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The YA Formula for Female Protagonists

When you think of Young Adult Literature, what pops into your head? Every Jesse Green book? Cheesy first love stories? Sad first love stories? Twilight?

Over the last decade YA has evolved. You don’t see many books like Sweet Valley High anymore or Gossip Girl—two book series based off a pair of perfect blonde rich girls. Instead we’re seeing more diversity, both ethnically and politically. If a character is LGBTQ, their sexuality doesn’t have to be the plot, as author Bill Konigsberg describes in his blog. But even though YA is progressing, female protagonists still frequently fall into one of the damaging types that represents women and girls negatively. And as someone who’s read a lot of Young Adult Literature, the representation and personification of woman and girls, and the negative effects that can have on the reader, is something I’ve always been bothered by.

I’ve dubbed two of the typical protagonists “The Heroine” and “Miss Perfect” (also known as a “Mary Sue”). Why are these two types so prevalent in this genre, and what makes them popular?

The Protagonist Formula

“Miss Perfect” is smart and beautiful, even if she has a lot of self-doubt, and seemingly every guy is pining after her. Because of the boringness of exceptionality, she’s often flat and lacks growth; the majority of what she thinks about is herself. To counteract this dilemma the author sometimes tries to use other characters to give the protagonist more of a personality, but the results are mixed. A lot of  “Miss Perfects” lack any female companionship, and if they do have friendships, they’re insignificant. This is maybe due to competition, not only for romantic attention but also for narrative attention. She has to be special; the spotlight should always be on her and nothing should distract from that. Guys are okay because they usually end up turning into one of the love interests. Generally, if there is another important female character they tend to be the enemy, or even the antagonist. God forbid women are friends without hating each other.

A few familiar “Miss Perfects” are Bella from forbidden vampire romance Twilight and The ShadowhuntersClary, who suddenly can see people from another dimension. Clary decides to look for her mother in this new reality, filled with invisible monsters trying to kill her, but the plot mostly centers on her romance and interpersonal drama, which includes the cliché “nice best friend” versus “bad boy” trope. Similarly, Bella handles the dangerous vampire world very coolly – but anything about Edward or Jacob leads to a crisis. Both of these books are best sellers and have been sold worldwide. They’re heroines that are superficially flawed at most, and the drama around themselves and their relationships comes before the plot.

Bella as “Miss Perfect” probably isn’t a surprising choice.  Her obsession with Edward is the most important thing to her, side-tracking her adoring father and concerned friends, and affecting her treatment of Jacob. While she isn’t innately selfish, her actions cause other people to suffer and she becomes aware of this but still chooses to be selfish. She is, to an extent, boring. Her exceptionality and popularity makes up for her lack of personality. She is flat.

But what makes Clary a “Miss Perfect” if the books are so action-packed? She’s beautiful, even though she pretends not to be, and both smart and athletic. She’s exceptional: she studies philosophy, even though she’s only sixteen.  She’s more wish-fulfillment than she is a real teenager, which can make her read as self-absorbed. Like Bella, she’s selfish. She abuses her best friend, knowing he likes her, and ridicules her main love-interest’s best friend. (While yes, he was obnoxious, he was also in love with that best friend, unable to come out in a strict conservative family.) When Clary figures this out, to get back at him, she takes advantage of it. These are the girls you can’t stand but can’t seem to hate.

These characters rely on one message: if you’re beautiful and exceptional everything will naturally fall into place. But nothing ever falls into place so simply, and a problem rarely solves itself. Things change if you work hard and “Miss Perfects” make it seem like that’s not the case. While they are not actively preaching this, maybe even giving lip service to feminism, their limited character development and lack of plot do.

