YA has grown increasingly dark in recent years as authors tend to write more for the adults buying their books than for the teens YA is supposed to be for. Still, even though many book summaries promise dark storylines, gruesome deaths, and increasingly inventive ways to torture their characters, many YA protagonists never seem to turn fully to the dark side, as promised. Even when they reach their lowest point, their actions are typically somehow justified; they do not really have to face the fact that they have turned into the person they used to hate. Perhaps no one wants to write a true YA antihero in a market where every character must be “relatable.” Perhaps authors and publishers fear no one could read a book where they do not sympathize with the protagonist. But, in keeping antiheroes out of YA, we are limiting the literary possibilities.
The publication of The Hungers Games(2008) was a watershed moment for young adult literature. It did not only start a trend of dystopian novels and YA love triangles, but also opened the door to increasingly darker YA content–for example, Three Dark Crowns (2016), in which three sisters must try to kill each other to be queen or Six of Crows (2015), which features characters from the underworld and which spawned its own trend of heist novels. However, The Hunger Games never really asks Katniss to descend so far into darkness they she never comes back–and few other YA books have done so, either.
(Hunger Games trilogy spoilers) Even though The Hunger Games trilogy is focused around a reality TV show in which children kill each other, Katniss is presented as morally superior to the others both because she is not eager to kill (though she is willing to, unlike her fellow contestant Peeta) and because she rarely does kill someone directly: she typically does something like drops a nest of dangerous insects upon someone or she kills someone by accident, such as when someone eats poisonous berries she leaves out. If she has to kill, it is clearly in self-defence. Even by the end of the trilogy, when Katniss is training for war, her most heartless kill is possibly the innocent citizen who unluckily appears just in time to give away the location of Katniss’s infiltration team; Katniss kills the woman to silence her. On the one hand, this is terrible; the woman is not a soldier. On the other hand, Katniss is just trying to keep herself–and her friends–alive. Katniss is not really a murderer, not a monster. She’s just a teenage girl trying to survive.
(Six of Crows spoilers) This pattern seems to reemerge quite often in YA; even the most heartless of characters usually have some heart. Take, for example, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, which features a criminal gang undertaking a political heist in order to make money. The team is composed of thieves, spies, and gamblers–but they are all morally superior to the people they are trying to outwit. They are only criminals because life has forced them into the dirt, because they were robbed from, or kidnapped, or the victim of an addiction they cannot control. They would be better, if they could. And, when it comes down to it, they’re willing to forego money if it means doing the right thing.
(The Rise of Kyoshi spoilers) The Rise of Kyoshi by F. C. Lee and Michael Dante DiMartino (2019) is just the latest in a string of YA titles that promises an antihero, but refrains from having the protagonist transform completely. The summary informs readers that Kyoshi will join a gang of criminals and later found a group whose corruption will lead to her nation’s downfall. She is a grey character whose pursuit of justice is performed through dubious means. Even Kyoshi, however, is ultimately never asked how far she is really willing to go. When she is faced with the question of whether she can commit murder, someone else takes the choice away from her. Kyoshi is preserved for YA readers as a little shady, but still sympathetic and definitely redeemable.
Perhaps the reason YA authors steer away from really awful characters is because readers will not like them. I myself complained that Mary E. Pearson’s Dance of Thieves (2018) has terrible characters whose terrible actions are glossed over in favor of developing a steamy romance; who cares how many people they torture and murder, as long as there’s a hot love interest, right? I also struggled to finish Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (2018) because (spoilers) the protagonist is shown to be justified in retaliating against mass murder with her own mass murders; the love interest is also a mass murderer, one who decimated the protagonist’s home. However, my problem with these books is not that the protagonists do terrible things; my problem is that the protagonists are depicted as justified in doing terrible things, because someone else did something terrible to them first.
I still have yet to read a YA book featuring a protagonist who is a true antihero, someone so far gone readers feel a moral dilemma in their own desire to root for their success (see: Shakespeare’s Richard III), and who is depicted as being an antihero, and not presented as completely justified in their retaliatory violence. I want a YA character who is awful, whom readers know is awful, whom authors admit is awful. It might be risky, but it would certainly be a new twist on the current YA formula.