There ought to be a bright yellow sign that pops up whenever an author sits down to write tween fiction. Caution! Develop with care! Why this warning? Because tween fiction is harder to write than it looks.
This “Tween the Weekends” post addresses one of these problem areas. If handled correctly, it helps your tween read become a powerful, memorable, and satisfying story. If mishandled, however, it makes readers want to gag and throw the book out the window. What is this problem area? The stark handling of good and evil in typical tween fiction.
It’s well known among psychologists that developmentally, children think in far more black and white terms than do adults. Things are either wonderful or terrible. They love brussel sprouts, and they hate whipped cream. (Or maybe that was just me.) More relevantly, people are either good guys or bad guys: there is no in between.
Most beloved tween fiction, even if not written specifically for children, maintains its broad appeal because of its strong good versus evil characterization. Harry Potter versus Voldemort. Percy Jackson versus mythical monsters. Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader. Aslan versus the White Witch. Even historical figures and ancient myths are made “child-friendly” by simplifying motivations or characterizations and painting individuals as either good or evil. Robin Hood versus the Sheriff of Nottingham. King Arthur versus Mordred. Hercules versus Hera. (That one’s fun to read in its childproofed versions…) As a note, non-tween fiction may also employ the use of good versus evil, but also tends to feature characters who are far more gray. Examples include the popular Game of Thrones series, or even C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.
A problem, however, comes in when authors see the form on its surface, but fail to look more deeply at the characters beyond the form. “Oh,” says this prospective author, “I can write a tween book! Captain Perfect versus General Despicable, here we come!” The result, unfortunately, is ghastly. Once you’ve met one perfect character, you’ve met them all. The same goes with reprobate villains. I won’t name names, but I recently put down a tween book halfway through because its Evil King who poisoned the rightful heir to the throne did nothing except, well, be evil. It was simply boring.
But, you ask, how are Voldemort, Darth Vader, and the White Witch any different from General Despicable? The same way that Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Aslan are all different from Captain Perfect. They’re all people. And that’s the trick. A talented author of tween fiction writes a person and uses him or her as an embodiment of good or evil in a given context. A less talented author writes an embodiment of good or evil and calls it a person. People are complex; embodiments are flat. People are interesting; embodiments are boring and predictable.
Going back to examples from popular tween literature: Harry Potter has anger issues, is impulsive and stubborn, and doesn’t take school seriously. But he’s still “the good guy.” Sandry, Tris, Daja, and Briar from Tamora Pierce’s The Circle of Magic are “the good guys,” even though Sandry is imperious, Tris is hot-headed, Daja looks down on those of other cultures, and Briar is, well, a convicted thief. Even those protagonists who don’t have major flaws still have personalities: Jonas from Lois Lowry’s The Giver is a very different person from Lucy in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Matthias the mouse in Brian Jacques’ Redwall. (And not just because of differences in sex and species.)
Similarly, villains can be presented as “pure evil” and still have a personality. Voldemort fears death, hates those of impure blood, and cares for Nagini his snake. Darth Vader fears no one but his master the Emperor and serves him loyally – until he has to choose between the Emperor and his family. The White Witch is eager to claim her rights and fearless when she knows the law supports her, but terrified of the Lion who can break her curse.
These are the stories that children and adults enjoy together. The ones where good triumphs, where evil is vanquished, and where an ending is unambiguous. But just because good triumphs, evil is vanquished, and an ending is unambiguous doesn’t make a story enjoyable. Caution. Develop with care. Your readers will thank you.