Monday, March 24, 2014

Authenticity vs. Perpetuation of Bad

by R.C. Lewis

As writers, we talk a lot about authenticity. Authentic voice, authentic setting, authentic characters. Particularly in young adult (YA), I spend a lot of time trying to make sure my characters resonate and feel real to teens. It doesn't mean all teens are the same, that there's some very specific teen-mold our characters should match. Just that teens should think, "Yeah, I believe a person my age could be like that."

You know what else we talk about?

Slut-shaming. Body-shaming. Rape culture. Misogyny. Hate speech. Pretty sure that's just scratching the surface.

I spend the work-week with about two hundred 14-year-olds. There are things a significant number of them say/do. Call another student retarded. Use the word "gay" as an insult or disparaging adjective. Objectify girls, judge their worth solely based on appearance. It goes on and on, and many of them do all these things without a second thought.

(At least until I give them a hard time about it, over and over and over. *ahem*)

These behaviors exist, and not in isolation. These words are in the vernacular for many (but not all!) teens.

So do we include it in the name of authenticity?

That's where it starts getting tricky, because more questions follow.

Do we only include it in cases where it's clearly shown to be a bad thing? (Either right away for incidental dialogue or by the end of the book where it's an overall theme…)

Do we lose authenticity by always having a character ready to call another out for speaking/behaving in a way we don't approve?

If we leave it out altogether, where do we draw the line? How do we keep from going so inauthentic that we actually cross into "rosy idealized way we wish people were"? (Face it—at the extreme, that lands you with no conflict and thus no plot.)

Is there a balancing point where we can show the authentic without making it "okay" and without getting didactic?

My own thoughts flit around from one side of the argument to another, creating more questions, giving no answers.

I'd love to know what others think.

R.C. Lewis teaches math to teenagers—and frequently tells them to "pick a more accurate adjective"—so whether she's a science geek or a bookworm depends on when you look. Her debut novel Stitching Snow is coming from Hyperion October 14, 2014. You can find R.C. on Twitter (@RC_Lewis) and at her website.


JeffO said...

Hmm, good questions here. Not being a writer or reader of YA, I can't really answer that one in the context of YA.

Part of the trick with a 'clean' main character is you don't want to come across as preachy or delivering a heavy-handed message. Go the other way and you run the risk of making negatives look positive and fun. It's a tough call, for sure.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

I think it is definitely realistic to include such language and behavior in YA lit, but not really for authenticity unless it really speaks to characterization or plot. For example, do we just overhear that in the book for background noise? Or does a character interact with it? I’ve read YA lit where a character may hear/witness such behavior and while we don’t see that protagonist doing anything about it outwardly, we get the inner monologue/reaction - and that serves the duo purpose of characterization and authenticity, I think. (And it doesn’t have to be a long, self-berating thing. A quick “I shouldn’t have said that” or brief inner wince - otherwise it might be too didactic.)Many adolescents DO recognize when using “that’s gay” or “that’s retarded” is wrong or at least “off”, but do not act upon it. Speaking out is hard and the average teen is not likely to step out of going with the flow to say anything.

Of course, the average teen will also use those exclamations and NOT realize what they are saying… but maybe those instances are not what have to be in a book?

Richard Pieters said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Pieters said...

Tricky, but necessary to make your work authentic. I have confidence that your sensibility will guide you to writing what is authentic and showing what it hurtful. As the writer, you know what you need to do. Don't preach, but don't hold back. What's wrong should be shown, however you do it, as wrong. Don't we want to not only create authentic worlds but show what's "good" and not not in them?

R.C. Lewis said...

Jeff, definitely a matter of finding balance. Having a book where no one ever insults anyone else would probably be really weird. So I find myself in the position of figuring out what insults in what situations I want to go with.

Janet, I agree many teens know they shouldn't (though it might be a habit they fell into). And there are also those who use those phrases and will actively argue with me that there's nothing wrong with it for reasons A, B, and C.

And thanks, Richard. Hopefully my gut will steer me in the right direction when it comes to these things.