There’s a story motif that’s really popular in YA fiction, where certain individuals, usually ones who are underdogs in the beginning of the story. Their story kicks off the moment they find out they are somehow special, or chosen, have special powers. Harry Potter finds out he’s a wizard. Talia of the Valdemar books is chosen by the head companion magical white horse to be a Herald. They form a telepathic bond with a dragon, or some other animal, and become part of some order. A million other examples.
They discover they’re part of a special world and get taken away, and though there are bullies and selfish people just like everywhere else, they’re still special and get to do all these wonderful things. It’s a story structure that’s quite popular and successful, especially in YA fiction.
And I hate it.
It’s not that those books aren’t good, or even that I didn’t enjoy at least some of them. It’s just that, it seems a cop-out to make certain people randomly special, to pull them into the story. And I always think, what about the muggles? What about the one’s left behind? Do they get to do amazing things? What happened to the stories where a character wants to do something so badly, they will fight through anything? But if a Muggle wanted to do magic, they’d just kind of be screwed.
Anyway, I had this neat idea for a premise that I thought would be good for my next nanowrimo novel. It would be set in a world where people are bound to the earth in a magical way, so that if they go too far off the ground, they get sick. People wouldn’t live on second stories of buildings, or build towers. If a person was ill, the village doctor would prescribe a few nights sleeping on the bare grass. But every once is a while, there’s a person who isn’t earth-bound. In fact there’s an order of them, who fly aeroplanes. And of course, my main character wants nothing so badly as to fly, so of course it would turn out that she’s sky-bound. I had a fairly simple, standard YA novel plot to play with – nothing so complicated as usual, though, and I was looking over it for some twist to up the ante and make the plot got bang somewhere.
Then I realized what I’d done, and I hated it.
And I thought, well, what about the people who want just as badly to fly, but they’re earth-bound?
That was when I had my story.
I will be having some fun kicking around some tropes this November.
I’d be interested to see what you do with this dynamic in terms of a story arc. I can see that having someone who is Earth bound who wants to fly gives you the tension you need in your story pretty much straight away, but then how do you resolve the plot? How does your protagonist achieve their goal?(if you have them achieve their goal) without falling back on a kind of “deus ex machina” solution,which I am guessing would not satisfy you. So for example, a plot line which goes:
Protagonist wants to fly
Protagonist is earth bound and can’t fly
Protagonist is given magic potion by kindly old witch (or similar)
Protagonist is now able to fly! Tada!
That doesn’t seem like the LK way to do anything at all.
So, as I said I’ll be intersted to see how you keep your “ordinary” protagonist from becoming artifically special.
Yeah, no, that’s not how the story is going to go at all. The MC is actually going to be skybound, otherwise all that theme stuff would come out in your face right at the front of the book, rather than letting me sneak up on the reader.
I’m curious as to how this works. You wrote about this somewhere else (the email list?) and at the time I thought – but how is she ordinary if she’s skybound and wants to fly. Isn’t she then one of the special ones?
The main character will be one of the special ones. She will make a friend though, who’s also skybound, but who has a twin sister who is earthbound, but who would like to fly. Then later, she will end up discovering that her instructor also has a sister who was earthbound, but who stole a device from Onesky, the pilot organization, that prevented her from experiencing skysickness, and then was banished when she was found out, and joined the sky pirates. The sky pirates usea a drug to suppress skysickness so that they can still fly, but they are comprised of rejects from Onesky, and aspiring pilots who happen to be earthbound. The main character will end up doing some soul searching, to decide how she feels about all of it. There will be some slower development of that theme, and I don’t want to give the plot away entirely, since the climax of that subplot is intended to be a major surprise at the end.
It sounds like an interesting story. I don’t have an issue with the trope per se, but I do like a story which explores issues of social justice and diversity, and questioning the status quo.
But Lindsay, I am the Special Snowflake! Oh wait…I melted. Now I’m just another drop of water. I hate it when that happens…
Slightly more seriously, this raises the very old question in the movie ‘THE INCREDIBLES’ and elsewhere, Is EVERYBODY special? And does everybody being special actually mean NOBODY is special? Destiny or decision, or a bit of both?
All of us had the luck, good or otherwise, to be born, to survive to one, two, three years and so on. My trilogy’s protagonist is partly chosen by accident of lineage. The bad guys want a vital artefact his grandfather gave him. But he only finds that out later, after he has already embarked on a great expedition to pursue his dream of adventure. His push for adventure is stronger than the pull of family destiny until that point.
So your MC thinks she is Earthbound but later discovers she is really Skybound, but only after she has tried to fly anyway, and possibly been rejected by the Skybound Order?
Heh – no, my plots are generally far more complex than that – that plot is far too obvious for me.
The major theme is going to be that being special isn’t something you are, it’s something you do, and also that while some people face more challenges than others, being earthbound doesn’t mean a person doesn’t belong in the sky.
I plan to be exploring a lot of ideas of fairness, and whether or not we should accept the old adage “Life’s not fair.” The main character will be skybound, and thus have the chance to take the easy road and agree with the status quo, since it doesn’t negatively affect her, but of course her sense of fairness will make it difficult to ignore the inequalities around her when it affects the people she comes to care about.
I’d agree that this is a terribly common trope in YA. Two questions spring to mind for me: Why is it common? And why do you hate it?
In terms of why it’s common, I wonder to what extent it is an important part of (particularly middle class) children and teens processing their institutional experiences. They spend so much time grouped together with children their own age, treated impersonally and compared to the other children, and encouraged to compete and to believe their self worth depends on their results. A fantasy where someone comes along and says: ‘Hey, you’re actually important, and individual, and if we must compare you, you kick arse in more important ways than your school grades or whether your friends are popular’ is going to be pretty attractive. And I don’t think that it’s necessarily unhealthy when you look at that context. The attraction of this is not that you believe you are a beautiful and unique snowflake, the attraction is that you fear you are the opposite, and it would be nice to believe that there is a place for you and you’re wanted.
It’s like that scene in The Matrix where Neo is plugged into the machine and suddenly he says: ‘I know Kung Fu’. It’s fun precisely because learning skills in real life is not like this.
As for the second question, over to you…
It’s not that I hate the trope, actually, or even that I haven’t enjoyed reading books that use it. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, honestly.
It’s just that when I sit down to write something, and I see an over used thing, or even just a well used thing, I have a *need* to turn it on it’s head. To make people think about it a little differently, to make an observation about it and find a way to point that out to my own readers. I just can’t bring myself to settle into a path well trodden by those before me and not aspire to do something different with it, somehow.
And in this one, I want to say to young readers, “special” isn’t something you are, it’s something you do, and if your letter from Hogwarts never comes, don’t sit around waiting to be discovered, if they want something, they need to go chase their dreams themselves.
Good advice, Lindsay. Particularly if the young reader lives under a staircase like Harry did…
Indeed – can’t live under a staircase forever just because no one comes to take you by the hand and lead you out.