Last time, I talked about the way teen protagonists can be deemed unlikable based on characteristics that are inherent to being a teenager. It’s kind of unfair, isn’t it? Well, today I’m here to talk about something that’s even more unfair when it comes to this likeability factor thing: The girls get it worse than the guys do. Surprise, surprise, huh?
Sometimes I think about YA books I’ve read in the past that had male protagonists, and I wonder how these books would’ve fared had they been sent out into the world with a girl cast in the lead instead. And what about the male love interests in a lot of the popular YA books? Would girls have gotten away with being the way these boys were written?
Pen, the protagonist of my work-in-progress Boifriend, acts and thinks more like a typical boy does (hence the title of the book). But since the very first drafts of the story, I’ve been very clear at establishing Pen’s gender identity—she’s a girl, not a boy. I do wonder, though, had she actually been a boy, would she have still come off as sarcastic, moody, and blasé? Or would those characteristics even have been viewed as negative and necessitating revising? (Note: I don’t want to discredit any reader’s opinion, because if her characterization really was causing readers to not care about her or her story, to not find her compelling, then this would call for changes to be made.)
Stereotypically, girls are nice and they are mature—they’re mature enough to understand they must be nice. But, if you’re going to write a novel about one, and you’re going to force her to endure whatever awful complications come between your opening and your climax, then expecting her to play nice and mature all the time would be ridiculous. This is where the unrealistic teen protagonist often steps in, because it’s a lot easier to accept an angry, mean girl if she’s using her adult powers to manage her unlikable attributes—if she has the perspective, self-awareness, and experience of a 40-year-old to show you that she really feels bad for being this awful and petty and unladylike.
As a reader, I’m most drawn to stories about angry or jaded teen girls. I went on a Courtney Summers binge a couple years ago when I discovered Cracked Up To Be and Some Girls Are. I was blown away by her protagonists’ voices, and I would’ve followed them anywhere. But these girls weren’t “nice.” I discovered that Courtney blogged about this very issue here and here a few years ago. In fact, she stated that writing Cracked Up To Be was her response to agents disliking one of her previous female protagonists.
Reading Courtney Summers’ “unlikable” female characters is probably what gave me the confidence to let my own girls be messy, and not always nice, and real. And then just a few weeks ago, at the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Writers, my cohort faculty, author Malinda Lo, and I had a great chat about our love of unlikable female main characters. All this made me realize that my job as a writer is to make you care about my protagonist, to make her compelling enough that you want to hang out with her and experience her world. If you’re not into it, it doesn’t make her unlikable; it doesn’t mean I have to change her into a sugar-coated girl.
So think twice before you de-crustify, fellow YA writers. Plenty of readers like their teen protagonists, even the female ones, rough around the edges and true to life.
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