I know any time you make sweeping generalizations about any group, there are bound to be exceptions. But there’s been a recent, damn-near unavoidable surge in a very specific type of fiction in both movies and books: one “special” character becomes hero to an unlikely dystopian community.
I don’t know if I can name all of the recent entries we have: Harry Potter arguably sparked the trend, though with the added elements of wizardry (and it’s probably not quite a dystopia… but as I can see it, there’s been some crappy governance in Narnia, or wherever it takes place), followed by Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver (though this one also preceded all of them), Ender’s Game (also an older novel), and, most recently, The Maze Runner (which I just saw today, as you probably guessed). There are doubtlessly entries that I missed that fall into this category. There are others that are older that probably technically qualify, but which at the time of their writing were not part of a overwhelming trend (such as Star Wars) . But I have noticed a trend in the YA fiction of our current generation. The fact that I generally enjoyed The Maze Runner only made more clear the fact that even well-done versions of this genre exhibit this one trait. So ok, here it is:
They make the general population of characters dumb and unrealistic so that the main character can seem both special AND relatable at the same time.
I had chalked up the bad decisions and baffling attitudes of side characters in past movies as shoddy writing or “because plot.” But after seeing this pattern play out time and again, I’ve come to the realization (I’m slow on the uptake) that this has all been intentional.
This is the quandary facing YA authors: to have a hit, kids need to want to read your book. The best way to get kids to want to read your book is for your book to tell them, “It’s ok that you feel different. You’re not a weirdo. You’re special. You’re the most specialest, in fact.” Because I know, for fact, that I felt like a freak when I was 13. I remember telling people or writing on my Xanga profile that I’m “probably the weirdest person you will meet.” And then I read that same exact statement on hundreds of blog/social network profiles. It’s a strange moment, because you think, “Lexi, you’re not that weird. You’re not like me weird.” But you know what? Everyone’s probably read my profile and thought the same thing (or they thought “Yeah… that chick’s pretty weird.” Because honestly, I walk around talking to myself).
So you have just tons of kids like me and Lexi and Edwin and Eric and Chiann who all think they’re the weirdest one. We’ve all been picked on our entire lives – so clearly it must be because we’re weird, right? And the authors of these books – who knows. Maybe they felt like us and they’re really sympathetic to us. Maybe they just know that kids like us are the ones that read. No matter how it came about, these authors grew up and thought, “Lots of kids think they’re just the weirdest person on the planet. How can I flatter them based on that?” Well, by having your super-awesome, world-saving protagonist go against the grain and finally attain the recognition he/she deserves!!!!
But if society is practically composed of “weird kids,” weird is the norm – thus the quandary: how do you make your protagonist “weird” but do things normal people do?
Aha! I’ve got it!!! NONE of the other characters can do what normal people do!
Let’s take a look at some of the degenerates of society that these movies would have us believe are actually the “normal” ones that weird kids like you and me need to fight against:
1. The “District 1-ers”
I don’t even know the names of the individuals in this group, but they’re more like a single unit anyways, so I’m just going to call them the District 1-ers (although yes, I know District 2-ers are included in this). Their core traits: sadistic, self-centered, self-serving, eager for violence, egotistical alpha-types.
When you’re a shy, quiet book nerd, it’s easy to think that the majority of humanity are all like the bully that stole our lunch money. In fact, it’s pretty much biologically wired into us to dwell on the negative, so we are totally more likely to exaggerate the prevalence of negative qualities during our private musings. And to be clear, those attitudes are presented as the majority, since everyone in the Capitol watches the carnage without an ounce of guilt.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but my general experience with humans during my stay on this planet has been fairly positive. Of course terrible people have and continue to exist. And of course people fall prey more easily than we’d expect to mass hysteria, minority-blaming, and general douche-baggery than anyone would hope. But I dare say that although I recognize that in several countries shitty behavior continues to prevail, I also recognize that those extremes are being progressively stamped out. Enough people in enough countries have come to recognize that institutionalized crimes against humanity are shameful that change is possible, probable – and I believe we’re the majority.
My point is this: Katniss is presented as special and heroic because she generally refuses to kill, especially her friends, even if it means being killed. I argue, though, that most people would refuse to kill their friends. Most people would refuse to kill their enemies. Most people would find it incredibly difficult to kill at all – which would explain why so many soldiers can’t bring themselves to kill even enemies. It’s against our nature, since our nature – by coincidence or by design – is to replicate/spread the genes of our species.
2. All Non-Divergents (although yes, the above picture depicts one self-identified “divergent.”)
In the world of divergent, everyone fits nicely into one of… a specific number of categories. There’s… a name for people that are altruistic (uh… I think they were “Hippies” or something), people that were smarter than you (Wait! I know this one! “Erudite… brainy lady” – Thanks Flight of the Conchords!), ummm… people… that were…. I don’t know. Katniss- I mean… Beatrice chooses the one that any teenager would choose: the meathead group that does parkour.
