Why Don’t Authors Fully Allow YA Protagonists to Turn to the Dark Side?

YA Antiheroes

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.

11 thoughts on “Why Don’t Authors Fully Allow YA Protagonists to Turn to the Dark Side?

  1. Terézia says:

    Yes, it would perhaps be the fault of the MC becoming unlikeable once they turn dark. Maybe those readers who are inclined to plot-driven would overlook it easily, but as far as I know from other bloggers, booktubers and readers, the majority was reading to identify with the characters/for the the characters.

    Lately I have read a contemporary (not YA) where the protagonist indeed turned dark, and I had a harder time to connect with him – frankly, I hated him. But I kept reading on for 2 reasons: it was an eARC, and I was interested to know how the it would be handled – if the MC would feel the consequences. (He did – it was marvelous.)

    MC is largely for us to have someone to focus on, and the purpose can be to highlight either or both good and bad. It is a device.

    But YA is that one section of fiction where the targeted audience is not so interested in Crime-and-Punishment-like stories. Or so that is how I see it.

    Or it could be the author becoming attached to the character and seeing it as ‘destroying it’ by turning it evil.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I can see that. It definitely is difficult to like a character who is doing bad things! That’s one of the reasons I didn’t like Dance of Thieves or Children of Blood and Bone. I want to know the protagonist is somehow better than the villains they are facing! It’s a hard sell to make a villainous protagonist.

      And I do think YA audiences in particular expect certain things from YA. Veronica Roth upended audience expectations with the Divergent trilogy–and, whoah, the backlash! There are, apparently, some things you aren’t “supposed” to do with YA.


  2. rsrook says:

    So…what you seem to be saying here, is that you want to read adult fiction.

    I think part of the appeal of YA (to adults) is that it often has a simple morality, good ol-fashioned good vs. evil. They are easy reads that draw on emotional investment but don’t require a lot of thought. The nature of the genre is that it’s simplistic, in language, theme, and often plot.

    I’m not sure you’re ever going to get the nuance you’re looking for in YA because in some ways it’s antithetical to the concept of YA as a genre. It lacks maturity because it is intended for immature readers.

    That doesn’t mean that readers of all kinds can’t find enjoyment in YA, but it’s not designed for the kind of deep-thinking an anti-hero requires.

    I’m obviously exaggerating the developmental difference here, but you wouldn’t put a Walter White muppet on Sesame St. The target audience is not equipped to handle that. To a certain extent I think the same is true when it comes to complex moral questions and nuanced anti-heroes. If that’s what a reader is looking for they need to start reading books aimed at mature readers.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I agree that adult books can be more complex–but a lot of them honestly aren’t more thoughtful or nuanced than YA books, and I generally disagree with the idea that teens can’t handle or comprehend complex themes.

      Personally, I do think there’s something to the idea that YA audiences want likability/relatability. And I find this more in books that that deal with sexual themes rather than violent themes. A YA book can, for instance, hit the reader over the head with the message that “polygamy is fine for those who choose it,” yet very notably the protagonist does NOT engage. Or I’ve read books where there was a very strong “sex workers are good people with the right to choose sex work,” but of course the protagonist goes out of her way to NOT engage in this supposedly perfectly fine and wonderful activity. I see this constantly, and it probably comes into play with violence, too. “Oh, killing is fine if you must do it, but of course the protagonist manages not to kill a single person in the entire book. Only the side characters kill people.” That, for me, highlights that the author thinks the reader won’t like the character if they do actions x or y, no matter what the message of the book supposedly is.


      • rsrook says:

        Oh, I agree there are a lot of adult books that are pretty simple, and it was not my intention to maturity to age. But as a marketing category (which is what YA is) it’s definitely got a commercially driven bent to be simplistic. Perhaps it’s better to say it’s directed at people who want to read in an immature way? I don’t know many adults or teens who read YA for a heavy experience. Both would just read adult-categorized fiction. It’s not like teens aren’t reading adult books as much as adults read YA.

        I just feel like expecting an anti-hero in YA is like having wizards in hard science fiction–the very presence of such characters would put the work in a different genre.


  3. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall says:

    This is such a great post! ❤ I really love novels that display characters who are morally grey, but as you mentioned, there are very few books that present truly despicable characters. More often than not, they're "misunderstood" or influenced to act cruelly because of unfair circumstances. I think that one of the main reasons for author's reluctance to do this, is so that they can maintain as a sense of relatability among their protagonists. I recently read Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao, and although the pacing in the novel isn't perfect, the element I enjoyed most, was how ruthless the protagonist is. Considering how the story is a loose retelling/prequel of sorts about the Evil Queen from Snow White, it makes sense that the chief character would ultimately be evil. It's fascinating to be in the head of a character like this, and I would love to see more stories with a similar narrative.


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, a lot of villains do seem to get rehabilitated, which can be a fascinating story. I do start to worry when the reasoning seems to be not, “You see how this happened now,” but rather, “So because she had a sad childhood all her cruelties are now excused.” There needs to be some level of subtlety where the character is sympathetic, but their actions are not shown to be okay.


  4. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    This is a really good point- I definitely get the sense that authors don’t want to go fully dark with YA anti-heroes. I think part of this is because of it being relatable, but I think the other side is it’s conforming to the age-old belief of what teens can handle in their literature- maybe authors and publishers think it would be too much for young people to handle? Definitely agree with you that YA characters are often given leeway to do terrible things, because bad things happened to them first.


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