Books are an amazing source of life lessons and love advice, so why don’t we learn from them? Esmée will recount to you what she has learned and what you should keep in mind while finding your way through the obstacle course that is life.
I’m just going to say it. I’m done with YA anti-heroes. It seems like every book I pick up lately is filled with one-dimensional ‘conflicted’ heroes, all with an obligatory darkness inside them that they need to overcome. Maybe this is caused by an overdose on YA novels, but I keep on feeling I’m reading the same story over and over.
I just finished listening to the audiobook edition of The Young Elites by Marie Lu, which is the first installment in a trilogy about teens with magical abilities. It’s set in a fantasy Renaissance world which is really just Italy with a fancy name. A ‘blood fever’ has swept the different nations of the fantasy kingdom and the children who didn’t die from it were affected permanently. These children are all marked in some way. Their hair and eyelashes are different colors and they have strange markings on their faces. The realm calls these children malfettos, another fancy fantasy word for abomination. The realm believes that these children are a punishment from God and this belief is strengthened when some of the kids turn out to have special abilities like creating fire or controlling the weather. These special teens form a group called The Young Elites and together they fight against the corrupt King and Queen and the horrible Inquisition. Many readers call it Assassins Creed meets The X-men.
The Young Elites is getting crazy positive reviews on Goodreads, but when I finished the book all I could think was that I had read another one of those stories. The type of story where we follow around a girl – because somehow it’s always a girl – who we are supposed to believe is good, but only wants to do bad things. Think The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and Shatter Me. These books contain female lead characters who want to be part of the good guys, but have to deal with the dark urges inside of them. They all have these long inner monologues about how amazing it feels to be powerful and to be able to hurt others, but at the same time they cower in fear from their own evil ambitions and finally prove themselves by doing the right thing in the end. I’ve been seeing this as a trope for a while now, but trope-authority TV Tropes doesn’t seem to have a name for it yet, so I might be making it up. In that vein I’ve also come up with a name for these girls: Too Whiny to Be Evil. They don’t dare to give in to their dark side out of fear of losing the hunky good guy, but at the same time they find themselves so drawn to the hunky bad guy that being evil might also have it’s perks. These girls often think that they should be good, and the author wants us to believe that she’s the hero of our story, but nothing that they actually do makes us see that they are good people. We get to read so much whining on how being bad feels so right, that it completely overshadows the good part of these characters. To me, it then doesn’t make sense that in the end the good part of these girls wins out. These books just make the reader slog through the internal anguish of the heroine, even though we already know where she is going to end up, regardless of her actual feelings.
In The Young Elites this trope is embodied by Adelina Amouteru, a malfetto and a Young Elite. She can create life-like illusions and the more established Young Elites are scared of what Adelina will be able to do once she discovers the full capabilities of her powers. Adelina has a typical sad back-story. Her father treats her poorly and this, combined with the stigma of being a malfetto, is the only explanation we get for her evil streak. The book seems to say that it makes sense that she has these evil feelings and that they are just a product of her awful childhood. We should feel sorry for her, because she is a product of that horrible society. This doesn’t make sense when the book then blatantly tells us through a plot-device that Adelina’s characteristics are that she’s passionate, ambitious and has a strong interest in fear and fury. Adelina clearly has something dark inside of her, regardless of what has happened to her. Marie Lu herself also claims that she is a villain in the making, but then I wonder why we have to spend an entire novel on Adelina half-halfheartedly trying to be one the good guys.
Throughout the book she hones her skills and finds that she can make people think that they are experiencing the worst pain in their lives. She takes this so far that her illusions make someone’s heart bleed (don’t ask me how this works) and they die. Adelina gets an insane rush of power from this and really seems to enjoy hurting people. Reading about the immense pleasure she derives from pain makes it hard to see Adelina as a genuine anti-hero, but Marie Lu does keep writing her as one during this first installment. Even though our little, pretty Adelina overtly has the ambition to one day take over the kingdom and have everyone bow down before her, she’s also a teenager (and a cute one at that). So instead of enslaving a kingdom, she falls in love with a cute teenage boy and gets her heart broken. Just another great excuse to torture someone to death.
Adelina’s struggle between relishing in the power of darkness and thinking about trying to do the right thing annoyed me, because it was obvious that she clearly enjoys being evil. Adelina works as a villain, she already enjoys the suffering of others and tortures them with her illusions. She feels some sorrow afterward, but never seems all that guilt-ridden. She even tells herself that the people she hurt deserved it, so she’s not the one to blame. To me it came across much more like Adelina knew that being evil is a bad thing, something you shouldn’t want to be, but she doesn’t have any clear reason to actually believe this. The author does a lot of telling without showing, so we only hear from Adelina’s thoughts that she shouldn’t enjoy doing bad things, but she never supports this feeling through action. I simply did not understand why she would want to be good, if she was so clearly interested in being bad. Throughout the entire book Adelina doesn’t do anything that could be considered good and still we are meant to believe that she is one of the good guys. And when the good guys denounce her, why would we be surprised? She has never done anything to earn their trust. None of this leads me to believe that she is a good person and an interesting, complex character. Adelina, just turn evil already! Please become an interesting villain instead of a terrible anti-hero.
This whole rant about The Young Elites and whiny anti-heroines is a long-winded way of saying that I’m done reading about anti-heroes and conflicted villains that are only conflicted because they have to be. It’s one thing to create a complicated character, but it’s another to make a villain seem good, just to make them likable. I’ve been feeling like all the villains in YA fiction are all given a redeemable quality, something that can justify us liking them and shipping him/her with our beloved main character. Why do we need to like our villains or be able to fall in love with them? Not everyone is likable and creating a complex character might mean that you wouldn’t necessarily want to date that person. Sure, every villain needs his reasons to be evil, but I’m tired of first seeing them try to be good and then fall down to the dark side, just because no one was nice to them. Characters like Adelina are written to be evil, so stop pretending that they would want to be a hero.
So where is the advice in all this? First of all, let’s all stop writing the same story over and over. We’ve seen the one-dimensional characters, the love triangles and the message that love conquers all. I’ve read it, it’s been done and we can move on to something new. The non-authors can take this rant as the advice to be true to yourself. Don’t let conventions or other people tell you who you should be. Don’t change your personality based on what boy/girl would like you to be and maybe also don’t get involved in love triangles because they will always be complicated.