But gasp! What makes Beatrice special is that SHE has *double gasp!* MORE THAN ONE QUALITY! She is brave AND smart AND kind. What ever will she do with all these virtues!
Here’s the thing, though: literally everyone in the real world is three-dimensional. I mean honestly, everyone has more than one defining quality, and what those defining qualities are often shift depending on who you ask. Parents would generally say “My kid was the smartest kid ever. He/she learned to talk/walk/hold a crayon so much faster than that other, dumb baby” (unless they’re honest and tell you that you were the dumb baby). A teacher, though? A teacher might say, “Oh, John? Meh.”
Now back to the premise of this rant: side characters are reduced or dumbed down to emphasize the specialness of the protagonist. In Divergent, for example, Miles Teller and the Neo Nazi/Emo Punkster wanna be are both of the Dauntless variety. Meaning that they can’t also be smart or kind or funny or very human in general. They’re ass hats, and they remain so for the duration of the movie because plot – even when their allegiances are proven wrong.
So Tris, like literally the entire audience, has more than one quality, but literally everyone in the audience is made to feel special because if Mr. Fantastic and Good Charlotte are one-dimensional butt-holes then being a fully-fleshed person must be rare!
3. And most recently, The Maze Runner:
Literally, at one point in the movie, the black leader kid says to the white protagonist kid, “You’re different. You’re curious.”
“HOLY CRAP! I – THE AUDIENCE MEMBER – AM CURIOUS TOO!!! I’M LIKE THOMAS. I’M SPECIAL! THIS MOVIE GETS ME!”
-the response studios hope to elicit
Most characters are simply content to farm or whack at trees while sleeping in hammocks and not at all curious about why they’re obviously in the middle of a man-made puzzle and supplied by an obviously intelligent and present mysterious source. But Thomas – well, Thomas possesses a rare quality amongst you humans: curiosity. Oh, and he’s smarter and more capable than the other characters, too. But, I argue, he’s as smart as the general audience, because he’s solving things that the audience would probably be able to solve (so that we can feel good about ourselves, you see), but they’re just puzzling enough that it’d take a little effort on our part (so that it feels like no one else can make the phenomenal logical leap we just did). This means that really, he’s about average, and everyone else in the movie is a little less than that.
For example, the main d-bag is named Big Dumb Dumb-Face (hey, I didn’t name the characters). BDDF takes every random occurrence to be all “Thomas is bad! I’m a beta male, and he might take my spot!” For example, the first girl ever arrives in the little community, and he actually says, “The second you arrived here, everything started going wrong! *This one bad accident happened* *This other unusual bad thing happened* AND A GIRL ARRIVED!” Meanwhile, Thomas is all, “Whoa, bro. Let’s take a second to think this through…” I motion that most of us would probably say the same thing. (Actually, most of us would probably be all, “Having a girl around is a bad thing?! It’s about time we had someone who could make a proper sandwich!”)
And BDDF continues to live up to his name right up until the end of the movie. He has literally no redeeming quality. Thomas breaks a rule to save his friends (he goes into the maze). BDDF’s first act in the movie was to break a rule (he hurts another “glader.”) Yet Thomas, who was altruistic, must be punished, while sadism is totally fine.
Now, I’ve met meatheads. I will say, though, that in defense of humanity: most people would never follow a meathead. Most people have the common sense to say, “This guy is an idiot. Let’s not listen to him.” or “Hey… he might be bigger and stronger than me… but he’s bigger and stronger than Thomas, and Thomas beat him! Let’s follow Thomas!”
I don’t know if this type of pandering is exactly “harmful” – but it certainly seems damaging to me to teach people that everyone else is a moron because there can only be one special person in the world, saving the day. In reality, it’s groups of people to make change over a number of days.
Now, I mentioned Star Wars earlier, and it’s true: countless movies have a “one” or “special” person. Heck, The Lego Movie specifically parodied that trope. But not all movies try to convince you that qualities you share with literally 80% of the general population are what make you special.
Luke Skywalker, for example, wasn’t “the chosen one” because he cared about his friends and was nice and optimistic and had just enough personality that we could like him but just little enough that we could still project onto him. He was “the chosen one” because though he was otherwise normal and unassuming, he legitimately had a quality others aren’t born with: the Force was with him. Also, he could bullseye womp rats in his T-16, and they aren’t much bigger than 2 meters. Nor did Luke Skywalker ever save the day alone. A lot of times, he wasn’t even the commander. And enough times, Han Solor or Leia did just as much or even pulled more weight.
Or in Ender’s Game; Ender wasn’t special for being like everyone in the audience. He was legitimately depicted as being smarter than you or me. And even he didn’t do it all alone. He had Bean, Petra, and the Indian kid to help him out.
All I’m saying is, telling people that being smart or having common sense or caring about your friends is rare will only serve to make the young and impressionable think that they’re right and, more importantly, everyone else is wrong. Because every one else is normal, and normal just isn’t the guy or girl that will save the day.