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What Message Could You Be Sending?

And I'm not referring to promiscuous behavior, drug use, profanity, or any of those other things that ruffle some book-banning feathers in the young adult world.

A while back, I read a wonderful blog post* on the current popularity of fantasy in the young adult world. It cautioned writers to look past the entertainment value of their stories to see what message they might be inadvertently sending by raising the question of how the character was able to solve/overcome the obstacles in their stories. Does the main character rely on a magical item or ability to be successful? Could that send the reader the message that to prevail against difficult circumstances, one would have to possess some otherworldly skill?

I don't know that every young reader would make that connection, but it certainly does make a writer think. If we rely on lots of magical elements to make a book work, we can't lose sight of the fact that the main character's growth and adaptation is what the story should really be about.

Magic drips from the pages of any Harry Potter book; spells and mystical items are plentiful. But alongside those things, Harry still has to learn to deal with a bully (Malfoy), the Big Bad, (Voldermort), and those horrid Dursleys (which, if you ask me, are much worse than Voldermort). The point is, while the books focus a great deal on fantasy elements, the reader still sees the main character learn and grow as a person, not just a wizard.

And while the blog post focused on fantasy, it can be applied to any genre. So your latest WIP has a main character with parents who recently divorced. She lost her friends and boyfriend when she had to move. Obviously, if your character handled it all in stride, there wouldn't really be much of a story. But by the end of the book, did your character overcome all of this by becoming a stronger person or did she rely solely on other people or things to get through?

Do YA writers have more of a responsibility to do more than just write for the entertainment element?

Do you ever think about what messages your stories could be sending?

*I cannot find the web address for this post as I followed a link someone had posted on twitter a few months ago. If anyone knows which article I'm referring to, feel free to post in the comments so they get proper credit and others can read.
Amanda Hannah

Amanda grew up on a big farm in a small town with one stoplight, one school, and a handful of imaginary friends.She would’ve gone to college forever, but eight years and five majors tested her advisor’s patience. So she moved to Germany to explore creepy castles before landing in Spain where she’s perfecting her Flamenco.

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  1. I ALWAYS am thinking about what sort of message I might be accidentally sending. Sometimes I don't care, other times I think, hmmm, maybe I should change that.
    This is a good post. I hadn't really thought about how relying on magic too much could send the wrong message!

  2. I think a lot about these messages not just as a writer, but also as a parent.

    As a writer I don't want my stories (or my characters) to rely on deus ex machina to save the day. As a parent, I want to my children to learn to be independent and to solve problems from within, rather than looking for someone or something else to do it for them.

    Fantasy stories with smart, self-reliant characters (who seek help when needed, but not in place of helping themselves - Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Sparrowhawk "Ged", etc.) are full of wonderful examples of strong role models making difficult decisions and trusting in their own wherewithal to make it through difficult circumstances while growing into better people along the way.

    Great post!

  3. Great post-- I also hadn't thought about the whole "relying on magic" thing.

    Some people may only write to entertain, but I'm not one of them, so this kind of thing really does concern me when I'm writing. I think it can sometimes be difficult to write about a flawed person (which, ideally, is every character) without seeming like you're giving a big thumbs up to the bad things they do. So I'm always walking that line, and it can get pretty tricky! I've had to change things before, but I'd rather do that than accidentally send some kind of bad message.

  4. I've found that a lot of YA contemp romances circle around a hurting MC... and the wonderful boy who fixes her and makes everything better. REALLY? The plot of my WIP could have gone that way, but in the end, I made my MC independent. The story may be less steamy that way, but it will be more realistic.

  5. Great thoughts! It reminds me of the admonition I see on a regular basis regarding MG and younger literature: Don't let the parents solve the problems. It's important for the person reading the story to realize that they can indeed have the same sense of empowerment as the main character of a story. It can be great fun to add in all sorts of magic, but the characters should find it within themselves to solve their problems.

  6. Good post; this made me think. My MC doesn't rely so much on the fantasy element to overcome her problems, but this made me wonder if she relies too much on other people. Especially (playing off your point, Emilia) the boy...

  7. Oh dear, The Boy. I might be guilty of that . . .

    But we'll just call that incurable romantic, m'kay?


  8. Now I'm panicking about The Boy Who Fixes Everything... *frantically searches through WIPs*

    I think, to an extent, authors should right for themselves...but then there is the point of making sure that you're not sending a terrible message to your readers. I don't know. It's a tough line to draw.

  9. Haha, don't worry, guys. I just mean the sort of story where the girl has no goals/has made no attempt to help herself or actively get help/makes the transition from "hurt" to "healed" for NO reason other than "This amazing guy came along." I'm totally okay with that plot when the girl puts at least some effort into it herself. It's the passive MC thing.

    I guess "saving romances" do happen in real life, so if it's well done, I'll swallow it. And you're all brilliant writers so you have nothing to fear :D

  10. I agree. I'm a sucker for a good romance element and I don't think there's anything wrong if it's a relationship that works as a catalyst for a change in the MC. Plus, a healthy relationship sends a good message to a younger audience.

  11. If you're talking about Dax, Kristin, that's okay <3

    It's funny; some messages I'm utterly aware of, and others fly over my head until someone points them out. I just try my best to be sensitive, and honest, and accountable.

  12. I'd thought about MCs relying on other characters to succeed before, but never on magic. That's a really interesting point, Amanda.

    I have nothing useful to add, but I enjoyed reading all of these comments. :)


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Item Reviewed: What Message Could You Be Sending? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Amanda Hannah