“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is a Victorian fairy poem and, coincidentally, O.G. To T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In this context, ‘childe’ refers to a young man who has not been knighted. He is a modern young adult.
In this poem, Roland is having a pretty crappy time. But he perseveres on a hopeless journey because, like many a modern young adult character, “naught else remained to do”.
What else does this old poem by Robert Browning have to do with modern young adult characters?
This: Roland alone is able to see through the facade which fools everyone else. (Specifically, Roland gets magical help from Merlin and is able to rescue his sister.)
Audiences still enjoy this character archetype today, who can see a situation for what it is. I can think of a number of modern YA Rolands, featuring main characters commonly described as sarcastic or sardonic. But there’s more to them than that. I don’t even think sarcastic and sardonic are the best words to describe these characters, because they’re not always ‘mocking’ per se:
Sarcastic: marked by or given to using irony in order to mock or convey contempt
Sardonic: grimly mocking or cynical
Here’s what these characters definitely do have in common: They are perspicacious: insightful, shrewd and at least a little bit streetwise. Audiences love a smart character, but not when they’re too smart. The streetwise character with average grades is a perfect 10 in terms of likeability. On Northrop Frye’s scale they are basically low mimetic heroes, but with this one superpower: a winningly shrewd cynicism.
Examples of the Perspicacious YA Character
- Bliss Cavendar of Whip It!
- Lindsay of Freaks and Geeks
- Sydney of I Am Not Okay With This
Often these stories begin with the insightful main character outlining their situation in life, their world, and where they fit into it right at the beginning of the story. They are probably going to be wrong about something, and require some sort of character arc. But for now we mostly believe them at face value.
Below, in the trailer to I Am Not Okay With This, Sydney tells us she’s a ‘boring white girl’. This creates an ironic distance between Sydney and what she says about herself — in the image, she appears to be running through a town at night covered in blood (ie. not boring). However, the phrase ‘white girl’ clues us into the fact that she understands her own white privilege, at least. (An important lemme-off-the-hook attribute for a white girl main character with a Black best friend.)
Sydney also tells us in episode one that she recently moved to Pennsylvania, “but not a cute part of Pennsylvania”, rather to a town which has won American’s worst air quality for a number of years in a row. To be able to make such a statement she demonstrates an overview knowledge of Pennsylvania (understanding of geography), as well as how people think about Pennsylvania (understanding of psychology).
These young adult characters are able to see their situation as if from above, know where they fit into society and exactly what fresh hell they’re living in. The optimism of their peers seems ridiculous to them, often because they arrive to us with a big ghost e.g. the death of a family member. We presume this recent trauma is the exact thing which elevates them above the smalltown, petty views shared by most of their peers.
Much has been said about the manic pixie dream girls given to men, but these perspicacious YA characters are often girls.
Storytellers frequently pair them up with a more happy-go-lucky sidekick. In Sydney’s case, it’s Stanley, described as giving ‘zero fucks’. These character are quirky outcasts in their own right. Perhaps we might even call them pixie dream boys.
It is their superpower to see the snail under the leaf which enables YA main characters to enact good for their communities.
In his voiceover narration to The End of the FXXXing World, James already has the insight to tell us that he is a psychopath — a conclusion he has drawn without psychological intervention. A girl from school, Alyssa, drags him on a rebellious road trip and is rude to a waitress in a cafe, at which point James tells us that Alyssa has some issues. Ironically for the audience, whatever ‘issues’ Alyssa has, James has bigger ones. So despite his self-insight, he can’t see that he has one massive big issue of his own. But audiences can still respect him for his ironic perspicacity.
Any young adult character who gives the viewer a guided tour at the beginning of a film is probably a perspicacious character though, again, they will be wrong about something. Another example is the opening to 10 Things I Hate About You. Michael has insight into the high school’s social groups only because he has been excluded from all of them:
(The genuinely insightful YA character of 10 Things I Hate About You is Kat.)
This perspicacious character works especially well when they are funny with it. Take the opening paragraph of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, in which the mock-sage fatherly advice is upended:
When I was little, my dad used to tell me, “Well, you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” This seemed like a reasonably astute observation to me when I was eight, but it turns out to be incorrect on a few levels. To begin with, you cannot possibly pick your friends, or else I never would have ended up with Tiny Cooper.John Green and David Levithan
THE HIGHLY OBSERVANT PICTURE BOOK CHARACTER
Is this YA archetype a more grown-up version of Eloise (PB) and Harriet the Spy (MG)?
Both Kay Thompson’s Eloise (Billed as “A book for precocious grown ups”) and Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy stand as models for the life of the New York Upper East side child living in an adult sphere with minimal parental involvement. Eloise’s mother who “is 30 and has a charge account at Bergdorf’s” seems to be perpetually absent, although mentioned frequently in terms of whom she “knows”. The book begins with this introduction: “I am Eloise/ I am six/ I am a city child/I live at The Plaza”. Eloise as the quintessential New York self-defined “city child” protagonist is spunky, talkative, imaginative, precocious, curious, mischievous and vastly self-absorbed. Like Harriet, Eloise is a keen participant in and observer of the adult world in the hotel where she lives. The Plaza becomes its own playful and imaginative world for Eloise where the busboys, musicians, maids and nanny reveal random stories and information about urban life.Naomi Hamer