Uncategorized, YA tropes that drive us crazy

The problem of extroversion in young adult fiction

It can be argued that the majority of hardcore young adult readers are introverts. These are kids who prefer to spend time alone reading books, instead of socializing or chatting with friends, or engaged in other social activities like sports or school clubs.

It can also be argued, I think, that the majority of YA teen protagonists – at least the female ones – are extroverts. While Harry Potter or Percy Jackson are slower to react and more reflective, girl protagonists are expected to be firebrands.

They’re stubborn and opinionated. They don’t take shit from anyone. They overreact, lash out, punch people and storm off into the woods alone, pissed off at the world. Maybe this is because they’re a projection of what shy or introverted girls wish they were or could be – someone who speaks their mind and isn’t afraid of anybody.

Personally, I think this is damaging to teen’s developing sense of identity. In the adult space, books like Susan Cain’s Quiet have pushed forward the idea that not only is it OK to be an introvert, in many instances it has hidden benefits. Introverts aren’t necessarily shy, timid or scared to express themselves. They aren’t necessarily inferior. 

They simply choose to do things in a certain way, often by finding solutions that avoid conflict. Introverted teens are sometimes more mature than their extroverted peers, and according to some studies, more intelligent as well.

So why should YA authors encourage the stereotype that “heroic” girls fit an extroverted personality type? Part of it has to do with equally flawed perceptions of romance: the stormy, messy, conflicted romance rife with hurt feelings, fights and passion.

Quiet, mature relationships where both parties make safe, responsible choices aren’t very sexy, and don’t make for exciting reading material. Authors need conflict, and often this is achieved through lies, manipulation, misunderstanding or characters jumping to conclusions. To build a perfectly satisfying romantic arc, conflict is necessary.

There’s a certain template for romance that is satisfying to romance readers, which is commonly used in YA fiction as well, and it’s the template used by Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara has a lot in common with modern YA protagonists. She starts off charming and witty, experiences loss and tragedy, and comes out tougher-than-nails. She doesn’t need no stinking man to take care of her.

Contrast this with Jane Eyre, a mousy governess who wins her employer’s heart. Sure, she’s educated and witty, and they fall in love, and she runs off when she discovers the truth, but I would argue that she’s a strong introvert dealing with challenging external situations. The temptation is to show a romantic relationship as merely a collection of arbitrary fights and battles, between two immature characters… which will infuriate smart introverts who know these two idiots could just sit down and have a quiet conversation for 5 minutes and make 90% of the plot unnecessary.

There’s a lot of talk these days for “diversity” in young adult literature, which usually involves the arbitrary addition of characters with varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, who have a range of sexual orientation. And it’s not enough to include them: writers need to include them without making them a stereotype.

I would argue that focusing merely on the color of a character’s skin or sexual preference is superficial, and that focusing on character and personality is as important.

We want to show characters in difficult situations learning to make ethical choices (not making ethical choices, which is forced, but actually going through the learning process of making poor choices that lead to character development). Perhaps skin color is less important than creating a relatable world characters can see themselves in and identify with.

It’s not OK to vary the skin color of the characters, without varying the personality. Having all YA characters, or at least all the heroes, be extroverted (and usually having one timid, introverted, “geeky” friend) can make it seem to introverts that they should try harder to change their personality or be someone they aren’t – which leads to identify crisis, poor self-esteem, and great social anxiety.

Instead of creating artificial conflict with a fiery, stubborn protagonist who always blurts things out, storms off in a huff, or flares out with violence at every opportunity, at least some YA writers (the introverted ones, probably) should focus on creating introverted protagonists that deal with external conflict in healthy ways, without necessarily – as is almost always the case – overcoming their initial “limitations” by becoming extroverted by the end of the book.

Let’s take Passenger as an example

Etta starts off as a socially-inept introvert.

She’s a concert violinist, who is late to debut because of her “crippling stage fright.”

This doesn’t mean she has low self esteem. She knows she’s the best, and committed to her success – even though it meant breaking up with her boyfriend.

