Wednesday, March 10, 2010

self-images of YA protagonists

So I asked this question on Twitter, but it occurred to me belatedly it's hard to have a coherent conversation on Twitter. Apologies to those who are seeing it twice.

Which kind of heroine do you think is better in YA fiction--one with a really positive self-image (to promote self-confidence in teen readers), or one with a flawed self-image (eg someone who has always felt like a misfit, who has never been labeled conventionally pretty, etc, to promote reader identification)?

I've been reading a lot more YA lately, and have found that in most books, protagonists are one or the other. I understand why this cliche comes up so frequently--heck, I sure felt like a misfit as a teen. But I wonder which kind of protagonist is psychologically healthier--or more interesting, while we're at it--for teenage girls.

Your thoughts? I'm calling today especially on my YA readers/writers crowd.

67 comments:

Mardougrrl said...

I'd like to see a range of issues for teen girls. Yes, attractiveness (or lack thereof) is a huge issue for many, but so is not feeling intelligent enough, or wealthy enough, or worldly enough, or not fitting into a specific subcultural group well enough.

Also, it's not a blanket idea--a girl can feel wildly confident of her writing ability, for example. but nervous about her dancing/sword fighting/Swedish speaking.

No one feels confident about everything, but it's not realistic to be uncomfortable about EVERYTHING as well.

CKHB said...

Oh, excellent, I saw this on Twitter but wasn't sure where to jump in...

I would really like to see more books with girls (and women!) with positive self-images. I feel like the confident characters so often end up being the "overly-confident bitchy girl who gets slapped down as she rightly deserves" stereotype, as though no female character could EVER be justifiably confident prior to the start of a novel. Sometimes they realize their true worth IN the novel, but never beforehand.

And I don't think being a misfit and being confident are incompatible. In high school when adults asked if I was popular, I said HELL NO! Why would I want to be "popular"? I liked my group of geeks.

Cid said...

I felt really dumb after I realized there were multiple tweets, lol.

I think it's hard to have a concrete answer, because it's all opinion, but here is my opinion. I don't think teens/young adults are all that impressed with perfect people. I think there is more to be gained through seeing how a flawed character deals with their problems/issues/short comings, etc, than someone who is confident and self-assured. That is not to say that there isn't a place for those characters! In fact, I would probably have identified most with those when I was a teenager, but I would have understood the "misfit" type because that's what I was supposed to be. I really like to see the character grow or come to understandings or revelations about themselves in a story, especially YA. Teens and young adults (self-included I guess) are in a period of discovery and I think that either character can appeal to the reader. I don't really care for the picture-perfect FMC that does these great, amazing things and never second-guesses herself or is challenged as a character.

Yup, that's my $.02, which in this economy will get you ... maybe a stick of gun. :D

Marisa Birns said...

Hmm. Let me think. Perhaps a heroine who has some flaws but through her experiences/adventures learns to confront/overcome her fears and finds the self confidence and strength that was there all along.

Heather said...

I think a flawed self-image is better, mostly just because the positive self-image in teen women (and grown women) is pretty rare. I think it's even better for teens to read about a character who overcomes her issues (be they physical or emotional flaws) and manages to come out confident in the end than someone who was always just naturally confident.

But, then again, reading the same characters over and over again would be boring, so a good balance is nice. That's why it's so wonderful that every writer is different. I tend to write characters that have emotional and/or physical flaws that they need to overcome, but I enjoy reading about both.

The confident teen can't be too confident, though, or else she'll just be stuck-up, and the one with the flawed self-image needs to like something about herself, otherwise she'll just mope around and get on everyone's nerves. There needs to be a balance, and it's all about the writing, but ultimately I like to see someone who has to discover her confidence.

JJ said...

I answered this one Twitter (but not very coherently as I'm another overworked editorial assistant trying to multitask) but I'd like to reiterate and then expand upon my opinion.

1. I feel all teenage girls are insecure or possess self-doubt about something--if not body image, then something else. HOWEVER,
2. I would love to see a teenage girl who is pretty confident in who she is as a person, even if she has doubts or crises of confidence every once in a while.

Call me shallow, but I had good self-image as a teen and I was very confident in myself. But that didn't mean I didn't have moments of crippling self-doubt either.

jjdebenedictis said...

Different people have different experiences growing up, and thus, as individuals, will respond most powerfully to very different books.

We need both archetypes--and more besides. When it comes to human beings, there is never only one right answer.

rissawrites said...

I agree with Marisa who coincidentally shares my first name.

I think the journey to overcome the awkwardness to gain confidence is part of the story.

If a character is too confident or likeable they run the risk of being Mary Sue like. I tend to not like them because they are so well liked. :)

Beth said...

I wouldn't want to read about a girl who is completely confident in everything or a girl who is insecure about everything. As the other commenters have said, I think the best characters are a mix.

