Young Adult Needs Better Adults (Or, Stop Trying to Imagine Justin Bieber in Briefs and Imagine Mr Clooney)

I would like to start this post off by reiterating the fact that I am a sixteen-year-old girl and was indeed born in the year of 1994. Just saying. Indeed, Zac Efron and Robert Pattinson are supposedly the heart throbs of my generation. I am here to tell you to look beyond the dishevelled youth (Except that new Spiderman. He's the sex.) *Clears throat* Hem hem.

I pose you this question: who was the last significant secondary adult character in a YA book who was as well-developed as other secondary adolescent character? Exactly.

For this post, I shall be focusing on male adult characters, as I find that I've encountered more of them as significant secondary characters than females as of late. (I apologise, this may be more getting to talk about older men I'm in love with than coherent writing talk)

So, first off, we're going to look at the 25 Under 25 from last year. The boys? Shia LaBeouf (who doesn't count because when was the last teenager he played besides Sam Witwicky?), Robert Pattinson (and the rest of the Twi-boys), Daniel Radcliffe (who's type-cast, the poor sod), Zac Efron (who I can't, personally, take seriously), Aaron Johnson (I have friends with manlier voices), Jaden Smith (who won't big a heart throb for another decade), Taylor Lautner (who is forever Shark Boy to me), Alex Pettyfer (click, but douchey), Michael Cera (also type-cast not as a character but as a type) and Jamie Bell (melt-worthy but...). So what have you got? Sure, there are other heart throbs out there, but looking at these guys, you've got a lot of washboard abs, effeminate voices, and illiterate douche-characters. But that's okay. For, it that's what the ladies want (and clearly that is what we're after. Though, I'm quite content dibsing Spidey Boy).

Now ask any female reader (you know, those voracious adolescent girls that hang out in the food court at the mall) why she likes her favourite male leads and she'll probably deliver some gushing, incoherent response teamed with a "he's so [adjective, probably one they wouldn't use in front of their mother] hot". So you can understand what the motive is for writers to create such heart-melting male protagonists are in YA (if not just to stare at Alex or Jamie for a while and calling it the Creative Process).

But hold the bloody phone.

When young men grow up, they become adult men, no? Therefore, is there some chance that an adult male character can be "[adjective] hot"? I say yes! For argument's sake, I'm classifying "adult" as 35+, and I honestly believe that there are men far older than that whose movies I'd be squealing over just as I would Alex Pettyfer's. So what's the hold up? Why isn't Male Hearthrob's Designated Older-Man Mentor allowed to be three-dimensional and interesting? Why can't he be the witty, deprecating one? I mean, we all watch TV shows with adult characters all the time and we treat them endearingly with secret longing. So why can't that cross over and trickle into YA? Why do I have to go hunting for wild boar in the brooooooad Fiction section of bookstores when I yearn for a good adult?

At the moment, I'm fairly certain that most YA adults look like Mr. Gibson to the left. Boring, proper, old. Not worth our reader's time in the slightest bit. I'm nearly 100% certain that someone has said at some time in the past two thousand years that a writer ought to make use of every ounce of space in their novel. Every scrap. So why do we see the faceless clone of the YA Adult everywhere? The Designated Older Man Mentor is another chance for the writer to show off, to develop the plot and the conflict further, to churn out another character. And for people who love characters, like me, this is imperative.

Of the few other writers I've spoken to about this, many of them defended this by saying that the reader doesn't care about this character, this character won't generate a following like my leading man will, and older men are unpopular. I mean what have you been smoking? Let me give an example. The singular most invigorating adult character I have ever come across was Prosper English from Catherine Jink's EVIL GENIUS books. In fact, he's in the top five non-Rowling-related characters I've ever come across. He is the only factor that kept me dedicated through the final instalment in the EVIL GENIUS series. I could see a man like Ralph Fiennes or even Kevin Spacey bringing this character alive, and even despite the physical description, Prosper sauntered off the page, hands tucked in his tailored trousers and posture faultless. He was conniving, witty, intriguing and he was an adult. And if you look at my other favourites, you have more adults. Sirius Black. Remus Lupin. Dustfinger (I had such a crush on Paul Bettany after that movie *fans self*).