Her mother, and teacher Alice, have little ways of making her feel comfortable. Other than them, she’s all alone.

Until a girl pushes her through a time warp and she ends up on a pirate ship.

Then her true personality starts to come out. She goes up on deck, fights off some pirates (the ones trying to help her), and puts a knife to the throat of the girl who brought her (also on her side). This crazy shift in personality is partially explained as instinct:

“She drew the knife up, her chest heaving, body trembling as she pressed it against the other girl’s neck. Instinct overrode logic, compassion, patience. The ugliness that poured through her veins was unfamiliar and frightening.”

I think that’s a marvelous description of extroversion – action overriding logic, compassion and patience. Personally, those are three things that I really like. In this first passage, it’s called “ugliness” because she doesn’t recognize it in herself. Maybe it’s some kind of blood knowledge, that came from her lineage. Even so, when she continues acting this way, it soon becomes part of her positive qualities, and she doesn’t question in.

Later, she’s eating dinner with the men. For an introvert, or someone with very little practical experience, I’m amazed at how she deftly manipulates the men, strokes their ego, shifts the conversation and pays false flattery. I don’t see these as skills. And even if they were, they would need to be learnt. Her mentor was just murdered, she’s on a pirate ship in the past, and she’s somehow become a graceful manipulator. One of the other characters, Nicholas, notices the same discrepancy.

“Where was the little lioness, he wondered, roaming the decks with her hair down and floating like a cloud behind her? The one who’d looked ready and willing to do violence to two men twice her size – with a grappling hook no less? She’d gone into the cabin wild, burning, and come out as cool and pale as a pearl.”

He doesn’t have to wait long to see her fiery side again.

One of the men, Wren, is openly racist. So she slaps him. She trembles with anger. She snarls. She is outraged. On the one hand, the character is more sympathetic because she’s anti-racism. It’s applause-worthy that she gets so upset.

On the other hand, these are extroverted reactions.

These aren’t choices, these are responses.

Nicholas wonders, “what era had produced such a fearsome, magnificent temper?”

And of course, given the issue at hand, she’s right to be upset.

And some issues warrant outrage and action. Perhaps extroversion is necessary for serious social change.

On the other hand, getting violently upset and hitting people, for their words, is not always an endearing, respectable quality. I don’t think any temper should be called fearsome or magnificent. Temper is what leads to stupid decisions and violence. Think of Facebook – there are two ways to deal with stuff you don’t like. Ignore it, or spend an hour arguing and fighting with people online. Call them names. If you get upset enough, track them down and threaten to show up at their house to teach them a lesson.

In that scene, of course Etta is acting the way a heroic character would, and we may like her less if she was to just sit there placidly, listening to the vile racist comments.

But she also hasn’t gone through enough character development yet (or any) that would allow her to react in such away. So she’s a born extrovert – but then why the crippling stage fright?

An introvert in the same scene might have quietly fumed in her head, plotting some twisted scheme or thinking dark thoughts, but they wouldn’t have shown their feelings on their face, or gone outside to fume.

We also don’t know why she’s so passionately opposed to racism. Sure, she’s been brought up in a liberal modern society, where most people are aware of the issues, but unless she had a lot of personal experience, or was a radical supporter or something, she probably wouldn’t get so fundamentally frustrated.

I think introverted characters can deal with crisis and conflict reasonably and responsibly, without exploding in rage and violence; and they can also gain confidence which will let them take more instinctive action. And they can fight, for the right reasons – and after they’ve been trained – but because they’ve decided to. Not because their emotions take over their body like the Hulk, and they’re helpless until the storm calms.

As an introvert, I hate people like that.

And I don’t like reading (only) about extroverted protagonists in every YA novel, who begin the story with these kinds of unrestrained emotional outbursts.

What do you think?

Must heroes be extroverted in fiction, to gain our sympathy and support?

  • The problem of extroversion in young adult fiction

    It can be argued that the majority of hardcore young adult readers are introverts. These are kids who prefer to spend ...
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