Friday, June 9, 2017

6 Problems with "Edgy" YA Fiction (And How to Fix Them)


I read a lot. In all types of genres. I've seen some pretty sad things when it comes to messed up messages, damaging plots, and horrible characters. They aren't exclusive to one particular genre.

But they do tend to be very popular in YA fiction.

Now calm down. I'm not hating on YA. I love YA. I write it, I read it. Some of my favorite books are YA. In short: I care about YA fiction. And, because I care about YA, I have no problem with saying this:

Something has gone horribly wrong with this genre. Specifically that dark, shadowy section referred to as Edgy YA Fiction.

Edgy YA fiction (sometimes called gritty YA fiction) is pretty much what the term indicates: Young adult fiction that takes on what are considered edgy subjects: Sex, drugs, swearing, abuse, self-harm, bullying, suicide, violence, etc. Generally several of these topics (or all of them) are encompassed in a single novel.

Now, I'm not saying these topics are things that should not be addressed in fiction. What I am saying is that Edgy YA fiction tends to handle itself and its topics in all of the wrong ways. Let me point some of them out:
Hannah Heath: 6 Problems with "Edgy" YA Fiction (And How to Fix Them)
Problem #1: Hard topics are romanticized, dramatized, and made entertaining. Life is full of very difficult things: Suicide. Eating disorders. Self-harm. Abusive relationships. They are hard, damaging, and sad. But do you know what they aren't? They aren't cool. They should never be depicted as such. Ever. Too many times I've seen YA books take horrible situations and make it look like an adventure: Suffering is turned into something that makes a character more interesting, depravity (in the instance of abusive relationships) is an engrossing, thrilling plot point. It needs to stop. There is nothing romantic about suicide. Nothing entertaining about abuse. To depict these things as something other than what they are is incredibly hurtful to people who suffer through them...and damaging to people who are on the brink. Think very hard and very carefully about the way it is that you are choosing to portray "edgy" topics. If you aren't showing anything other than the exact truth, then you are only making things worse.

Problem #2: There is a massive lack of nice characters. I have a mind-blowing fact for you: Teenagers are not demonic. Crazy, right? Do you know what teenagers actually are? People. I'll pause for a second while that sinks in. We wouldn't want your brain to explode. Got it? Okay. So, if teenagers are people, then why do "edgy" YA books depict them as caustic, angry, base beings that run around ruining everybody's lives? Also, why are these characters often excused for their incredibly wrong behavior because of their age? Yeah, teenagers can be unruly, but that does not make their behavior acceptable or cool, nor does it validify all characters in YA being vicious, animalistic people. There's nothing wrong with creating polite, kind, and respectful teenaged characters. Call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure that'd be a good thing.

Problem #3: Chastity is disparaged. This point stems from the novel idea that YA books should not be cheering on teen sex (or any book cheering on extramarital sex). However, that's a controversial topic that I'm saving for another post, so I'm just going to focus on this one point: In YA books, it's become a norm for teenagers to sleep around to the point that it's considered abnormal for a teen to not have sex. Is the world ending? Somebody dying of cancer? Sex is a must because apparently virginity is something you don't want to die with. Is a teen uncomfortable with having sex? There must be something wrong with him/her, so let's make an entire plot point out of them overcoming this issue! Your character has decided that he/she should only have a physical relationship inside of marriage? What a weirdo, right? Wrong. Chastity takes self-control and strong moral character, not to mention the fact that it is healthy both physically and emotionally. It is a good trait, not a flaw. I understand that many real-life teenagers (and people in general) do not see it this way, but that doesn't make it any less true. Stop belittling modesty and abstinence.

Problem #4: It carries unclear messages. What are you wanting your readers to get out of the "edginess" of your story? You need to know the answer to this question before you start smearing hard topics all over the place. If you don't, your story will have questionable points. You don't want your reader walking away thinking, "Huh, maybe that story means suicide is a way out of my problems." Or "Oh, maybe self-harming is a good way to let off steam." Or, "Abuse is okay as long as the abuser is cute and has dark, brooding eyes." Many authors reason that Edgy YA is important because it teaches teenagers how to deal with hard issues. Okay. Then write like you actually believe that. Write with a clear, helpful, non-damaging message. Not an edgy story that just wants to revel in the darkness.

Problem #5: It shows teenagers in a negative light.  As touched on previously, teenagers are not demons. Likewise, they are also not idiots. Teenagers are capable of amazing things and you do them a disservice by showing them in plots where they are always either victims or trouble-makers. You degrade when you show teen characters as all petty and selfish and lacking self-respect. If you do show them as such, this should not be the majority and it should be mentioned why they are that way (such as lacking parental love and support)....Just like how your adult characters have backstories explaining their bitterness. You write teenagers like you would any other character: With thought and purpose. Pure and simple.

