The MTV Books Blog will close on October 31. Follow us to our new home at YA Outside the Lines on November 1!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Brothers, Sisters, and Pets

Quite a bit has been written about why we YA writers kill off or incapacitate our main character’s parents. We have to get those annoying adults out of the picture so our MCs have space to get themselves into trouble and—we hope—get out of it by the end of the story.

But how do we deal with those other hangers-on? What do we do with brothers, sisters, and pets?

I recently read an amazing YA thriller in which the female MC has two younger brothers who appear on the periphery of the story. Although they occasionally pop into a scene, their role in the plot isn’t clear to me. They don’t move the story forward, give her help, or prevent her from reaching her goals. In other words, they’re just there. In my opinion, the story would have been just as strong—or stronger—if she were an only child.

When I’m mapping out a story, my first concern is my main character: Who is this person, what does s/he want more than anything, and how many obstacles can I stack between my MC and that critical goal? Once the MC is fleshed out, I move on to the secondary characters. That’s when I ask myself, Should my MC have siblings? If so, what would they bring to the story? Here are some possibilities:

1. Comic relief—Brother/sister squabbling is the source of many lol moments in MIA THE MEEK by Eileen Boggess.

2. Complications—If you have brothers or sisters, you know what I’m talking about!

3. Support—In Sharelle Byars Moranville’s THE SNOWS, Jim Snow’s devotion to his younger sister Cathy shapes the direction of both their lives.

4. Antagonist—TANGERINE by Edward Bloor provides an excellent example in main character Paul Fisher’s popular but evil older brother Erik.

5. Connections—In BREATHE MY NAME by R.A. Nelson, Nix’s relationship with his autistic brother Brandon helps Nix connect with a special needs student at his high school.

Sometimes siblings would simply muck things up. In my novel, FAIREST OF THEM ALL, mother Rhonda’s near obsession with Ori’s career is an important plot point. Throwing a sibling into the mix would have diffused that critical dynamic.

I’ve also noticed that although more than half the people in America have at least one cat or dog, YA characters rarely do. I have a houseful of pets, but Ori and Rhonda have none. With their hectic schedule, a houseplant would find survival challenging. That said, I think pets can have a place in YA fiction. Gennifer Choldenko’s NOTES FROM A LIAR AND HER DOG is an excellent example of this.

What do you think? Siblings and pets in YA fiction—in or out?


Anonymous said...

I agree fully. All characters must have a role that advances the story. I have also used both death of a parents and divorce in stories to provide my young adult character with emotionally charged back story.

Kayanna Kirby said...

I agree. Usually YA books are about young adults finding themselves and mainly relying on themselves to succeed in whatever obstacle presents itself. My only issue is when the parents or siblings are there and are pushed aside. An able parent who basically has no input or influence in there kids life is unrealistic. I think its best if that's the case to get rid of them.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Interesting you bring this up because in some ways my new book Ballads of Suburbia centers on a brother and sister relationship and I guess I never really thought about how unique to YA that can be. I do tend to write characters with missing or parents that aren't very involved. Sadly, though I just *knew* a lot of kids whose situations were like that so it's realistic to some respect. But the sibling relationship among two teens is really interesting and I'd love to read more books that use it!

Oh and pets. I put cats in both of my books, but I think the references got cut both times.