Rule-breaking and good intentions

Cassandra Clare posted something to her Tumblr a couple of days ago on obedience and rule-breaking in protagonists in YA and MG fiction that I thought was really good. In the recent YA Sisterhood heroine tournament (which Clare’s character Clary won, incidentally), many people were complaining about Clary being wilfully disobedient. Or oftentimes her actions aren’t disobedience, per se, as much as they are reckless. She isn’t given a direct instruction not to do a particular thing, but it’s perhaps implied that it’s dangerous and maybe she shouldn’t, but she does anyway.

In her response, Clare points out that “Clary goes with her gut instinct. The responsibility of making big decisions, enormous decisions on whose outcome lives depend, often falls crashing on her, in a way it does not on most of us. In City of Bones, when Simon is taken to the Dumort, both Magnus and Jace advise her not to go after him: she decides she’s going to anyway. If she hadn’t, Simon would be dead. It was a risk; she took it.”

She also comments that it’s not as though Clary is unique in this regard. The familiar and much-loved character of Harry Potter is extremely disobedient, as are many other popular YA and MG characters. That’s what makes the stories interesting, that’s what builds the tension. It would be a pretty boring story if the protagonists did what they were told all the time, wouldn’t it? The whole idea of YA/MG is that it’s the youth who are given (or take) the responsibility of making decisions in these situations. It’s the youth who are important to the outcome. No youth is going to want to read a story where the teen protagonist sits by and watches as the adults do everything – or worse, don’t do anything at all.

The common thread through nearly all of these characters, however, is that they’re not being deliberately reckless just for kicks; they’re doing it because they believe it’s the right thing to do. Whether or not it is is up for debate, but the key is that they believe it is. So they disobey or disregard their elders and do the thing anyway.

One of the criticisms that I’ve got back from more than one of my crit partners is that Ryanne has a habit of saying, both to herself in internal monologue and to others in dialogue, that she doesn’t want to put the Stags, her new friends/family, in danger – and then she goes and does something to put them in danger. This is true. She’s extremely conscious of the fact that she’s being hunted, and she knows that wherever she is, those around her will be at risk. So she makes decisions to do things against the advice of her elders because she believes that the risk is small and the potential gain great. Yes, it ends up that the Stags are put in danger because of her actions, but she was attempting to reduce the danger the Stags were in because of their association with her. She did it because she thought she was doing the right thing. Like Clary. Like Harry.

Clare’s post is definitely worth reading, I recommend popping over to check it out.


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