do like books with minority characters, not least because I enjoy seeing myself in the texts I read. And for me, the characters are the most important thing; authors who can allow their characters to be who they will be, no matter who they are, will end up speaking truly to their experiences, no matter what they are. The storytelling and the narrative will weave around the characters and integrate them and create a thing of beauty that isn’t issuey at all, because the focus isn’t on the perceived abnormalities of the characters, but who they really are, and the story they find themselves in.

I look, for example, at Ash, which is a brilliant retelling of the Cinderella story where the protagonist is gay. The story isn’t about how she’s gay. It’s about her life and experience and the situations she finds herself in, and where she develops as a woman. It’s about lush language and the beauty of the narrative and an exploration of an old folktale presented in new and interesting ways; it’s led by Ash and who she is, not Ash’s sexual orientation. Or I think about Lauren DeStefano’s Chemical Garden Trilogy, which brings up a lot of interesting issues about women’s autonomy, but it’s not about that. It’s about Rhine Ellery and who she is.

Telling stories is the most important thing to me. I want to read stories. I want to see the people who inhabit them, I want to sense them, I want to sink into their world. I want the story to carry me away and I want the author to be confident in the storytelling. I want to luxuriate in the author’s style, whether it’s the magical, floating, poetic prose of The Night Circus or the more sparse, stark Thirteen Reasons Why. I want the author to be unafraid to tell a story that pushes the characters to their limits, and I want to feel like I am in good hands as I read.

Part of telling stories is creating wondrous characters, and creating them as whole people, not boxes on a diversity checklist. Minority characters are more than the sum of their parts; they aren’t just ‘disabled’ or ‘indigenous’ or ‘lesbian,’ they are many, many things, and these things wrap together in the story. The story isn’t about their otherness, but about who they are and how they move through the world. These are the books I love, and they aren’t issue books, even as they introduce readers to issues, and force people to think about issues in new ways.

Reading Every Day, I’m struck by the dramatic premise and the life of A. As A moves through different bodies and experiences, these become part of the story; they are, in fact, critical to the story because they raise questions about the sense of self and who you are and how you inhabit your body and the world. Along the way, readers glimpse the world through the eyes of gay teens, of trans teens, of teens of colour, of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences, but the point isn’t to hammer home some point about issues and otherness. The point is to drive the story.

By letting A be who A is, Levithan allows the story to tell itself; the story follows A, and A makes the story. Levithan doesn’t need to exaggerate the point or make a big production of it because the character does the work, just as Hazel and Augustus do the work in The Fault in Our Stars, making it unnecessary for John Green to turn the book into a special lesson about childhood cancers. It’s a far cry from the lurid cancer porn books I used to read as a kid; in both cases, characters have cancer, but in one, the story is about the characters, while in the other, the story is about the cancer.

This doesn’t mean an issue book can’t be great, can’t have an amazing story, can’t have driven, fascinating characters. Shine takes you square into issueland with amazing prose and a great protagonist. And she’s the reason it works so well as a story, because she’s not just a cardboard cutout but her own person with her own complex things going on. By allowing her to be herself, Myracle creates a story, and the story carries the reader along. As you’re swept deeper and deeper into it, you’re also swimming in the issues it raises.

Any premise is going to fail without strong characters to drive it, and a powerful story to back them. Strong doesn’t mean characters who fit into specific stereotypes or project a certain image, of course; they can be weak, flawed, complicated human beings. It does mean that the characters must be rounded, whole, complete, must be something other than an issue on a stick wearing a little awareness pin. By letting those characters loose on the page to tell the story, the author can allow the reader’s mind to do the rest.