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Why Working Class Characters matter in Young Adult Fiction

This article is about writing authentic working class characters in Young Adult fiction, a subject which is very close to my heart. I believe that there is a huge hole when it comes to novels that represent readers from poor socio-economic backgrounds and that hole needs to be filled. It’s really important when writing working class characters concentrate on three things; empowerment, positive role models and true representation.

The debate about diversity in Young Adult fiction is not new, but when we refer to diversity in literature we tend to talk about gender, sexuality, race and disabilities, all of which is really important, but where are the champions for the working class kid? Often overlooked in diversity discussions, there are not enough voices from this part of our country being heard.

I believe the construction of a working class identity in Young Adult fiction is paramount for all readers no matter their background; diversity in literature fosters knowledge and understanding of others outside our own sphere of experience. It is only through knowledge and empathy of how others live that we can attempt to communicate and connect with each other.

As a working class child I didn't see kids that represented my life in books growing up and I still find it hard to find many working class characters in fiction that are truly typical of my childhood or the lower socio-economic world that children and teens have to negotiate in Britain today. 

There are also not enough working class writers being published in this country and I really want to change that by talking about it in the publishing world and encouraging the support of low income writers by institutions and arts bodies in a more consistent, sustainable way. It’s so important that working class writers write to ensure their stories are told and the characters they create come from a place of truth and are neither stereotyped or clichéd.

Social class should always matter when we read and think about contemporary realistic fiction and we need to provide the young adult reader with a sense of belonging by writing stories that empower instead of isolate. 

In my career as a writer for both YA and Adult fiction, I have found that there is not only a shortage of working class writers being published, there’s a shortage of working class folk working in publishing and the result is a tiny circle of influence, the stories that get published, that are told come from higher up in society. It’s a distorted reflection of the country we live in. Source material isn’t beyond reach; it’s within every working class writer.

Literature that addresses socio-economic issues is important on a personal and political level. Children and young adults feel respected and validated and their self-esteem is enhanced when they see themselves and their wider communities reflected in books. 

It illuminates the complexity and human dimensions of social deprivation, it’s important because it’s often concerned with the basic subject matter of development. Storytelling is one of humanity’s oldest methods of possessing information and representing reality and is incredibly important in telling stories of poverty, especially from a working class perspective in order to reflect and celebrate this forgotten corner of diversity.

In my new book ONLY THE OCEAN (Bloomsbury) for example, Kel Crow is a voice that comes from the margins of society, socially isolated and literally through her rural location, but she’s a fighter and she’s tenacious and that determination is what motivates her and drives her forward. These kinds of voices are rarely heard, and when they are, we hear them written by people who might not have experienced any kind of marginalisation themselves.

Without authenticity, readers are not getting a true account of what it’s like to be poor or socially isolated. It is about making culture belong to all of us. Inclusivity is beneficial to everyone in society in the long term. Ultimately that's why it's important.

In my work personal experience is at the heart of all my books. Rural isolation, poverty, low wages, abuse, disadvantage, but mostly hope!

I think it’s really important to discuss working class themes in fiction – both positive and negative. Without erasing the struggles of economic hardship or limited options, working-class literature should remind us of the strengths of the working-class culture; humour, integrity, hard work and loyalty among other things.

I also believe that hope is essential in writing for young adults, whatever you’re writing about and being true to my idea of the character involves being as honest as possible about where they come from.

Telling stories about lived experience of issues like social deprivation poverty matter in fiction and no more so than in Young Adult fiction. Literature should challenge the under-representation, negative stereotyping and discrimination in society. We can trigger a different way of thinking about poverty and increase support for better policies by talking about the issues and telling our own stories. I like to think about my own background when writing; raised by a single parent in a council house, no money, no transport, no visible prospects in order to inspire others to believe we can change our own narrative. It’s also important to tap into the positives in our lives no matter how small to make a difference to the way we perceive ourselves. If it wasn’t for my working class background and dogged tenacity I definitely wouldn’t have become the writer I am today. 

We as writers and creators need to work together to change the story people hear, so they can think in a new way about poverty. The beauty of literature is that they provide a way for readers to explore new possibilities, to learn about themselves and the world around them.

We need more compelling and believable stories with true representations of different economic backgrounds that can also provide some kind of hope, because our stories matter, class matters.

Natasha Carthew is a working-class Country Writer from Cornwall where she lives with her girlfriend. She has written all her books outside, either in the fields and woodland that surrounds her home or in the cabin that she built from scrap wood. She has written two books of poetry as well as three Young Adult books, Winter Damage, The Light That Gets Lost and her latest Only The Ocean all for Bloomsbury. Her first Adult book All Rivers Run Free is published by Riverrun/Quercus. Natasha has written for many publications on the subject of Wild Writing, including; Writers & Artists Yearbook, Eco-Fiction, Trip Fiction, The Guardian, The Big Issue and the Dark Mountain Project. She’s currently writing her second literary novel for adults and a new collection of rural poetry. Follow Natasha on Twitter.