Sad Sack Syndrome in Young Adult Novels, by SM Johnston
One of the key elements of a great story is character development. The readers want to see a main character grow, overcome hardships and come out of the other end of the story a different person. There needs to be high stakes and your character needs to go through tough times, but that doesn’t mean they need to suffer from “Sad Sack Syndrome.”
Sad Sack Syndrome is a phrase I first saw coined by agent John Cusick on Twitter when he responded to agent Sara Megibow’s comment about whiny characters feeling inauthentic to her.
It’s common knowledge that teenagers can be a bit moody – but all the time? There are a couple of main issues with making a main character whiny:
Who likes hanging around with a downer?
Someone who is constantly depressed, mean to people and complains regularly isn’t the type of person people want to hang around. So why would a reader want to endure them for a whole novel?
You need to create a character that has depth and who grows in their journey. Even if your main character is facing high stakes with huge obstacles, the solution is not to having them fall into a heap whenever their story takes a turn for the worse. Readers want to see a character take on the challenge, even if they fail.
Nobody is whiny ALL THE TIME
People may come across as always being a drag to you, but you don’t spend 24 hours a day with them. Even if someone you go to school with is quiet and withdrawn at lunchtimes or in classes, you don’t have every class with them and you don’t see them before and after school. People have depth and your characters should too. There are going to be things your main character enjoys and other things that they don’t. Even if you have a side character who tends to be a complainer – they won’t do it 24/7. A character can be cautious, doubtful or a bit of a sook, but if you have that as their only trait they’ll be one dimensional. Give your character’s substance.
Even if at first your character thinks that they’re hard done by, eventually the reader is going to want to see them get a grip and take ownership of their life.
The cost of continual lows
If your main character is always sad then having them crying over something where tears are warrant loses its impact. In life we have highs and lows. It’s a good idea to conduct a weep audit on your characters. If they cry on a regular basis, then look for other ways for them to react. Not many people cry at the drop of a hat.
I know this is something I’ve been guilty of – not because I think teens are whiney, but because I was putting my main character in horrible situations and my first thought was that she’d react with tears. Angela Slatter, who edited my work in progress, pointed out how often characters cried in my story. She wasn’t so much whiney, but lacked a bit of oomph and had an endless supply of water works. I’m going through her notes at the moment and revising and have feed my characters a teaspoon of concrete so they’ll toughen up. No more continual sad sacks in my manuscript.
If you need a quick and easy way to determine how much of a sad sack your characters are, check out this post from debut author Elizabeth May that includes identifying over-used words (http://elizabethmaywrites.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/self-editing-manuscript-in-eight-steps.html). Search for tear, cry, weep, whine, complain, moan and see how many hits you get. But it’s a good idea to read through and make sure that your character has a balance of emotions that are consistent with an authentic teen for the situations you’re throwing them into.