Every teenager wants to fit in: the bestselling YA novels represent this desire on a grander scale by using a theme of socioeconomic tension. By setting up a battle of Rich vs. Poor, you can ground your story in reality, reveal your hero’s insecurities, and dial up the conflict. Try these 5 ways to insert the theme into your story.
1. The hero starts off poor.
All three heroes in Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games start off with very little money and then get “privileged glimpses” into a wealthier way of life.
- Harry tells Hagrid, “I haven’t got any money — and you heard Uncle Vernon last night . . . he won’t pay for me to go and learn magic.” (HP Ch.5).
- Bella explains, “At home I’d lived in one of the few lower-income neighborhoods that were included in the Paradise Valley District. It was a common thing to see a new Mercedes or Porsche in the student lot.” (TW Ch.1).
- Katniss experiences the most severe poverty. “But the money ran out and we were slowly starving to death. There’s no other way to put it.” (HG Ch.2).
2. The hero relates better with people who share his socioeconomic status.
- Harry Potter and Ron Weasley become fast friends. (Remember how happy Harry was to share his food with Ron?) “Harry didn’t think there was anything wrong with not being able to afford an owl. After all, he’d never had any money in his life until a month ago, and he told Ron so. . . . This seemed to cheer Ron up.” (HP Ch.6).
- On her first day at the new school, Bella thinks, “I was glad to see that most of the cars were older like mine, nothing flashy.” (TW Ch.1).
- Katniss’s best friend is her hunting partner, and they each keep their family from starving. “In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale.” (HG Ch.1).
3. The hero is embarrassed about his lower economic status.
- Before Harry gets his letter from Hogwarts, Mrs. Dursley dyes some of Dudley’s old clothes gray for Harry to wear as a school uniform. “He sat down at the table and tried not to think about how he was going to look on his first day at Stonewall High– like he was wearing bits of old elephant skin, probably.” (HP Ch.3).
- Bella is embarrassed by her old truck even though she knows it is good quality. “Still, I cut the engine as soon as I was in a spot, so that the thunderous volume wouldn’t draw attention to me.” (TW Ch.1).
- Katniss uses pity from the wealthy to her advantage. “I force my lips up into a smile to show how grateful I am. . . . ‘We don’t have much cause to look nice in District Twelve.’ This wins them over completely. ‘Of course, you don’t, you poor darling!’ says Octavia clasping her hands together in distress for me.” (HG Ch.5).
4. The hero feels that wealthier people mock him for being poor.
- In Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy is rich and always judges Ron for being so poor. “’. . . if brains were gold you’d be poorer than Weasley, and that’s saying something.’ Ron’s nerves were already stretched to the breaking point with anxiety about Harry.” (HP Ch.13).
- Katniss worries that Peeta’s family will look down on her because she is from the worst part of District 12 and he is from the merchant area. “I’m sure that would thrill your parents, you liking a girl from the Seam.” (HG Ch.23).
5. The hero may resent or lash out at the rich.
- When Harry receives a flying broomstick that is nicer than the one Draco Malfoy owns, Harry and Ron rub it in Malfoy’s face. Harry is “fighting not to laugh at the look of horror on Malfoy’s face. . . . Harry and Ron headed upstairs, smothering their laughter at Malfoy’s obvious rage and confusion.” (HP Ch.10).
- Bella doesn’t think it’s fair that the Cullens wear designer label clothes. “It seemed excessive for them to have both looks and money. But as far as I could tell, life worked that way most of the time. (TW Ch.2).
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss sees Gale act rude to Madge, the rich daughter of the mayor. “You can see why someone like Madge, who has never been at risk of needing a tessera, can set him off. The chance of her name being drawn is very slim compared to those of us who live in the Seam. . . . it’s hard not to resent those who don’t have to sign up for tesserae.” (HG Ch.1).
Why it Works
As young adults, the heroes are hyper-aware of how they fit in to the world around them. We know already that one of the shared traits of the hero is that he is a bit of an outsider, struggling to conform.
There is a natural conflict that arises because the hero is eager for new experiences but still more comfortable traveling in a crowd like themselves. This struggle is also part of our story’s basic conflict: The hero’s everyday goal is to just fit in and do well at school, but this is overshadowed by the new goal of battling the villain. No matter how high the stakes are raised, the socioeconomic tension remains.
This is my first post on theme, and I still am discovering how to distinguish it from plot or symbolism. To learn more, check out this article from Writer’s Digest, which explains that:
Theme is the relevance of your story to life. To reality, as reflected in your fiction. Theme is love and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science versus nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter.
-Larry Brooks, author of Story Engineering.
Let’s put our theme card in Chapters 1, 3, and 11 of the master outline for now, as a reminder to weave it throughout the story. A theme of wealth and poverty may seem like a big issue for a young adult novel. But young adults aren’t idiots. They read the news stories, they hear their parents talk, and they interact with different classes of people. Trust your readers to be able to handle it and you will be rewarded with a more meaningful novel.