Dark Girls and Moral Ambiguity



So, I recently finished reading The Bone Witch, and while it was far from a perfect novel, the…let’s say interesting route the protagonist’s story took crystalized some things I’ve been thinking about for a while with regards to YA novels, the kind of characters I like, and the kind of characters that get written. I think, maybe, that young adult books are starting to be willing to write darker characters? Or a least starting to write darker characters better?

Let me start here by saying that this may honestly just be selection bias on my part. These are often the characters that I like, so I guess it makes sense that those are the books I’m drawn to.

That said, I feel like for the past couple of years those books almost haven’t existed for me to be drawn to. Since around 2012, at least, most of the leads I’ve been seeing have come in one of two flavors. The first: shy mousey girls who can barely interact with their peers and would rather be sitting at home. The second: brave, hard-edged warriors who were tough because of the bad lot life had given them.

And while it’s easy to write the second type with some darkness to it, the way they were written never quite worked for me. For a long time they were like Katsa from Graceling or Rhine from Wither, both of whom did some dark things but were still written as perfectly morally justified in their actions. Usually they were even still the moral centers of their novels, with the characters who react or think differently than them being positioned as completely in the wrong.

Wither, specifically, has always stood out to me on that front. I stopped reading it after the author had Rhine go off about how stupid and useless the suicidally depressed woman and brainwashed twelve-year-old being held captive with her were, with the audience supposed to agree, because Strong Female Characters. And I’m not a person who quits a book halfway through; I may get distracted and wander away, but I can count on one hand the novels I’ve put down without any intent to pick back up.

I think this is why I have such a hard time with novels where the lead seems like they’re written to be a role model. That sort of character writing completely nixes the idea that an opposing viewpoint might have anything valid in it. It completely ignores the role that circumstances have had on any of the characters’ development, especially the lead’s.

Even characters that I like in that style, like Allie from Immortal Rules, have a little of that to them: dark but seen as generally justified. It’s almost as if there was a point where authors thought that, unless they made clear that their characters were always in the right, an audience couldn’t possibly have sympathy for them.

I’m aware that this break I’m seeing in style isn’t entirely fair. Character writing of the kind that I do like, where the morality isn’t placed only in the protagonist, has never really gone away. Holly Black and Catherine Fisher stand out as two authors that are very good at it who have been popular for a while. But when I think back to a couple of years ago, there aren’t many dark leads in the style I want, especially among the girls.

And maybe it’s not even “darkness” that is the crux of what I’m picking up here, maybe it is just that feeling of the main character seen as good regardless of what they do. But it’s easier to explore the things I want to see, namely the lead making mistakes and being in the wrong, with a protagonist that does have a darker gray tinge.

Thankfully, these things have a tendency to go in cycles, though. You see it with villains, in the way they waver between tragically broken and always-evil psychopaths, and you see it with heroes, who range between perfect angels and flawed but trying.

This is why I’m glad to see something like The Bone Witch, which arguably has a straight villain protagonist. It’s a sign that things are swinging back around to the sort of stories I like. You come out of it completely understanding how Tea, the main character, has gotten to the point that she has, but she’s still portrayed as a little frightening, a little wrong, and a little letting her demons get to her.

And it’s not the only book that gives me that hope. The Crown’s Game has dual leads, and you come to understand each of their diametrically different viewpoints. A major theme in Every Heart a Doorway is the bias people have against darker stories, and against people who aren’t like them. And even something sillier, like Red Queen, has Mare questioning whether what’s she’s doing is right fairly often. .

All of this is pointing to a slew of novels that are willing to admit that, sometimes, more than one person can be right in a situation, and to authors who are no longer trying to have it both ways, making their characters do terrible things to add complexity in one breath, while taking that complexity away in the next by expecting the audience to not question it. A lot of the things I’ve been reading recently have been trending more towards my taste and my view on morality, which is that it doesn’t change regardless of whether the person doing something is on the “right” side or not.

Suffice to say, I’m seeing more dark characters, and more among those where their darkness is acknowledged. I’m definitely looking forward to what the next couple of publishing years are going to bring. At the very least, it seems more likely to bring me far less frustration in my entertainment.

Photo by Mallory Johndrow on Unsplash, sourced through Pexels

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