Keeping the Melodrama Manageable

| Friday, December 16, 2011
Today's Tune: Silver Bells

Melodrama: Theatrical and often overstated emotional responses, sometimes accompanied by physical action, with the intended purpose of illiciting an emotional response from the reader/viewer. In other words, it's overacting. Ramping up the emotion, potentially out of proportion.

It's no secret that teenagers are often viewed as melodramatic. When something bad happens, it is THE END OF THE WORLD. There is NO RECOVERING. LIFE IS RUINED. THEY WILL NEVER LOVE AGAIN. ET CETERA.

However, it's important to keep in mind why adolescents react this way. When we're young, we quite frankly don't have the experience under our belt to be able to say, "Yes, this terrible/embarrassing thing happened, but it was really no big deal in the long run and everyone moved on." There is no long run. There's only the here and now. Most teenagers are also in an environment of trying to find their place and fit in, and they're doing that with the same people every single day for years. They can't exactly stop going to class to avoid their peers. Well, they can, but it's not a good idea.

Teenage emotion is so over-the-top because teenagers are living in a constant state of new experiences and self-discovery. Screwing up can mean being permanently branded as someone they don't want to be. Bullies pick on the weak because they're in the midst of figuring out their own crap and they're taking it out on other people. A first relationship that leads to a first breakup is so soul-shattering because that's the only experience they have to compare anything to. Of course it feels like they'll never love again! They just fell in love for the first time!

None of this is intended to be belittling. We've all been here. These emotions are real and valuable. And a lot of teenagers have wisdom beyond their years and are able to take a step back and look logically at their situation. But many of us (myself included) didn't/don't.

Unfortunately, this type of melodrama doesn't always translate well on paper. There's a delicate balance between capturing a realistic teenage experience and creating a protagonist everyone hates because they're an overdramatic whiner. There's being upset, and then there's throwing a hissy. There's the realistic gutted feeling of losing your first love, and there's whining for months about how no one understands your pain and there's no way to ever be whole again.

Melodrama exists inside our own head. Our drama is important to us, but if you asked anyone else, they'd probably tell you to get over it. Everyone else is melodramatic, too, but we're not living inside their head and being subjected to their constant whining. This can become a problem for YA novels, especially those written in the first person. We're inside the protagonist's head, which means we get to listen to everything. EVERYTHING.

How do we avoid creating a total mopey drag of a protagonist? The easiest solution is to make sure whatever they're angsting about is worth all that angst. Going on a bad date? Probably not worth three pages of angst. A close friend's death? Worth some angst. Witnessing an entire city leveled because they refused to cooperate with the bad guy? Definitely worth the angst.

A more nuanced solution is to rework how much wallowing you let you protagonist do. They're allowed to feel pain, to wonder how they can move on, to cry and mourn. Just don't let them get carried away. Let them show some inner strength and pull themselves forward, even when it hurts. Who doesn't respect a character who can push through the pain?

Can you think of any YA characters who you felt had just the right about of melodrama?


{ Emy Shin } at: December 16, 2011 at 7:08 AM said...

Agreed. I admit I have very low tolerance for whiny protagonists, despite being a rather whiny teenager myself when younger. However, when the situation deserves the angsts, I gobble it all up and ask for more. :)

My favorite MC who pushes through her pains and comes out stronger is Karou in Laini Taylor's DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE. She's vulnerable, but strong, and is the kind of character I'd like to be when I grow up.

{ prerna pickett } at: December 16, 2011 at 7:31 AM said...

Too true. Although when I think back on some of my melodramatic moments I can't help but cringe. I'm so glad I 'grew up'.

{ Chantele Sedgwick } at: December 16, 2011 at 8:23 AM said...

Ha! I watch my teenage sister now with boys and stuff and I just have to shake my head. Not worth all the angst. ;) But back then, it was. Mostly. I'm just glad I'm happily married and never have to be a teenager again! :D And I hate whiny protagonists. Unless it's a really good reason for them to be whiny. If not, cut the crap and worry about something important for a change! ;)

{ Gilly } at: December 16, 2011 at 12:22 PM said...

This is a great idea for a post.

I thought Anna and the French Kiss did the teen angst thing beautifully! It brought me right back to those insecurities of liking a guy, wondering if he liked me, what each word or gesture meant, the significance of certain things. Anna ruminated on all those things the way the teenage me would have, but without becoming annoying about it. It was such a balanced portrayal, I loved it!

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: December 16, 2011 at 4:00 PM said...

yes! there are some popular mc's i wish would just move on! and i consider myself a pretty empathetic person, but man oh man- wallowing is boring.

recently i was really impressed by THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE ( i think by jandi nelson) and it's ability to be heart-wrenching, hopeful, and confused. it was a perfect capture of teenage emotion- or more, human emotion.

Anonymous at: January 24, 2012 at 1:36 PM said...

I disagree with your reasons as to why teens behave the way they do. After all, adults can be in the same situations (new experiences, self-discovery, maybe even first love and first heartbreak).

Teens don't respond that way because of a lack of experience. At least, not solely because of a lack of experience. Adults experience new things all the time and don't always fly off.

Teenagers' brains are different from adults. During adolesence, the amygdala, which is the seat of emotions in the brain, develops much faster than any other part of the brain, including the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex is where reasoning occurs. It's the part of the brain that deals with future-time perspective and delayed gratification, which are not things teenagers are known for.

Before the area of the brain that feels emotions is developing so rapidly, and out-developing the area of the brain that is more rational, adolesence is a time of crazy, over-the-top, end of the world emotions. Adults sometimes act like teens when faced with various issues because the pre-frontal cortext doesn't stop developing until around age 45. That, or they just never grew up.

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