Moral Ambiguity in YA Fiction

The development of our moral compasses begin when we are children. We are taught to understand the difference between right and wrong, and to make choices that are deemed to be morally acceptable. Tell the truth and do the right thing. But- as much as we know that this is what we “should do”, sometimes the “right” thing isn’t clear, and even when it is, sometimes, for a whole host of reasons, we don’t step up and do it.

This got me thinking about moral ambiguity in YA novels, and whether or not good/bad behaviour should be rewarded/punished. In fiction written for middle grade, there is always a moral lesson. Whether it’s subtle or hit-you-over-the-head clear, the good guy ultimately figures out the morally correct choice and is rewarded and learns a lesson.

In YA, morality is much more ambiguous, and it isn’t as simple as good wins, evil loses. Characters also become much more morally ambiguous. Supposedly good characters do wrong things (and often pay for it) and other characters repeatedly do bad things, but have redeeming qualities, making the line between good and bad much more blurry. (Outright villains such as Voldemort or President Snow aren’t included in this as they are not meant to be forgiven or redeemed)

Take for example Cammie Mcgovern’s upcoming novel A Step Towards Falling, the two main characters witness a mentally disabled female student being attacked, and neither of them acts. Emily is bookish and believes in activism, and Lucas is a football player hoping to earn a scholarship to a good college/university. Both teens have different reasons for not acting, neither of them malicious. They both know what they should have done, and both suffer consequences for failing to do it, but, as wrong as it was, they are easy to forgive because they attempt to make up for their actions. The author paints both teens as essentially good kids who made a bad choice, but is there a difference between deliberately choosing not to do the right thing, and not knowing what it is?

On other side of the coin, take characters who are more ambiguous. Not necessarily an Anti-Hero, but someone who does not necessarily follow a hero’s path. Someone who consistently makes bad choices and have questionable morals, but isn’t an outright villain. In fact, if the author paints them well, they are the most challenging characters to categorize, because their actions don’t tell the whole story. In Chris Lynch’s groundbreaking novel Inexcuseable, told from the perspective of the accused rapist. Keir isn’t a clear-cut bad-guy, nor is he exactly good. He permanently injured another football player on the field, he’s been getting into trouble at school, and he raped his best friend. On the surface, the signs would point to him being terrible, but he’s not. The trouble at school isn’t entirely his fault, and Keifer knows that rape is terrible, but he didn’t understand that he actually committed rape. Part of what makes Inexcusable such a powerful novel is Keifer’s struggle to come to terms with what he did, and figuring out how to redeem himself.

One of my favourite quotes from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events series comes in the third book The Grimm Grotto) where he talks about good and evil. He says: “People aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.” In my mind, this is a perfect way to think about the morally ambiguity of not only YA characters, but most people. Does YA lit have a responsibility to teach a moral lesson? Maybe, but perhaps the most important thing is that in reading about these characters, we in the processes think about our own actions, and learn something about ourselves.


4 Responses to Moral Ambiguity in YA Fiction

  1. Rowenna Aug 24 2015 at 10:48 am #

    I think there’s also more room for complexity in YA in terms of playing with “natural consequences.” For younger kids, I expect a kind of “do what’s right because it’s right and that’s that” element, with any natural consequences being pretty clear-cut and easy to follow, but in YA I kind of like seeing things play out. The character acts in a shortsighted way and it ends up costing them later–but it takes longer or is more complex.

    I also like seeing YA that starts to play with, not just “is this character ‘good’ or ‘bad” but “is there even a morally right answer here?” Teens start to recognize the complications and grey areas in the world, and, I think, crave stories that speak to the difficulty of navigating those (as an adult, I still crave those stories!). They’re starting to face moral choices that don’t have a clear right answer–that might actually have two crappy answers. They might have two choose, for instance, between one option that will do more damage to others and one that contradicts an ethic they hold personally inviolable. How to choose? Is there a “right” choice? I like books that speak to that.

  2. Steph Aug 24 2015 at 7:16 pm #

    Great post! Tweens and teens are growing by leaps and bounds in terms of their capacity for abstract thinking and discerning the many shades of gray between good and evil. I am glad that we now have so many excellent YA writers who respect their intelligence.

  3. Erin Aug 25 2015 at 1:04 pm #

    LOVE this post, Rachel! I’ve always enjoyed writing about gray characters, because that’s life! People aren’t black and white and any many situations don’t have a clearly moral or right solution. I’m so glad YA lit lets authors explore these sorts of stories.

Leave a Reply to Rowenna Click here to cancel reply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.