I’m noticing a real need for solidarity (often through singularity) for character development in a story. It’s more or less an elaboration on that thing your mom or teachers always told you growing up: “Everyone is special…in their own way…”
And yes, everyone is, but surely you remember just how damn irritating that saying was? Usually it is said at one of two times: 1) when hoping to discourage the feeding frenzy children will gladly fall into at the first sight of an oddity amongst their peer group, and 2) when hoping to make some forlorn prepubescent feel better about his or her own quirks. It answers no questions, in fact it just glosses over every reasonable answer and trivializes them all equally–it’s like adults forget that feeling of needing to belong somewhere and how important it is for young adults, as well how likely it is that if it is not supplied, said young adults are about 90% more likely to go and join a Dungeons and Dragons group to find it. (I was told I should be a GM once by a buddy who was into D&D…found out later that that’s a serious compliment. I’m considering trying it out).
At any rate, solidarity. Firstly, young adults, a large component of the fantasy-story reading base, all feel weird. All of them. Doesn’t matter if you’re the tallest, highest-jumping, best-aiming basketball player; the hottest, blondest babe in school; or the funniest guy in your class, because even popularity comes with its own social stigma–you are still being singled out. The opposite is true as well: being ostensibly ‘normal’ leaves kids feeling forgettable and jealous of more singular individuals (which of course appears to be everyone else when you’re a teen).
When you look at young adult fiction, usually written about and for mid-to-late year teenagers, who are the most popular characters (and when I say popular, I mean, who has the most wide-eyed howling fans at book and movie premiers)? Undisputed champions at the moment are the casts of Harry Potter, Twilight, Avatar: the Last Airbender, The Hunger Games, and Eragon to name just a few. Putting these under the microscope shows a few common themes, even if the stories themselves are dissimilar: all of the characters are singular (i.e., weird) in some way, some more pronounced, some more subtle, and it is their oddities that bind them together and make them memorable to the reader.
In the Harry Potter series, Harry obviously has one of the most distinct pasts among the characters: traumatic, baggage-heavy, and full of reasons for him to feel singled out and alone in either the real or magical world. He deals with it by surrounding himself with others that make him feel normal and/or give meaning to his more eye-catching qualities like his fame or inexplicable raw talent, especially in the new world he’s been thrown into like so much fresh meat. These people balance him: Ron, who feels chronically underwhelmed with himself as one of many talented siblings, makes Harry feel okay about his singularity by making him feel interesting rather than weird, meanwhile reminding him that having a family comes with its own set of problems; and Hermione, who also comes from the Muggle world, is able to join him in a perspective almost unique to the two of them amongst all the other characters, but that they can share with the reader. Only they and the reader can really understand what it would be like to be suddenly pitched into a crazy new world. This brings us to the next important step: solidarity between the character and the reader. To a real world kid looking for an otherworldly adventure, seeing this kind of shared perspective is like realizing your mom didn’t put a limit on the number of cookies you could have for dessert…
Meanwhile, we have a series like Avatar: the Last Airbender, which in my opinion is the best thing to grace YA TV in a long, long time (and let’s get this out of the way: the movie. didn’t. happen.) and I’m pleased as a pig in pants that there’s a new arc to the story due out soon. The sheer amount of effort the artists and writers put into the martial arts, character scope, and cultures is beyond admirable, and all that background lends itself to extraordinarily well-balanced characters. Again we see a protagonist who is given a challenge he is not prepared for in a world he is not prepared for, but by choosing his companions wisely he is able to pursue and complete it.
While a series like Harry Potter focuses on the development of relationships amongst characters, the Last Airbender shows rather more progression within individual characters’ personalities and so the solidarity can be harder to define. The characters stay remarkably consistent at heart and with regard to their instincts, but each learns to control and work around those instincts and personality quirks as the story moves along: put simply, they grow up. (Side note: the art also reflects subtle physical development as the characters grow up as well, but amazingly, the story does not rely on it to convey the progression of emotional maturity. Many series might bank solely on the appearance of physical development, and the physical development would then suggest that there had been some kind of emotion advancement as well: “Look, now she has boobs! That means she’s older and probably more mature than before, right?” Denied.)
It is in their emotional maturity (or lack thereof) that the characters achieve their cohesion with each other as well as the viewer: each one, at some point, has been isolated in some way because of their skill set or abilities. What brings them together is a reversal of what is known and familiar. Aang is born being just one of many airbenders, but he becomes the very last in what seems to him the blink of an eye and is at the same time given a task that no one else can accomplish with powers that no one is around to fully explain. No pressure. As the last waterbender in her Southern Tribe, Kitara harbors ideals about finding other waterbenders and learning their skills, but she finds herself disenchanted with the misogynistic practices of the Northern Tribe when she finally reaches them: for the whole series she has to fight her own impulse to over-achieve and in some ways mother and belittle others for not living up to her own stringent expectations. Sokka is the only character without bender abilities in the main cast, and goes from being part of the overwhelming majority of non-benders in the Southern Water Tribe to being the absolute minority when he joins the Avatar: he has his own skill set with planning and strategy, but he still struggles with knowing he is the weakest of the group. Toph lives a lie for her whole life before she runs away to join Aang and company: blind, completely un-socialized and hidden from the world and in some respects even from her own parents, she has to figure out how to live by reason rather than instinct and then learn to successfully interact with a world she can’t see.
Each character shares a different feeling of conflict with the average young adult viewer: after complete solitude comes a mounting awareness of mortality, the dissolution or reversal of an ideal, a feeling of weakness and ineptitude, and finally the feeling that one is completely out of touch with the rest of the world but can’t understand why or how to fix it. The story accepts that these are expected and normal feelings, and instead of stressing how they are bad and should be avoided, it focuses on how to cope. Mostly it shows that with companionship, each character finds meaning enough to avoid a complete existential meltdown: this is something best learned by seeing in practice. When they are young, children can get away with friendships based on mutual interests, but as they get older, they may begin searching for companionship based on more complex commonalities, namely emotional similarities rather than superficial ones. For most adults, this becomes so second nature that it is difficult to remember what it is like to not know what you’re looking for–in essence, making friends takes practice. Finding a series that reflects all of that can be extraordinarily engaging for a younger audience in particular.
Well, I think that’s enough for one day of fantastic young adult psychology, but if you’re looking to develop your own characters and having a tough time, I’d say pick up one of these series and study the track the author takes with showing how characters balance each other and relate to their audience. Not everything creative has to be unique to be good, so no harm in studying accepted tropes!