Character development works best through situations and through interactions with others. The way an adult treats a main character or how they are treated shows a lot about both characters, so keep that in mind. When your teenager flips her parents off or your hero betrays his Designated Older Man Mentor, it reflects on them as well. Sometimes I feel that YA authors don't bear that in mind.

Now, onto motivation. I will tell you right now that the appearance of a character is a great factor in how dedicated I become to them. They don't have to be attractive, in fact, I'm find interesting looking people more appealing as characters. The thing I often like about adult characters in TV and movies is that they are quite capable of defying archetypes, whereas in youth-targeted material such a thing is often taboo.

I ask that you think of it, not just as writers but as readers, so that perhaps, if there is a need amongst the audience, someone talented and lucky will help satiate said need.

I'll list some examples of interesting adult characters, in hope that someone out there will understand my meaning in this incoherent, late night post. Stanley Tucci in The Devil Wears Prada or the father from Easy A, and possibly one of the greatest, most quirky men running around. David Tennant, our Doctor, who is filled with the most absurd facial expressions and accents, and who carries long-winded facts oddly well. Clive Owen, the type to both kill ruthlessly for MI6 and go parental (a la Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys) with his daughter's boy friend. Liam Neeson, who's so tank he doesn't need anything further. David Wenham, a classic Dad figure who could do a little Rufus Humphrey with his younger experiences and still be a kick-ass Spartan. Bill Nighy, who could run any paranormal-slash-totally-human boarding school you throw at him. Robert Downey Jr. as an adulterous, endearing mentor character. Gerald Butler, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Colin Firth (Did you SEE The King's Speech?), David Thewlis, Hugh god damn Laurie (Jesus, look at HIS character!), Sean Bean, Russell Crowe (!), Alan "My God" Rickman, Al Pacino (My favourite older man), Tim "Lie to Me" Roth, Nathan "Captain" Fillion, Gary Oldman, Johnny Depp, Ben Stiller, Bradley Cooper, Michael Caine, Leonardo Di Caprio, Rob Lowe, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, anyone from Band of Brothers but particularly Damien Lewis, Ian McKellen, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Colin Farrell, Ryan Gosling, Geoffrey Rush, David Caruso, Jeremy Irons, Kevin Costner etc.

It may essentially be a list of every good actor I could possibly think of, but it's also my attempt at proving my point. I'm hoping that all but three or four sparked a character in a particular movie or TV show for you. Someone memorable, someone adult. Just think of the amount of character in some of the roles that are hinted at here. I know it's wrong to some extent to use actors to talk about the fundamentals of character, but I'm trying to motivate you. Just think: you don't say "holy shit I want to see that movie because that kid who was on iCarly a couple times is in it", you might give a "oh, that looks okay". You don't wait or pre-order tickets because that kid who was in a couple of those famous adaptation films but not much else has a new movie coming out. No. You say "Oh, shit, I am going to see that new Russell Crowe film because it's a Russell Crowe film". You don't really say "I've got a video shop coupon so I'm going to get out that Michael Cera film because he's timeless". No, you substitute Clooney or Di Caprio, or McKellen into that sentence.

Adult characters have a greater chance at being believable and wholly interesting, at having experiences and know-how that your sixteen-year-old MC couldn't dream of. They hold insight and bad-arsery in their wrinkled fists. The only good thing about Eragon was Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich (ohmygodIdidn'tputJohnMalkovichinthatlist) and they didn't even break a sweat doing that film. You have a good chance at developing an awesome, memorable character who is capable of generating a following bigger than your MCs. Um, hello - Dumbledore much? And besides Seth, Sandy Cohen was the best thing about The OC. Everybody loves a good Dad joke that they can turn around in their lounge rooms and say: "Dad, seriously. You say that all the time". My friend Susie hasn't had a crush on a character younger than 40 since she was 12. I think that of my thousands upon thousands of celebrity crushes, well over 80% are men over the age of 35. You're targeting girls my age with YA. That's virtually what the definition of it is. So if we all go bonkers of Johnny Depp, what's the harm of including an oddball older character for the readers to melt over and quote from?

Well, now it's time to draw this to a close.

I'm not saying insert adult characters into situations where they are unnecessary. I'm saying that if you have an adult character, and they are vital to the progress of the novel, why do they have to have as much character as a Star Trek red shirt?