Problem #6: It forces the edge. Look. Shoving the most recent controversial topic into your story just to be "relevant" is idiotic. At best, it will make your story feel awkward. At worst, you've taken important issues and tried to make money off of them with no regard for how you are impacting your readers. Nobody likes that type of author. Don't go there.

Those are some of the main problems I've seen with Edgy YA. Have any points to add....or disagree with any of the ones I've written? Please leave your (kind and courageous) comments below. If you have any edgy YA novels that you think do a good job of avoiding these problems, I'd love to hear about them!

Related articles:
Darkness in Fiction: 7 Tips for Writing Dark Stories
Why You Should Intentionally Write Messages Into Your Stories
Keeping it Classy: When is it OK to Use Profanity in Your Fiction Writing?

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  1. All of this is SPOT ON, and we NEED to be talking about it more.

    When I was a teenager, I read a lot of really good YA novels that discussed the problems related to underage sex, the hazards of drug use, the consequences of breaking the law, the terror that may come from being in an abusive or dysfunctional relationship/household. (The only titles I remember off the top of my head are "Fool's Hill" and "Two Moons in August") But anyway, you're totally right in that now these things aren't seen as bad, and are too often portrayed as not only acceptable, but expected. And that's what HAS to change, as a society, if we really want things like terrorism to decrease.

    No, I'm not being too dramatic, and I'm not sorry for that rant. :)

    When I decided to make my series YA, I also decided how I wanted my characters to be shown -- are they normal, regular teens, who are going to mess up but will ultimately be good people? And since so many parents in the world ARE kind and caring and responsible, I got really tired of not seeing them represented in a genre where it's SO important for them to be there. So I purposefully made the parents care about curfew and limits and chores and boundaries. (Especially since I'm a parent myself, and I really, really don't want my readers to think I'm a bad parent if I write adults that way!)

    Anyway, this is all true, and important, and we (authors and parents) need to have more discussions about this! There are many series that I honestly feel should be taken out of the YA market, and YA fic needs to go back to how it was (in these matters) 20-30 years ago!

    1. Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment, Daley! I especially like your point about putting good parents in fiction. It's so sad to me how absent they are in novels....And how it's not address that their absence may be the cause of how misguided the characters are. Or maybe the parents are present and they're completely horrible. It'd be nice for fiction to show more good family dynamics. So go you, putting awesome parents in your writing! *high five*

      I haven't read the two books you listed, but I'll add them to my TBR shelf.

  2. Maybe because I'm a grandma and was raised not only doing chores but working to supply for the needs of my family, I have a different view than some younger folks. I was consistently taught respect, consideration and strong Christian values, and I cringe when I read some of the things written for today's youth. I appreciate your views and totally agree with you. My MG and YA books reflect my values and I wonder will teens like them because of this. I guess I will find out.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this post, Martha! It sounds like we had a similar upbringing (though we're of different generations). It's neat how the values our parents worked so hard to instill in us ended up influencing how we view fiction. And the world in general, of course.

      I'm so excited to meet another writer who is working hard to create wholesome books for teens! Go you.

  3. Several of us teen and young adult authors and readers have banded together to create a movement called #RebelliousWriting, speaking out against these same topics. Please check out this post here for more details:


    1. *gasps* I love this concept, Catherine! I'm absolutely going to start using this hashtag. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I HATE when YA doesn't take teens seriously! That's exactly what this type of 'edgy' stuff does. The writers pretend that they're treating teens as grown up by having them do that stuff, when really they're belittling them by not taking those topics seriously.

    Problem #3 is the worst, especially when it relates to 'strong female characters.'
    Writers: "If you want to be STRONG, you have to be CONFIDANT in your SEXUALITY"
    Me: *shoves Jane Eyre in their direction*

    Also, were you complaining about Divergent in that point? If so, that makes me happy.

    1. Right? It's incredibly degrading. If the purpose of edgy YA is to show that teens are capable of handling grown up topics, then authors need to handle those topics in a grown up way.

      *facepalm* The fact that Strong Female has become closely linked to Sexy Female is disturbing to me, too. And yes, I was poking fun at Divergent in that point. Glad you appreciated it. =D

      Thanks for the comment, Justice!

  5. I agree with your points. I'd like to see more YA authors focus on bringing redemptive Truth to their readers. Certainly, they can be edgy. Life is. But spiritual Truth is crucial.

  6. I think these are problems also seen in adult fiction, honestly. Dark and bad things happening to characters are just for our personal entertainment and it makes me feel a litle sick inside. It's the Roman colosseum all over again.

  7. THANK YOU FOR THIS!!!! Oh my goodness, I've lost track of how many times I've ranted to my husband about a YA novel that started out with promise then crashed because of one or another of these issues! ESPECIALLY the sex/drugs/abuse thing. I'm so tired of our youth being bombarded with these subjects and being treated like they're freaks if they're not being edgy enough or have enough darkness in their lives to be considered 'cool'. How is it 'cool' to have that kind of ugliness as a part of your daily life? This post was very refreshing to read, thank you so much!

