I’ve given birth to a prickly teen (if you’re more literal, you’ll be experiencing a bad visual right about now—I apologize). Her name is Pen and she’s the star of my work-in-progress (WIP) Boifriend. Right from the beginning, Pen had a likeability factor problem. I remember some of my beta readers thought she was too sarcastic, moody, and blasé. I worked on her attitude for a few drafts. But still, some still felt she was all these negative things that needed to be looked at. It surprised me because I thought she was awesome. I thought she sounded so much like someone I might’ve known (or been, really) in high school. At the same time, many other readers thought like me, and they loved Pen’s voice. They saw her attitude and demeanor in a different light. Those who “got” Pen even liked her earlier, crustier incarnations.
But we all know our protags are supposed to be likable.
Except…what does that even mean? And furthermore, what does that mean for a teen protag? I’m not talking about a serial killer as a main character here. Just a regular teenager.
Whenever someone has critiqued my protagonists—because I’ve got far crustier protags than Pen in other WIPs—as being anything that could translate to “unlikable,” I’ve carefully considered the feedback and made changes accordingly. Because if I’ve got an unlikable protag, then I’ve failed as a writer, right? But, lately I’ve been thinking enough is enough. If I keep going with this “stamp removal,” I might just erase the kick-ass teen right out of these protagonists of mine.
Here’s a truth about me: I’ve had a love-hate relationship with YA fiction. My problem has to do with the fact that many of the main characters I encounter in YA novels don’t feel like teenagers. I can’t tell you how many 27-year-old self-aware adults I’ve found masquerading as teens in YA. They talk and think like adults. They have such perspective and empathy. They’re concerned with adult issues—and it can happen, fair enough—but they handle these issues using the maturity and experience of adults. It rings false to my ears, and worse, it makes me feel like my teen experience was juvenile and pathetic. If you had been inside mine and my friends’ minds when we were 16, you likely would’ve found us to be nice enough, and cool (I’d like to think) but quite sarcastic and crusty. Also a bit irrational and impulsive, and a lot self-absorbed. Is that unlikable? I don’t think so. All these characteristics don’t necessarily mean unsympathetic. They don’t imply meanness.
As a writer of YA fiction, you have to be faithful to the teen experience to give an accurate inside look at the teen world. And yes, all teen experiences are different—I get that. But when it comes to a regular teen in a contemporary novel, you can’t disregard the characteristics of that developmental age. That means the hormones, the ego, the identity stuff, the magnified emotions, the angst. I mean, would you call a toddler protagonist unlikable because he pulls the dog’s tail, destroys the paint job by using markers on the wall, and drops his mother’s iPhone in the toilet?
If you don’t care about my protagonist, that’s one thing; but if she’s not sweet and rational all the time, that’s not unlikable—that’s life. And if Pen asked me to sign her yearbook, you can be sure I’d write, Don’t ever change, man.
M-E Girard is a registered nurse moonlighting as a writer of LGBT young adult fiction. Her first manuscript was a finalist in the 2010 Young Adult Novel Discovery Contest, and recipient of other contest awards. M-E serves on the board of directors of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region and manages its website Reading As Writers, a resource site and weekly blog. She does the social media thing in a variety of places, including Tumblr, Facebook, and hanging out on the RAW Twitter account as well as her own @ME_Girard. Check out her website for more info: http://www.megirard.com