GUEST POST: Dear Unlikable Teen Protagonist: Don’t Ever Change, Man. (Part 1)

teenage boyI’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.

Headshot MEM-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:



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12 responses to “GUEST POST: Dear Unlikable Teen Protagonist: Don’t Ever Change, Man. (Part 1)

  1. Lesley C

    Striking a balance is a very delicate thing. It really is hard for me to get through a book where the characters are self-absorbed and whiny (I don’t mind snarkiness, though). I think, ultimately, for me, the character has to have some kind of redemptive quality in order for me to like them despite their flaws.

    • It’s a taste thing, too. In my next post, I talk about “angry girls” and how I love reading a book with one in the lead. I’m sure that’s not everyone’s thing, but I love a jaded, pissy girl rebelling against…everything. And of course, there had to be one or many redemptive qualities.
      Thanks 4 coming by with your comment!

  2. I believe that when people say protags need to be likeable they mean the protag needs to be relate-able. I’ve read books I love with protags that I don’t particularly like but that I cared about because I could relate to part of their journey/choice/consequence/emotions.

    • Well, that’s exactly it right there. I don’t want my character to be annoying or insufferable, but at the same time, I’m not going to make her be nice and saccharine just because–which is something that is often put on female protagonists (and is the topic of Part 2 of this blog series).

  3. Yay! Don’t pick off the crust! I love Pen already. Can’t wait to read this book someday. Soon.

  4. It’s all depend what are your goals in writing this novel. In order to reach a wider audience of teens, and have a commercial successful novel, it’s better to have a likeable teen as the main character. But we also have GONE GIRL where many readers said that they didn’t like the main characters, but the book became a best seller because of the storyline. Hence, it all depends what are trying to achieve? Do you want to have a new and different YA fiction while recognizing that it will be for a smaller audience .. or strive for a wider audience and please the readers? Best wishes from your city.

    • It’s a tough thing, to gauge likability. Likeable to the adults reading my YA book, or to the teens I hope will read it? I think that’s also a big factor to consider. All my readers were adults. I’m sure teens react to characters differently. I guess I don’t expect my married-business-men with salt & pepper hair readers to hit it off with my androgynous, impulsive teen girl. 😛
      Thanks for the perspective!

  5. Great post! I think my favorite book featuring an “unlikable” character is “Treasure Island!!!” by Sara Levine. The main character is a grown up but still a teen in many ways (self-absorbed, impulsive, etc.). I loved the book because it was impailingly funny and deep down there was something good inside of her… maybe. And I loved it because the writing was impeccable, the pace perfect and the characters, however flawed, were relatable. Which, based on the strength of this blog post, I bet yours will be too. Can’t wait to meet Pen!

  6. You’re so right about the bulk of teen protagonists’ being mini-adults. Even though I adored Karen Thompson Walker’s THE AGE OF MIRACLES, I felt that was an issue with the book. (But it’s hard to count that against it, given that there are so many books with the same shortcoming.) I mean, where is the sixteen-year-old who, like me, spent a year under the impression that God had told her she was going to marry one of her attractive (but very immature) middle-school friends? Or who burst into tears when told she had to sleep with acne cream on her back? I wonder if you might be on the cusp of creating a new genre: realistic YA fiction?

    • Hi, Sharon. Thanks for reading! What I’ve noticed is that I’ve almost been trained to expect little adults masquerading as teens. Sometimes a “real” teen will initially feel juvenile to me, more like Middle Grade, and then I’ll think, “No, these characters could’ve totally been in my tenth grade class.” I have to adjust my expectations, then carry on.