Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Is it Necessary to Sexualize Characters in YA Fiction?

Over the last couple days I've seen some comments on Tumblr and elsewhere around the writing world regarding character descriptions. One comment that sticks out in my mind says something along the lines of, "Why do we have to be told if characters are hot or ugly?"

I don't remember the specific details of this person's comment (I've tried finding them again, but with no success), but they went on to say stuff like, "Authors feel the need to say nerdy girls aren't as attractive as popular girls," and "the bad boys are always hot, but the good guys are always geeky and gross." At the end of their comment, they said, "I wish we weren't told how attractive characters are, but just describe what they look like and we'll decide from there."

Let's be honest. Not all authors are guilty of this...but there's something to be said about popular books, particularly books that appeal to teen girls -- and women in general. This could also explain why there are nearly twice as many girls who read than boys.

Think about the last book you read? Chances are, if the main character was a female, there's plenty of description about how hot a guy she meets is, or how sexy Brad-the-football-captain is. You know, descriptions about his arms, chest, legs, and even face. If they hold hands or touch at any point, the FMC probably talks about how firm, yet gentle his grip is.

I'm right, aren't I?

Now let's think about male narrators. (Male narrators? That's an outrage! We need strong female main characters!) Moving my experience reading books like An Abundance of Katherines, 13 Reasons Why, It's Kind of a Funny Story, and a few others, we're told how cute this one girl is, how hot this other girl is, how big this girl's breasts are, how plump this girls lips are...the list goes on and on.

Point is: both genders are guilty of sexualization.

I bet you haven't seen WordArt since the 5th grade.

Let's think about the comments I mentioned above. Why is there a tendency for describe what makes a character attractive? Simple: it should make the character appeal to readers. But think about it: unless you're writing 50 Shades of Gray, is it really necessary to know how hot or ugly a character is? Does it have to be explicitly said, "He's soooo hot, and his muscular biceps are soooo dreamy." (As you can tell, I don't write erotica). Going further, is it necessary to say, "She has the perkiest boobs I've ever seen."

You can argue that these kinds of descriptions are necessary to characterize the main character, that these kinds of thoughts go through people's heads all the time. You'd be right. These thoughts do go through people's heads.

Stay with me.

When it comes to YA fiction, there's a fine line between what's okay, and what's not okay. But in order to determine those, we have to draw a distinct line between contemporary YA fiction and genre YA fiction. I'm defining genre YA fiction as fantasy, science-fiction, paranormal, magical realism, etc etc.

Contemporary YA Fiction
Ex. The Fault in Our Stars, 13 Reasons Why, If I Stay, Fangirl, It's Kind of a Funny Story, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Looking for Alaska, Eleanor & Park

I think it's easy to say contemporary YA has the longest leash when it comes to sexually explicit material and descriptions. These are stories about realistic teenagers living teenager lives, doing teenager things and thinking teenager thoughts. Thus, we're going to see a lot of description about how hot girls are, how muscular guys are, how sensitive guys are, how soft a girl's breasts are...

You get my point.

This genre of YA...this style of writing can get away with that. It's gritty. It's realistic. The readers can immediately relate to the characters because they act like normal teenagers. Perhaps you've even been to the town the character lives in, like the same books, adore the same celebrities. That's the point of contemporary YA: to show you're not alone, and to explore issues revolving around what being a teenager is like.

In my opinion, the sexualization presented in contemporary YA books is okay and normal. Don't go overboard, but if a teenager can think it, it will show up.

Genre YA Fiction
Ex. Divergent, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Eragon, City of Bones, The Maze Runner, Twilight, Matched, Delirium

This is where the line gets drawn. We have to define what is and isn't appropriate for books in these genres. It's a dangerous line that authors must cross carefully.

When it comes to genre fiction, readers aren't coming into the book expecting to read a girl's love life in Small Town, USA. We want an adventure. We want action. We want run-down cities and exotic planets. We want cool guns and serums and magic and death and zombies and monsters and vampires (well, we're getting bored of that).

The point is, we want to escape into a world we can only imagine that will eventually look good on the big screen.

