I don't know about you, but I always feel compared to give "issue" books a higher rating than contemporary realism that deals with less objectively serious subjects. But the thing is, it frustrates me when an "issue" book receives accolade after accolade when it cannot convincingly answer an extremely important fiction question for me:
Can the main character exist without the book's "issue"?
I used to think that bland protagonists existed only in guilty-pleasure paranormal romances, hidden behind the romantic appeal, okay-ed through the editing process because of the flashy premise. But now I know that they can exist in realistic fiction as well. This time, they're masked behind a sad, sad event that screams "PITY ME", otherwise you will be considered a horrible, insensitive person.
But this is a misconception, because the way to get people to relate to your character? To make your character as specific as possible. Little mundane quirks that bring out the human in your character. Because I am still constantly being surprised at how related so many of us are in our thoughts and experiences. Yeah, human beings are unique creatures, but they also share a whole lot, particularly in adolescence. Everyone feels lonely. Everyone feels misunderstood. These feelings of isolation, frustration, and fear are what differentiate us, but also what draw us in solidarity when we find someone else who feels the same way we do.
Some of the best contemporary realistic YA fiction I've read deal not with serious subjects like death or abuse, but rather with the completely, absolutely, totally, terrifically ordinary everyday concerns of being a teenager: friendship fluctuations, romantic worries, school, body image, adults who just don't get them. I like a serious, thought-provoking, and eye-opening read myself, but I also love it when a more so-called "lighthearted" or "frivolous" YA book really gets what it means to be an average teen. Because--and let's not delude ourselves in the name of sensitivity and empathy--many of us just want flawed, rebellious, and tetchy screw-up characters that we can read about and go, "Oh my God, I am totally like that." And on the rare occasion where I can find a book with a strong premise and a truly well-developed protagonist, well, that's just incredibly cool and wonderful.
I think that writers should ask themselves as they're writing, "Can my main character exist without the catalyst for their story in this book?" Take away the tragedy and what remains? If you draw a blank--if you can't describe the character beyond the embarrassingly basic facts such as living arrangement, primary extracurricular activities, tentative career ideas, etc.--then you really should rethink your character. YA readers are becoming sophisticated enough to notice when a premise remains only a premise. A novel does not truly take flight on a flashy or sympathy-inducing premise alone. That's why some of the best books--or at least some of my favorite books--can have seemingly little or no plot at all. An attention-grabbing premise can garner the pre-hype and release week bestselling status, but only thorough and relatable characterization can make a story memorable across both one and many lifetimes.