Author August: Faye Bird – Bad Boys in YA

To view all guest author posts so far and for a chance to win a £40 Foyles Giftcard visit the Author August Page.

Is there a place for compassion in their story?

What I Couldn't Tell YuoThere have always been “bad boys” in YA, and they are often a hot topic for discussion in realistic and fantasy fiction alike. As readers we are drawn to big ideas, big action, big attraction – and bad boys beautifully provide YA writers with just that. But I wonder whether if in realistic fiction, as opposed to fantasy, we are doing these boys justice.

Fiction aside, you don’t have to live in the inner city to recognise these so-called bad boys. They are probably at your school or college, and if they aren’t, then they are likely to be in and around the streets where you live.

As Leo Butler’s play Boy, which recently finished its run at The Almeida, so brilliantly portrayed, boys like Liam, the central character in the play, can mostly be found on street corners, at bus stops, on stairwells and walkways; they are in the public places, the transient spaces, of everyday life.

However within this powerful observation there is an equally powerful contradiction, because whilst Liam is wholly visible, wholly recognisable in the play, he is at the same time almost wholly ignored. But he is the central character of the drama that unfolds, and this, I think, is exactly why the play felt so original, so fresh, why it has something important to say.

So I wonder whether we too should be giving more of a voice to characters like Liam in our YA stories, because whilst there are of course some exceptions – Phil Earle’s Being Billy and Heroic immediately come to mind, as well as arguably Anthony McGowan’s Brock and Pike – these boys aren’t often the pivotal voices in our stories.

One of the most striking things in Boy is how anyone who encounters Liam does so with an immediate expectation of his bad behaviour. The result of course creates a spiralling self-fulfilling prophecy as the drama unfolds; if we assume Liam is bad, if we expect him to be bad, and we give him no options to behave otherwise, then he clearly has no choice other than to be bad through and through.

Eve Ainsworth says of Will in Crush that he has his own demons, that there are always reasons why someone’s behaviours are bad, that there is always a history, and she goes on to say that this needs to be explored more in YA fiction. And I agree.

Certainly how boys like Liam understand themselves and attempt to express themselves in the face of their assumed “badness,” most often without the vocabulary to really say it, sits, I would argue, at the nub of their bad boy behaviour. So each time Liam tries to speak to someone in Boy, in each conversation, each exchange, it is clear that no one understands what it is he is trying to say – and least of all him.

Without the words, boys like Liam in Boy and Billy in What I Couldn’t Tell You have no choice but to act out badly. This is, I think, how Billy crept into my story and made himself so completely known. I certainly never intended for him to inhabit so much of my story at the start. I began inspired to write a story about a girl with Selective Mutism, a girl who couldn’t speak outside her own home, but as I did it became clear that Billy had things he couldn’t say that he badly needed to say too.

faye birdAt a time when the link between poverty and education, specifically for boys, has once again been recent headline news, and when statistics show us that children in the youth justice system are categorically those children from the poorest and most disadvantaged families, and when we recognise that boys like Billy and Liam are a part of our everyday lives, I think without doubt we need to somehow see the bigger picture for our YA “bad boys.” We need to do more than portray them hanging out on the edges of mainstream society, lost and angry, causing hurt, and creating trouble. We need, as Leo Butler has done in Boy, to give them a voice too.

But we do need to be prepared – because giving bad boys more space, more context in YA has the potential to change the story. A bad character who is simply bad, but who recognises his wrong, who is sorry, or who pays for his behaviour in the end, lends itself to a neater and perhaps more satisfying conclusion. A bad boy who isn’t sorry or saved, who isn’t necessarily easily redeemed, but still demands our compassion, may leave us feeling slightly unsettled as a result. I wonder which kind of ending you prefer?

In What I Couldn’t Tell You compassion within the story I was telling became essential as I wrote, and particularly at the end of the novel. I can see now that that compassion came from giving Billy a voice he so badly needed. By giving him that voice, a voice beyond his actions – actions that are undoubtedly unacceptable, often unlawful and extreme at times – he carved out his own story and allowed, I hope, the reader to see him as a character who was by the end more than just the sum of his bad behaviour.  

So I would argue that YA should be giving boys like Liam and Billy more of a voice in our fiction, precisely because they are so present in our lives, and precisely because in so many ways there is no other place for them to truly have that voice in current times.

My personal thanks to Faye  for taking part in Author August!

To view all guest author posts so far and for a chance to win a £40 Foyles Giftcard visit the Author August Page.

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