So what about the “The Heroine”? This type is strong, physically and mentally. She knows what she wants and the goal she needs to complete early in the story. It’s all about figuring out how. “The Heroine” type is not bound by the restrictions of being pretty or perfect, but can be both (though she’s a different type of perfect). ”The Heroine” is the strongest or one of the strongest characters and has a fervent sense of principles and justice. They don’t have to purely be good. If they’re not fighting on the “right” side of justice; they’re fighting for their own type of justice. If the main protagonist is male,  these girls generally turn out to be a love interest.

 “The Heroine” cares about important things, not just her love life. She tends to care more about her friends and will generally have at least one friend who is a girl (that’s actually a big deal). She is also capable of having male friends that aren’t love interests (also a big deal). The male supporting characters do not drive the story and the plot usually matters. But these traits are just as idealized as “Miss Perfect’s”, as someone who also naturally attracts people. She just has to be flawless in a different way.

Celaena from Throne of Glass is the “Heroine Type”: just add sarcasm and she’s good to go. She suffers brutal imprisonment after being caught by the enemy kingdom until given a proposition to become champion for the King (the very person who destroyed her homeland) in exchange for her eventual freedom. She accepts: like a lot of heroines, she’ll do anything to get what she wants without sacrificing innocent people. In Celaena’s case, she strives for justice without being completely aware that that’s what she’s doing.

“The Heroine” is always popular. She has an aura that draws people to her. She is hated or disliked by some higher power because she’s special, for one reason or another. “The Heroine” can be flat even while being—ironically—too animated. If too preachy, she has only high emotions (especially anger and happiness), and an unnatural belief in hope, “The Heroine” can be shown to lack a personality if you look past the façade of exuberance. She can do no wrong and is a savior angel (think Wonder Woman, but less subtle), and lacks personal emotional growth. She relies one crucial message that can seem positive on the outside: the most important thing is to be strong. To take it at a different angle, it’s not okay to be weak; everyone has to be strong—always. Fear, doubt, and weakness are shameful.

What’s the connection among these three protagonists, and between these two types? They have a bigger consequence than you’d think. Teenager Vivian Parkin de Rosa—a contributor to the Huffington Post—touches on this in her explanation of why she dislikes Young Adult Literature. She discusses how unrealistic YA can be: teenagers are actually portrayed as if they are in their twenties, every adult magically always listens to them, and quite a lot more. Blogger Maj expresses her own worries about certain YA tropes, touching on a lot of topics discussed in this post like the absurd selflessness of “The Heroine” type and beauty standards.

Beauty standards for these protagonists are unrealistic—they are gorgeous, perfect, and strong. They all have perfect bodies, and Celaena herself is described as beautiful and having a skinny but curvy body. This is arguably one of the most wanted body types in America, which can be damaging to teenagers reading this book who are still maturing and who might value their own bodies less as a result. Girls reading might believe that these are the most important things in life. Contemporary YA is starting to move past this perfect image with books like Dumpling’ and Fat Angie and addresses that people are not the same and beauty is different for everyone:  having the perfect body and being pretty isn’t everything, and you don’t have to be beautiful to be worth something. 

Protagonist types like “Miss Perfect” and “The Heroine” are difficult for a reader to feel for. You can enjoy the action in Throne of Glass or the dramatic love havoc in The Shadowhunters and Twilight, but you’ll have a hard time getting to know their heroines as characters. Celaena is powerful and certain; bold and charismatic; will always speak her mind; lacks fear. People like Clary and Bella are good at everything, are beautiful, and people want to be with them. Not many people are like this, especially teenage girls who haven’t matured yet, and trying to reach these standards can be damaging. Your personalities, thoughts, growth, and ideas don’t matter as much as how you look and seem to others. And that’s what these protagonists reflect—the unobtainable ideal image that is branded into society’s minds already. You can’t learn anything from these protagonists, much less with them. Relatable characters are different. They can be learned from and understood.

So what makes a relatable protagonist?

She is imperfect and has human emotions and wills. If she’s strong, she’s still frail at some points and struggles with the choices and the hardships that life has forced upon her. The emotions of the book and of the characters can be felt and understood; they’re complicated and interesting, and the reader might see herself in the protagonist. The protagonist and her choices mold the plot, and the love interest(s) are supporting characters that may help her but don’t drive it.