Inevitably, there's a romance brewing in these books. And inevitably, we get to see one character's intimate thoughts about another character. The author, however, has to be careful. Remember, most of us didn't come here for the gushy-gushy makeout session. Most of us are strictly focused on the plot, and we're analyzing how everything that affects the plot.

So when the girl meets the hot guy, we don't want to be bombarded with physical descriptions about the attractiveness of said guy -- usually. It's okay to toss them in there. But remember: in genre fiction, plot is essential.

I recently read a book where the main character -- a girl -- met a literal beast of a man, and all she talked about from there-on-out was how golden his skin was and how wavy his hair was and how warm his chest was, and how big...well...use your imagination.


Now, maybe it's just because I'm a guy and I don't care about how hot that dream-guy was. But when those physical descriptions started taking over, I started losing interest. Descriptions about how hot this dude was were on every. Other. Page. It took me out of the story, and I ended up glossing through the rest.

Let's return to the original comment at the top of this post: "I wish we weren't told how attractive characters are, but just describe what they look like and we'll decide from there."

I, for one, agree with this statement -- but really only for genre fiction. Contemporary can go do whatever it wants. But whether I'm reading a dystopian novel, a paranormal novel, or a speculative fiction novel, I don't care how hot that girl is or how muscular that guy is, and I think a lot of people feel the same way.

We want to read about the world and events and figure out how the characters will overcome the problems. So create that world, ignite those problems, and develop those characters. Don't give us cardboard cut-outs. Give us human beings (or whatever species your characters are).

Here's a tip: tell us what the characters look like. Hair color, height, if they wear glasses, if they stutter. But don't go to Build-a-Hunk™ and start explaining how hot and sexual this character is. We, as readers, don't want to see your late-night bedroom fantasies.

It's creepy.

Yes, even creepier than Bronies.
So should authors keep it simple? Should genre YA fiction be limited more toward unique traits and features, rather than a fictional Hot-or-Not? Let me know what you think in the comments. Personally, it's okay to toss in a pinch of spice, but don't make it too hot.

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  1. Couldn't agree more! There are few things that frustrate me as much as characters constantly thinking about how hot another character is. And I understand deep POV and can see how you could want to describe a character as your POV character sees them, but enough is enough. We don't need to be told how dreamy so-and-so is every other page! I'd much rather read a fairly unbiased description of the character that allows me to decide what I think.

    1. Hey Gillian!

      Yup. It just gets annoying, doesn't it? You aren't showing your skill as an author; you're just to consumed with personal fantasies and somehow getting them published XD writing needs to enrich the readers, not plaster them with who's hot and who's not.

      That's why I think plain old description is effective. It lets the readers picture whoever they want, really, without being in-your-face.

  2. Interesting take on it. I would argue that contemporary YA would benefit from having more of the "plot focus" that defines genre, and that genre might be able to stand an injection of character believability that it occasionally now overlooks...that it's more of a spectrum, and not the hard dichotomy you've outlined.

    Actually, I think that all books would benefit from showing the reader what they should be attracted/attentive to (because that's what this kind of description is--notice this guy/gal, he/she is important!), from practicing appropriate subtlety...the more I think about it, the more the "Contemporary can do what it wants because it's contemporary" argument starts to sound a little like "Kid's entertainment doesn't have to be good or intelligent, because it's for kids," but I don't think that's what you intended.

    1. *showing as opposed to telling then "PAY ATTENTION, SHE'S HOT", got lost in my own overly convoluted sentence structure there. Apologies.

    2. Hey Miri,

      Yeah, I think I know what you're saying. I agree that much of contemporary YA is goofy in regards to believability, and that sexualization is the *only* thing in contemp.

      It's a hard thing to balance. A lot of contemporary focuses around many events of a teens life that don't directly relate to a single plot point, except to teach the character something each step of the way, whereas in genre YA, everything tends to be connected.

