Who Am I?: Identity as a Theme in YA Literature

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

“Who am I?”

“Where do I fit in?”

“Will other people accept me?”

If these questions sound familiar, it might be because they’re part of being a teenager. Even adults can remember how challenging this period in our lives was, between school, friendships, dating, family, the pressures of responsibility, and an increasing craving for respect and freedom. But at the heart of this transition stage between childhood and adulthood lies an existential dilemma: figuring out who you are. It’s awkward, confusing, and frustrating at times – and it can wreck havoc on a teen’s self-esteem.

Luckily, YA literature abounds with novels that address identity as a literary theme. In fact, there are so many that I couldn’t choose which ones to use as case study examples. So instead, let’s take a broad look at some of the angles in which YA lit explores identity, as well as examples from across the YA spectrum.

Angle #1: Identity Is a (Complicated) Choice

In many YA novels, protagonists learn that they can decide who they want to be – which sounds fantastic, until they realize how difficult that decision is. Maybe the character wants to exhibit a quality they admire, like compassion, physical strength, or honesty, but they find it challenging to do so. Or, maybe they’ve made poor decisions in the past and now aspire to be a better person. Yet as the protagonists watch adults or other teens coming to terms with their individual identities, they realize how complex and ever-changing one’s sense of self can be. And when they eventually embrace their many layers, the outcome of their choice inspires young readers and teaches them that all teens, real and fictional, yearn to understand who they are – and once they do, that knowledge can be empowering beyond words.

Examples: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, Divergent by Veronica Roth, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Angle #2: Learning to Accept Who You Are

Self-acceptance can be a hard-fought battle for many teens and YA characters. Their circumstances at home, in school, or in certain relationships can make it difficult for them to share their traumatic pasts, sexual orientation, or gender identity with others. Protagonists who suffer from depression, social anxiety, and other mental health disorders may also isolate themselves for fear of rejection despite their craving for connection. These characters aren’t hiding who they are. Rather, their stories are about seeking acceptance from others as well as themselves and learning to be comfortable with who they are. And for many young readers, bonding with characters whose struggles are similar to their own can reassure them that they, too, can find a way to succeed.

Examples: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, When The Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Angle #3: Caught In an Identity Crisis

Some YA novels explore what happens when the protagonist is torn between who they are and who others want them to be. Sometimes their situation dictates the role they must play at that moment. Other times, supporting characters or society at large may force the character to conform in ways that make them feel uncomfortable – because those actions or behaviors aren’t aligned with their own beliefs. What often results is a painful internal conflict peppered with questions like “Am I a good person?” and “Why can’t I be who I really am?” Teen readers can relate to this struggle in real life, since they may also find themselves caught between how their parents, friends, or other influencers see them and how they see themselves.

Example: Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Angle #4: Hiding Your True Identity

Another frequent angle is the idea of hiding one’s true identity. Especially in YA fantasy and historical fiction, girls may dress and act as boys to receive education, training, and other privileges they wouldn’t normally receive because of their gender. In other cases, a character may lie about their name, country of birth, choice of religion, and other aspects of their identity to avoid persecution or to protect themselves and their loved ones. Regardless, these characters are forced to hide a part of themselves that society deems unacceptable. This further complicates their journey to understanding or accepting who they are and can lead to feelings of isolation and fear of rejection or being exposed. And if young readers relate to, admire, or sympathize with these characters, they’ll likely be hooked by the suspense of how long those characters can keep their secrets, too.

Examples: The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Angle #5: The Fantastical Twist on Identity

YA authors who write fantasy, alternate history, and other speculative genres sometimes put a creative twist on the theme of identity. They often take one of the previously mentioned angles, then incorporate magic or aspects of otherworldly creatures to complicate matters for the protagonist. See if you can guess which of those angles are explored in these novels:

  • The titular heroine of Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina is half-dragon and half-human. Because the humans in her country fear dragons, Seraphina must hide her heritage and cover most of her skin, which has patches of dragon scales.
  • In Ryan Graudin’s Wolf By Wolf, the protagonist Yael has the ability to skinshift after years of experimentation at a Nazi death camp. As a result of “wearing” different identities for most of her life, she no longer remembers her original appearance.
  • August, one of the two protagonists in Victoria Schwab’s This Savage Song, is a monster in human form who feeds on the souls of sinners. He’s ashamed of who he is, and spends much of the novel trying to blend in and deny his true identity – which, he soon realizes, he’ll have to embrace if he wants to survive.

Surprise! Exploring Identity Requires a Blend of These Angles

If you’ve read any of the books listed above, of if you’ve written your own YA story that features identity as a theme, you might be thinking, “Doesn’t that story use more than one angle?” Great question – and the answer is, yes!

Like other themes, identity requires a multifaceted approach to show the many challenges it presents to characters. Tris’s journey with her identity in Divergent, for example, isn’t limited to her choosing who she wants to be. She frequently feels insecure about and confined by her Dauntless superiors’ expectations of her (Angle #3); and she must keep her true identity as a Divergent a secret, since her society views Divergents as a threat (Angle #4). Likewise, in When the Moon Was Ours, the transgender Sam must reconcile his chosen identity as a boy with the female body he was born with – an internal journey that, when considered carefully, is essentially a merging of Angles #1 through #4.

So if you’re writing a YA story that features identity as a theme, consider 1) blending two or three of these angles (or more, if you’re so inclined) in a way that makes sense for the story you want to tell, and 2) using at least one mirror character who reflects some aspect of the protagonist’s journey with her identity. Doing both will ensure that your story’s delving into identity has the depth and repetition it needs to feel complete and be noticeable enough to readers without overdoing it. In other words, this will help your exploration meet the criteria of our working definition of “theme.” And the more kaleidoscopic your story’s approach to this theme becomes, the more likely it will resonate with young readers and empower them to make positive decisions about their own identity.

What YA novels have you read that address the theme of identity? Which of the above angles did they use? Have you written any stories (either YA or for another audience) that explore identity? If so, how does your story accomplish this?

Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.

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