Two great examples would be Seraphina from Seraphina and Laila from An Ember in the Ashes. These two protagonists make hard and painful choices to save the people they love and/or to help a cause. They struggle, and are afraid and indecisive. Over the course of these books, naturally, they become stronger, but they haven’t turned into superwomen—they still have fears, though they have chosen to face them instead of shy away. The feelings, insecurities, and hardships of the characters are relatable. They’re human without dictating a guideline on how you should be, and the real maturity and growth of the characters is empowering.

These aren’t perfect, of course. Seraphina struggles with a lack of diversity (to be discussed in a different post) and An Ember in the Ashes contains a lot of brutality.  But even though they’re flawed, they represent what it means to be human. Both characters are faced with harsh realties and they respond to the adversary in a realistic way. They’re clumsy and full of doubt; they make mistakes and wrong choices and are afraid not only for the conflict around them but for themselves. They struggle to find the answer or purpose in what they’re doing. They don’t tackle it with unnerving confidence and power and the plot doesn’t solve itself. They have human emotions and natural life struggles. To have a protagonist that is relatable where a reader can see themselves in them despite the context of the plot—is truly invaluable.

But some books put women and girls on a gilded pedestal, with negative effects. Young girls are surrounded by examples that further drive these feelings: the media, television, movies, advertisements, and more. While pop culture is all on the surface, books are different, and their responsibilities are different. A reader’s experiences don’t come from what they see but what they think, which means that a character in a book might feel more personal than one in a movie. One of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason why books are personal is because through only words the reader has to imagine the characters and the setting. The words—as cliché as it is—come to life in the reader’s mind.

If you want to consider how personal a can book be, one of my little cousins is a good example. She refuses to see any movie adaption of a book. She hasn’t seen all the Harry Potter movies and regrets the ones she saw. I asked her why, and told her that she was missing out. She hesitated to answer me, but when she did she told me that watching movies ruins her experience of the book because it destroys the images she created. You could consider it an invasion of her personal space.

It’s understandable; your experience of reading is something that you created and nobody else can see. The reader might see themselves in the protagonist and, when a book has a protagonist like the ones mentioned here, a reader might want to be exactly like them. When that adrenaline ends, your flaws will show plainly, and that you don’t match even close to these almost perfect characters. Another image of what you’re supposed to be, likely increasing insecurities. Books are personal and they resonate within instead of without.

Authors have the leeway they need to create any type of character. I’m not trying to say that all protagonists should be ugly and weak. I’m saying that they should be relatable. There’s nothing wrong with having a super cool heroine that kicks (you know), but she must have flaws—she must be human; she must be relatable. A character can be beautiful (Laila for example is pretty and still is relatable) but that’s not what should define her. And a heroine doesn’t have to be powerful or smart, even if it’s done tastefully. Books can exceed society’s standards. They can be anything. And authors should take advantage of that.

What about the future?

YA is considered to be in its second “Golden Age”, and all the books mentioned have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. Twilight and The Shadowhunters have been adapted into movies or television shows. An Ember in the Ashes has been greenlit. These series have been translated into many languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide. With YA receiving more attention, it’s comforting to know that things are getting better.

As I said at the start, diversity and acceptance is progressing in YA. But the typical formulated protagonist is still widely used and quite popular because books like that do very well.  More books should be published, and purchased, that show acceptance and representation for multitudes of people, while staying realistic to the emotions and actions of people. Seeing yourself inside characters that struggle and make mistakes can help a reader understand that it’s okay to doubt yourself and have weaknesses, and that it’s possible to overcome your struggles. This is not only limited for emotional, darker stories; you can have comedies and light-hearted books that still display a realistic, relatable protagonist. While things are getting better, there’s still a lot more to do.

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