      There's definitely room for more "in the head" stuff in genre fiction. It can work -- to an extent. "Divergent" pulled it off, I think mostly because there wasn't a love triangle. The series got sloppier as it went (in my opinion) and the Tris/Four relationship got messy with it, in an unnecessary way.

      As for more plot in contemporary YA...I definitely get what you mean, but I'm not sure if it *should* have more plot structure in it. As I stated above, contemp usually goes through multiple facets of the teen's life to teach him/her something at every step, and it works well for that side of YA.

    3. That first line should say: "I agree that much of of contemporary YA is goofy in regards to believability, and that sexualization ISN'T the *only* thing in contemp."

  3. Lol, Build-a-Hunk XD
    I agree completely. In my head, the personality shapes how the character looks. You could have identical twins that are described the same way but their different personalities will make me picture them differently.
    So sure, just me the hair and eyes and height and let my brain do the talking. I have an imagination and I'd like to use it!

    1. Yup, readers a smart creatures. Their brains are movie theatres, so let us judge the characters. Don't do the work for us XD

  4. Even though the genre I write is considered a sub-genre of romance, I agree with this. Of course, in my genre, characters need to be attracted to each other, but much of the time these descriptions are overdone, especially in the genres you mentioned.
    I actually stopped reading YA many years ago because I was sick and tired of a lot of the junk that was in that genre.

    1. It doesn't bother me too much when it's in contemporary YA, as I said, but when it comes to genre, there's definitely a such thing as too much.

  5. I steer clear of a lot of YA fiction because of this. And one of the reasons I didn't put the Hunger Games down when all the kissing started was because Katniss wasn't fantasizing about the next one. Or Peeta's body parts.

    Even in contemporary YA, I understand the importance of realism. On the other hand, people "realistically" think thoughts on a lot of other topics that would be taboo to write out. So why is that particular area free for all? I think a little more restraint would be nice across the board. Even in character (rather than plot) centered stories.

  6. What's your opinion on it in action/adventure? I predominantly write action/adventure, and it takes place in the modern world and is realistic, but it is still plot- and action-based. I personally don't write sexualization regardless of genre, but I'm curious to see your opinion.

    1. Action/adventure is in the genre YA section :) One of those things where I think it should be plot/characterization first, character attractiveness and personal sensual thoughts last. It's okay in snippets here and there, but I wouldn't wander too far.

  7. Love this post! I think the sexulization could be lessened across the board, even in contemporary. Though, to be fair, that might not be entirely true to the teenagers of today. It's just my opinion.
    Rick Riordan, I think, does really well with keeping the action going and not overdoing the romance. Seriously, his Heroes of Olympus is great, overflowing with action and just a sprinkle of romance tossed in.
    I also really like The Lunar Chronicles. I've the read the first two books and there is a lot of romance, but I don't feel like it takes over the plot.

    Alexa S. Winters

  8. Great. Post.

    And yes, the last book I read (The Selection) did have several instances where the MC described a guy as hot, or talked about his muscles, etc..

    I agree with the folks above that I wouldn't mind seeing less sexualization across the board, but that's because I can't relate to swooning or any of that. I am not ready for romance yet, so I don't go there. This is probably why I don't really like reading romance, and it's exactly why I don't read a lot of contemporary YA. Plot and story appeal to me much more, like you said.

  9. Really good post. Honestly one of the reasons why I don't really read or watch contemporary is those kind of over-sexual thoughts and lines get on my nerves. I like big plots and a dash of romance. Not one long romance about two people being goo-goo-eyed with each other the whole. Bloody. Time. I mean if you describe a guy or girl in a certain way you'll get that they are more or less attractive. Going overboard just gets old and awkward. TMI.

    Stori Tori's Blog

  10. Great post! So good I've linked back to this on a book review on my blog, just to let you know. :]

    1. Haha thank you! Checking it out right now :)

  11. I read a contemporary YA fiction recently and it described a normal high school with a dozen "dreamy, Greek god" guys with "bulging muscles." How is that normal?? Or did I just got to the wrong high school? I'm with you, though. I don't mind being told once how the POV character visually sees someone, but they'll lose me with page after page of sexualized descriptions.