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September 3, 2014

Sudden Teenage Empowerment Syndrome


Is there some element that is present in the majority of popular and enjoyable young adult novels? 

I've found that practically all books written for a pre-teen or teenage audience contain a young character who is somehow empowered, whether it is because of a magical ability or because of an opportunity or realization. I call this plot element Sudden Teenage Empowerment Syndrome. In some stories, such as the Harry Potter series, Sudden Teenage Empowerment Syndrome is obvious. But other characters are changed or empowered in more subtle ways. I've tried to make a few general categories of teenage empowerment that most books can fit into.

"Classic" Sudden Teenage Empowerment

The epitome of teenage empowerment syndrome is Harry Potter. Though he is alternately bullied and neglected at home, he eventually learns that he is a wizard and is, in fact, one of the most famous wizards in the world. No reader can not be a bit jealous as Harry is whisked off into a foreign and magical world. Harry goes from a life worse than most people’s to a life that is dangerous but gives him more power than one can hope for. Other examples in this category are the Percy Jackson series and THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE.   

Empowerment by Association or Relation

The next best thing to actually being a supernatural creature, a wizard or anyone powerful is to be related to one, either by blood or by friendship or association. This idea has been featured widely throughout YA literature, and the main character is normally empowered by either a romance or by their parentage, which remained secret until then. Some characters empowered in this way eventually become superhumanly powerful themselves. One of the more obvious examples in this category is TWILIGHT.

Empowerment Because Others Have Degraded

Who can forget the opening scenario of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS in which an ordinary man wakes to find himself in a world of mice-sized people? Gulliver became a giant through the diminishment of others. This classic notion has many parallels in today's fiction. Perhaps even zombie literature, as a genre, might owe some of its appeal to similar contrasts. When everyone else is an animated corpse, even an ordinary person will take on heroic characteristics in speed, intelligence and power.

Empowerment Forced by the Circumstances

Sometimes the power hidden in a character is only revealed through reaction to trying circumstances. Think of Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy, or practically every other character who is forced into a deadly situation with no fighting experience and becomes an expert survivalist. Or in TREASURE ISLAND, to take another example, Jim Hawkins discovers his true resourcefulness and courage in the face of treachery by a group of pirates. 

Rejecting the Option to Become Empowered

In THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the hobbit Sam faces a moment of almost unlimited temptation. To become a lord in command of armies, with all the forces of nature at his beck and call, all he needs do is claim the One Ring for his own. In the end his common sense, fortunately strong among hobbits, overcame the temptation and he rejected the fantasy of power. Such rejection of empowerment is a rare but gratifying triumph of the natural over the supernatural. It can be seen in TUCK EVERLASTING when a young girl declines an offer of immortality because the idea of it is so counter to what she views as the natural cycle of life and death. Many young adult fantasy and adventure books have a scene where the main character becomes tempted to betray his or her allies to gain power, wealth or to be on the side that they believe will ultimately win.

The Power of Thinking for Yourself

Many recent YA books have featured strong-willed and strong-minded protagonists who have gone against the opinions of the dystopian society that controls their life. Such characters are self-empowered and reject the society, embracing their own set of values. Books like THE GIVER and DIVERGENT are examples of this category.

Next time you are reading a YA book, or any novel for that matter, see if someone becomes empowered and if the empowerment fits into any of these categories. If someone is empowered in a different way, try brainstorming other books that would fit into the new category. I also think that many of the examples that I have given could fit into multiple categories.

Rachel B. is a Teen Board member.