Tropes: Death in YA Lit and The Case of Divergent

Spoiler alert: Major for the Divergent series (but Allegiant in particular) and The Fault in Our Stars, Mockingjay, 1984, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and The Giver, kinda. (I keep it vague.)

In this series, Tropes, I’m going to talk about some of the tropes that appear in the genres I read most often, and I’ll share some thoughts about them. Today I’m starting with death (in honour of my bro-friend, who writes all about it) and young adult literature (because my reading list this year is basically “the fundamentals of YA lit”).

A professor I had once said that young adult literature is littered with the corpses of dead parents. I don’t know that I’ve read enough to know if this always applies to general YA, but it certainly seems true in the genre stuff (dystopian, sci-if, fantasy, and so on) from middle grade through new adult. Harry Potter was an orphan. Katniss lost her father, leaving her mother basically catatonic for months. I’m sure there are exceptions (I can think of a couple), but more or less, if you show me a hero, I can show you a tragedy (of lost parental figures).

It makes sense: most of what holds together young adult and these other categories of books as categories at all (they do, after all, fall under what would be completely different genres if they happened to be written for an older audience) is that they’re largely all coming-of-age stories. The main character or characters learn, grow, mature. They have formative experiences. They usually get a taste of their first (real) romance.

And all of that adventure is much harder to accomplish if your characters have live, engaged, fully functional parents. Best to kill off at least one, right? More independence, more angst. In fact, in the more dangerous YA worlds, you might see this as a motto: any character you can kill who will leave the protagonist with more independence and more angst is essentially disposable.

Except, of course, the main duo or trio.

How do we know if we’re dealing with a duo or trio? Duos tend to be a pair (of love interests) who often co-hero. Trios come in a couple of formations: main, bff, love interest (of either of the first two: thanks, J.K. Rowling), or a protagonist (often a young woman) and two possible love interests (which I will thank no one for until they all date).

These people just don’t die. (YA is obviously not the only culprit for this. A lot of writers across a lot of pets of entertainment have trouble killing their most precious—or keeping them dead, anyway.) (Yeah, I’ve read The Fault in Our Stars, but now you’re just cheating.)

And I get it. They’re the story, and as long as they’re alive (not even necessarily together), there’s hope that things will work out. And, no matter how much suffering it takes to get there, things generally do. YA can embrace some darkness, but very rarely does it leave us with something entirely grim or even ambiguous. (The unnecessarily happy epilogue is a whole other post. Or series of posts.)

So. The Divergent trilogy.

I’m going to be real with you about this series: I honestly feel it went downhill after the first book. Despite the gimmicky sorting trope and the need to set it up in the first book, it was the strongest entry to me because it was the most mired in the setting, which is obviously familiar to the author and was delightfully imagined. The way her prose transformed Chicago into its future dystopian self appealed to me; one of the most memorable passages of the series is of Tris flying between buildings. And the series worked when it dealt with inter-faction politics and the varied workings on the pieces of that society—the further it backed out from this to unravel the mystery of how their society came to be that way, the less interesting it seemed, although there were still some beautiful moments rooted in familial relationships.

But here’s where this author earned my attention: she killed off one of her duo. Hell, not even. She killed off her protagonist.

Obviously, this waits until the end of the final book. And just as obviously, it’s followed by a hopeful epilogue anyway. (Of course it is.)

But can we talk about how gutsy this is? And I don’t mean that it acts in an edgy, controversial way, because I don’t think shock factor was ever the intention: the self-sacrifice Tris chooses is perfectly fitting for her character and makes for a fine ending. But while this kind of ending definitely wouldn’t suit every story—not every character is Tris, and not every ending needs to include main character death (I’m whining about a pattern, not insisting on its opposite)—it works well here for a lot of reasons.

First: It provides a sense of consequence. In many of these YA genre books (and particularly within the dystopian), there’s a fight (in dystopian cases, generally rebellion) against overwhelming odds. And since we don’t usually see the death of any among our duo or trio, those struggles can be grim—they can tell us they’re bloodbaths—but we’re not necessarily rocked by the consequences in the narrative. Our main characters continue on (charged with necessary angst, but still). I forgive Suzanne Collins this because she does Katniss’ trauma in Mockingjay so well—and like I said, not everyone has to die. But when dystopian is at a high and consequences run thin, it does get tiring. (Aren’t books like 1984 prototypes for this whole genre? Are people afraid to go there because this is YA? Not that I think it’s necessary to go that far, always—but you know what I mean.)

Second: It’s a sensible character arc. Again, as I said—not everyone is Tris. There’s a good reason why she chooses to walk into a danger that shouldn’t be hers, and while it’s something pretty much any YA heroine would do (risk herself to save someone she loves), that she dies doing so makes her choice and who she is even more poignant. (At some point, risking yourself to do the right thing seems like much less of a sacrifice and reflection on your character if you’re always going to survive. Of course, the characters don’t know this—but readers do.) Genre YA is full of chosen ones who often act as the face of their cause and often put themselves at risk for others, and given that, it’s baffling how few of them are martyrs. Harry Potter gets to be, to some extent, although he lives.

Third: It’s believable. This is basically an extension and culmination of the above: how many times can you test your character’s moral integrity by having them jump in front of the gun without providing us with the consequence that the bullet doesn’t miss this time? In one book, I can be relieved when an artery was just nicked. In legions of books, I begin to wonder about main characters’ magical anatomies. This isn’t an intention to pick on every book where a main character death doesn’t happen—again, it wouldn’t suit every story, and there are instances I forgive. In a way, dwelling with Katniss in the consequences of her losses and failures is more dire a consequence than seeing her die to save others. (Although I am conflicted about the effect the hopeful epilogue has on that.) However, not a lot of YA embraces the horrors of war, politics, and post-traumatic stress the way that The Hunger Games series does.

So, do I want young adult literature littered with the corpses of its main characters? Well, no, not exactly. But I think that books along these lines could certainly do with a re-examination of their sense of consequence, character, and believability as they decide how death (of main characters or otherwise) will affect their narratives. It’s possible that part of my grumpiness is based on how little reflection many non-main character deaths cause. Death should be something more than momentary angst-fuel.

In any case, giving coming-of-age stories hopeful endings is a nice thing to do (although give teens some credit: they can handle something grim or ambiguous every once in a while, okay? A lot of them had to read The Giver), but as many YA books prove, that’s not necessarily impossible to do while still dealing with notions of grief and healing—many protagonists deal with this in their story’s conclusions.

Is it harder to pull off after a main character death? Absolutely. But Allegiant manages. And if Divergent in its unevenness can do it, then I bet that other books can. And hopefully? Some will.

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