I was talking to another writer a while back and he said something that’s been sticking in my craw ever since. We were talking about a recent writing project of mine and he started asking some questions, the type of questions where you can tell someone is dancing around what they really want to say. Finally I managed to get that he liked the premise of the story but that it lacked an exceptional main character.
“That’s why people read fiction, to feel like they are special and exceptional, like the main character.”
This notion that everyone is exceptional, I used to see this every day when I worked in retail. It’s a variant of this idea that everyone feels they are entitled to things simply by virtue of their existence. It’s a very American stance, I’ve decided, and the more I thought about it the more I realized how both right and wrong this writer friend of my is.
The problem I have with this idea of the exceptional character in fiction is that a steady diet of this brings about a sort of literary malnutrition. Yes, given the choice, we might all want to have endless days of cake (or chocolate, or whatever your particular fancy may be) at every meal, but to do so would risk your physical health. Yet when it comes to reading or movies or television it seems, according to this friend of mine, that we would desire nothing less than a main character who is exceptional, able to overcome all obstacles, save the day, and with whom we need to identify with in order to not feel cheated.
And now I finally understand what bothers me most about a lot of middle grade books and a great deal of genre fiction in general I’ve read lately. I realize that’s a fairly wide brush I’m wielding, and it includes a lot of sacred cows for some people, but on the whole there are way more books out there that are feeding young readers with the literary equivalent of chocolate cake for no other reason than the fact that it sells. Well, naturally, if you asked your average teen or tween if they wanted broccoli or ice cream for every meal how many would and how often would they choose the broccoli?
It’s no surprise that superhero movies are the mainstay of the industry right now because we have grown culturally inured to this idea that unless our main character has superhuman strength or intellect then we are somehow being given an inferior product. Even in “realistic” stories where an amnesic spy is on the run for his or her life they must be able to perform at a punishing level of abuse no human could endure. And so it is with books for children and young adults, where the hope of the world rests on a group of teens (exceptional wizards at that) to battle the ultimate evil in order to save mankind. Or it becomes the tale of adolescence viewed through the skewered lens of a bunch of teens who discover they are the offspring of Greek gods. Or that the ultimate sign of devotion is the one that waits hundreds of years and uses their vampiric strength to fight for your love.
Gone are the stories of kids behaving like kids. These are the “quiet” stories agents and editors reject because they know it is an uphill battle against a marketing department charged with finding the next flavor of excitement that generates quick sales. Like an addiction where the pain of withdrawal can only be erased with greater and greater doses of the chemical of choice, any fiction now requires heroes of increasing peril and impossibly raised stakes. Zuckerman’s Famous Pig would require more than a trio of words gingerly woven into a web to save his bacon today, he’d need to be saved from the sluices of the meat-packing plant with a last-minute rescue and a Rube Goldberg series of actions orchestrated by a spider in order to survive publishing today.
Perhaps this is why adults have been drawn to YA literature lately. Regular fiction, with stories about people (and animals) dealing with the heroic struggles of everyday life, pales in comparison alongside glittery vampires and futuristic games where children battle each other to the death. But what of the generation of young adults coming up? Having been feed a steady diet of action adventure and having their every literary whim filled will they continue to expect that of their adult reading? Will we see an ever-increasing level of fantasy infused in every successful fiction that is published?
Personally, I reject this idea that a main character must be exceptional to be accepted. This same writer friend, when I offered this counter-statement, warned me I might have a difficult time getting published if I didn’t acquiesce in some way.
I hope in the end I’m right and he’s wrong.