  8. These are all great points! I definitely think that stories can have a place for dark subjects and things, but there must be a balance and a boundary.

    I also hate how YA characters who don't want to make trouble are seen as boring and needing to be forced to "have fun." Actions have consequences—even if it's as simple as being grounded for breaking a rule—and I feel like books in general don't often explore that aspect of why a character might not want to be rule-breaker or do bad things. The default is that they're boring and need to get a life.

    Again, this was a really great and thought-provoking post! :)

  9. I feel exactly the same. Pretty much ever since Twilight "every" young person wants a book just like it, and so writers try and go in that direction just to appeal to that request. While this of course is definitely not the truth, I'm still pretty annoyed by this genre, especially of course the suicidal ones.
    It's one of those that while must have reality to the story it mustn't try to make it depressing or too sad. You know what I mean?

  10. Yes, yes, and yes to all of this!! It especially bothers me that teens are portrayed that way in books when a lot of the teenagers I've met are not like that... at all. I don't know where they got this idea that ALL teenagers are edgy and rebellious and don't care about anything.

    I was in a class with this girl who was intimidating at first because she seemed so disinterested in everything, so I pegged her as the typical bored teenager who is addicted to their phone. But once I actually started talking to her, she was one of the nicest people I've ever met, and I found that she was in cheerleading, loves food, is mixed-race, and wants to be a surgeon. If that doesn't give you character inspiration, I don't know what would. Respectful, polite, caring teenagers in YA fiction need to be more of a thing.

  11. I once read a YA fantasy about a Christian girl who was unwittingly summoning a vengeful spirit to kill anyone who threatened her virtue. Since she wasn't doing it on purpose, she couldn't really be portrayed as a villain, but the author was doing their very best to push the message that chastity is unnatural and leaves you with all sorts of repressed emotions that make you a danger to every one around you.
    The frequency of teenage sex in YA novels is I believe partially responsible for the frequency of teenage sex in real life. Kids read these books and get the impression that this is what all the cool kids are doing so I better do it too. One good character struggling with this problem and deciding not to have sex could inspire a lot of real girls and boys to keep their self respect and wait for someone who really deserves them.

  12. Thank you. Thank you thank you. Especially for #3. I love how you said, "Chastity takes self-control and strong moral character." I always laugh when I hear people say "religion" is for weak people. There's nothing weak about going against peer pressure and saying "no" in the present when emotionally and physically you really want to say "yes," but you say "no" anyway because you're trusting in God's future best. Both my husband and I waited until marriage and neither of us has ever regretted it or questioned "what if" or wondered if we missed out (we just celebrated 17 years last month). That might be TMI, but perhaps it will encourage anyone young reading these comments. There's a blessing in the waiting.


    1. Hi Laurie! Late response here (so sorry!), but I just have to say:

      Totally not TMI. I LOVED hearing about your story. I think it's super important for other people (especially young people) to hear this. Congrats on 17 years! That is a huge deal.

      Thank you so much for the great comment!

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  14. What a brilliant post, and so needed to be addressed. I agree with every point that you have made, and I can probably guess all of the books which you were thinking of as examples when you wrote this. Unfortunately there are far too many good writers who do these things, and then those books become best sellers. I was heart broken when one of my favourite authors started a new series a few years ago which contained horror, mental abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, hardened characters where very few of them acted or felt in a normal way (despite horrible things happening). The result was that after the first book I resolved not to buy any more of the series. The books with this type of content is now called New Adult, which is supposedly for 17+, but are still published by children's publishing houses and sit in the children and teenage sections of book stores and libraries.

    That rant being over, there is one other point that I think could be added: religious belief and following (or trying to) a better way in life is deluded and superstitious. If the character is a female who also is a virgin and is happy to stay that way, many book reviewers brand her as Mary-Sue (aka, boring character). In addition, when characters are in the thick of some life and death situation, there is some deep POV that there's no point in praying to god(s) because they either don't exist, don't answer prayers or don't care. I'm sick to death of reading this! In YA paranormal/ angel type fiction, the hero (dark haired/ eyed/ brooding etc) is an agent of some dark force; and guess what? They heroine chooses the darkness because of love. I am a practising Christian and it frustrates me no end when authors twist goodness into being boring or controlling, and wickedness is reduced to just a little bit bad or misunderstood.

    I love YA fiction, but I with more authors would be more respectful of 'old fashioned' values and beliefs.

  15. This is superb, and really uplifting for someone who had lost hope in the genre. As a child, the abundance the kind of fiction you have described almost made me scared to become a teenager, and pushed me away from that end of the library (although it did help me discover a few classics on the other shelves!). I think problems #2 and #5 especially were contributors towards this, so it's good to see them being called out.
    Thanks for a great article, and maybe I'll give the genre another chance.


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