If that made any semblance of sense, I hope the message you got was a good one.


Aimee L Salter at: March 13, 2011 at 4:54 AM said...

Serious now: If you're only sixteen and you can write like that you need to get yourself an agent, like, now.

I'm 34 and I wish I was you.

Excellent post! (Not to mention, excellent point... my current WIP salutes you).

Michael Offutt at: March 13, 2011 at 6:40 AM said...

This is wonderful. As an adult male thank you thank you for calling out all the bullshit in novels these days. Just to add my two cents...the reason why I THINK the washboard ab teenage boys are so popular is because the writers putting pen to paper are sexually frustrated and are writing out their fantasy sexual interest. It's a strange phenomenon. I want to say, "Okay...I can tell what you would like to screw...err...I mean find interesting. But you know, there's older men that AHEM are YOUR AGE believe it or not, that are interesting. I know Madonna is 50 and has a 22 year old boyfriend...kudos for her. But what about the older guys that are kind, funloving, and still single because women their age want to write and fantasize over young men?

Christine Tyler at: March 13, 2011 at 7:10 AM said...

I think we share a few brain-cells.

Examples of why what you said is completely true:

JK Rowling didn't just give us Dumbledore, but a whole cast of drool-worthy adults. Marauders anyone? Holy cow, check out Deviantart and any writer can witness how many HP fans are in love with every adult from Remus Lupin to Lucius Malfoy! Although I've never seen Peter Pettigrew fan art persay...

I was royally disappointed when movie-Lupin was not the silver-tipped FOX I imagined him as in the books.

Amen to THAT, Sister.

Unless I completely missed your point. But...well, this is where my brain took it.

Michelle at: March 13, 2011 at 7:14 AM said...

This is so awesome. I don't even. I don't even know how to properly praise it. You nailed so much so well.

To Michael - I agree completely. Too many 30 somethings with too much unvented sexual frustration. I think the other problem is that are - like you said - washboards, with no real personality. I wouldn't them so much if they were real, flawed people, but the author makes them out to be mere vessels of sexual tension. Fail.

Madeline Bartos at: March 13, 2011 at 2:11 PM said...

Wow. A Johnny Depp oddball character. That would be fun. ;)

I absolutely love your point! It was something I've never ever even thought of. It makes perfect sense!

And I agree with you when you said that interesting looking people are always the most attractive.

I'm a teenage girl too, and the idea of squeeing over adults is more appealing than I thought. ;)

Elizabeth Twist at: March 13, 2011 at 5:15 PM said...

Great points! You have impeccable taste in actors!

Trisha at: March 13, 2011 at 8:12 PM said...

So many of those adults you listed are my dream men, SOOOOO sexy, way more so than pasty skinny tall dudes with, as you mentioned, effeminate voices. Oh, and creepy stalking habits. :D

Shooting Stars Mag at: March 14, 2011 at 3:46 PM said...

More adult characters that are AWESOME should be in books. I love the Harry Potter series and how the adults are just (and even more so sometimes) as interesting as the younger kids like Sirius Black and Remus Lupin and Severus Snape and on and on.

And you mentioned tons of amazing actors as well. I love Johnny Depp. I'd love a character in a book that HE could play.


Donna at: March 15, 2011 at 11:10 AM said...

Points for Band of Brothers. If that isn't a cast of sex, I don't know what it.

Happily Cheesy at: March 16, 2011 at 7:20 AM said...

Excellent. See, that's the kind of thinking that needs to revolutionize our modern day "formula".

Hayley at: March 18, 2011 at 9:16 AM said...

Awesome post!! I totally agree, and I try to make the adult characters as well-rounded as my adolescent characters. I DO actually have a "mentor" figure in my current WIP, but I actually think he's one of the most complex characters in the book (and in my head he looks like Liam Neeson, so I should totally get points for that, too). But great points in this post :)

Elaine AM Smith at: March 18, 2011 at 9:51 AM said...

Great thoughts - I love your post.:)
You are asking writers to tread where they could find themselves up to the neck in a nasty kind of fall out. I deliberately made the female mentor in my last MG hot to give my 11 year old orphan one more thing to be conflicted about. That was a razor blade balancing act too.

M Pax at: March 19, 2011 at 4:13 AM said...

Great article. I enjoyed reading it.

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