The challenge with 'issue-based YA' - the sort of young adult fiction that has teens in difficult 'real world' (ish) situations - is that is completely relies on the reader connecting to the protagonist. Even more than, say, dystopian YA or epic fantasy or Westerns or any other sort of genre. This is about a character, their response to a crisis, and their triumph (or not). Throw in a secondary world setting or a zombie or two, and you've got distractions - an element that can (and often does) offset a character of dubious verisimilitude.
(I understand that I'm backing up into the whole 'lit fic' vs 'spec fic' argument here, and I think that's the same challenge. Speculative fiction is awesome because you have the entire range of human imagination, the possible and the impossible to play with. Literary fiction is awesome because you don't.)
Because I like putting things into buckets, it would seem there are a few ways about this:
- The protagonist as mirror. The book has a protagonist that is That Type of Person. They work because they're a recognisable type of person, and they work especially well if the reader is that type of person. They don't work empathetically when they veer into pastiche, but even then, they're tropes - they still work as shortcuts. The range includes everything from Geek Girl to Gossip Girl.
- The protagonist as shadow. The protagonist is the everyperson - a blank that can, potentially, be any of us. Possibly they are defined solely by external events, for example, Spiderman, or damn near any character from Neil Gaiman. They work because they're abstract enough for us to slot ourselves into their shoes without having to dislodge an existing personality.
- The protagonist as individual. I realise I'm veering into Stating the Obvious territory, but - writing the protagonist to be a person of their very own. They're not meant to be anyone but themselves. They're neither a reflection or a shadow, but a distinct personality. Francis Hardigne's Mosca Mye and Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet (the Spy) are the two that immediately leap to mind. Patrick Ness speaks and writes about this all the time, and it boils down to two key points (I think): a) authenticity - teens that act like teens and b) respect - not underestimating the (young) reader. Teenage readers recognise teenagers.
In my eyes, this isn't a hierarchy, these are different writing 'tactics' to get the job done. There are certainly less successful tactics out there (both 'character as wish-fulfilment' and 'character as sock-puppet for author' spring to mind).
First, a warning - Brooks' The Bunker Diary (2013), is about as hard-hitting and unpleasant a book as I've ever read. Being 'young adult', it is getting the obligatory references to Lord of the Flies - I'm personally leaning more towards "No Exit" or Concrete Island.
Linus is a teenage busker. He's a runaway (from a fairly wealthy background) and has taken to the street to find/lose himself. Take your pick. The story opens with him in the titular bunker. He's been kidnapped off the street, drugged, and transported to this prison: six bedrooms, one bathroom, a lot of cameras, no exits.
With his mysterious captor watching everything he does, Linus keeps a diary as his one means of rebellion - he can write what he wants, say what he wants and, in a sense, be free. If the circumstances weren't so horrifically macabre, this is everything he was looking for whilst living on the street. (Hint: theme alert.)
Things swiftly become even more complicated when other prisoners arrive and the captor begins to engage in a more tangible fashion. With every new arrival and new 'stimulus', Linus finds himself tested. Not just physically (in truly awful ways), but - if you'll forgive the word - existentially. With his world reduced to the head of a pin, Linus is continuously challenged to verify his individuality and his animus. What makes him a person and not a nameless victim or a statistic? What makes him unique, distinctive and 'Linus'? All this, plus all the in-fighting, despair and horror that you might be able to anticipate from a hard-hitting tale of kidnapping and torture.