For instance, look at the Gallagher Girls books. The main character, Cammie, is fantastic and confident with a lot of her spy stuff and has a great rapport with her friends, but she's completely lost when it comes to responding to a boy's attention or dealing with some of her family issues. The mix makes her a better character.

Andrea said...

I read a lo of YA and personally, I prefer a flawed character with real issues. What I don't like, and what I'm noticing more and more often, is when the character is still utterly clueless 5 and 6 books deep into a series. I have a few examples that I can list off the top of my head, but I really don't want to bash anyone. I just find it incredibly disappointing when I'm reading about a character that has not grown and evolved along with the plot. Know what I mean?

smartygirl said...

I like a heroine with a little innate confidence. Having read so many YA books where the heroine despairs of her misfit status, that always feels a little stale to me. And if not handled well, low-self esteem in a character tends to feel fake.

I like to write my heroines with a little bit of an ego, and then try to let their flaws be apparent to the reader without having them ever say, "Oh woe is me, I'm so clumsy," or some such thing.

But all that said, if a writer does either well, (Sarah Dessen, for example, wrote a fantastic misfit in Keeping the Moon) all bets are off.

Jess said...

Just discussed this with a friend yesterday.

In thinking over YA books I love, the heroines are strong. They know themselves, but that means they also know they aren't perfect, like Kristin Cashore's heroines, Bertie from Lisa Mantchev's Theatre Illuminata books...

But the more interesting aspect of your question is what the purpose of a book is, what their role in society is - basically, whether a book should be psychologically healthy, should a book have that kind of responsibility?

Someone on the discussion yesterday thought we shouldn't criticize a book for giving girls a bad message because it wasn't giving teens enough credit. To which I say: WHAT? Media and entertainment absolutely shape our society and what we find acceptable, so this is a conversation we need to have.

Don't glorify unhealthy relationships. Obsession is not sexy. Girls who are just conduits for reader identification piss me off. Grow an identity. This is poor characterization at its worst. So those 'flawed' heroines are usually not ones I want to read.

But perhaps I'm rambling in too specific an arena. I apologize. :)

Cid said...

I like what JJ said. I didn't really have time to be self-conscious as a kid and I try to not bother with it now so that model does interest me.

Brian F. said...

I don't think one is better than the other. I think it's what the author can pull off. Writing trumps all.

The question borders on: do writers have an obligation to present positive role models for their audience? A question I don't think would be posed of adult fiction writers. (I'm not saying that IS the question posed but it comes close.)

K said...

I think it's about the transformation, right? It's easy to relate to a protagonist with a flawed self image, because usually by the end of the story that improves, at least a little bit.

And I feel like as a young adult, it's fairly impossible to have a perfect self image. It's always skewed, somehow.

Morgan Ives said...

I don't read a lot of current YA nowadays, so my opinions will date me, but two of my favorite books growing up were 1) So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane, and 2) The Vampire Diaries by LJ Smith (yes, I liked vampires before they were trendy!)

The character in Duane's novel felt she was not as talented and special as her sister, but found out she had special talents all her own. Loved it for that, because I always felt different.

The character in Smith's novel, in contrast, was gorgeous, popular, and perfect. Yet she wasn't above problems or self doubt. Loved it because I wanted to be like her, and her flaws made that attainable in my mind.

I've noticed that stories about confident characters focus on the external world more, while stories about less confident characters focus on the inner journey. Both can be valuable and enjoyable.

Andrea Brokaw said...

First of all, my opinions on this don't change if you remove the term 'YA' from consideration. The point of YA isn't teaching teens what to grow into anymore than the point of adult books is preaching about what grownups should be. These two character types carry over into adult books as well and I have the same reactions.

I don't know that one type is better than the other overall, although I think one might work better than the other for a given book. I do get bothered by attacks on characters who aren't overflowing with self-confidence though. If I were in writing, that would be me. I was, and still am a depressingly long time after leaving school, the shy girl in the back of the room who never knew what she should be saying or who she should be saying it to. I didn't know the right way to do my hair, the right clothes to wear, the right anything. If the MC who doesn't think she's the definition of awesome, who doesn't always know what to do, and who doesn't always leap into action to kick butt isn't worth our time, neither am I.

I don't mind an agressive goddess of an MC if she feels real. But I value the more mundane girl who gets caught up in something she never imagined happening and struggles through it with as much grace as she can manage, even if that's not very much grace at all. Being the second girl is something I might be able to aspire to. Being the first simply isn't going to happen and I think pressuring writers to only focus on that character type would be sending the wrong message to girls who already question their value.

Tricia said...

Like Mardougrrl said everybody has their hangups. I think that if a character is perfect in every way you want to push them off a cliff rather than read about them.

And secondly a character in a book is not a role model. I've read books that try to do that and often they come off as preachy or condescending.

But I've also found virtues in characters I would like to be more like.

wonderer said...

Some of my favourite books as a pre-teen and teen were about girls who blossomed over the course of the book or series. Anne of Green Gables, Meg Murry of A WRINKLE IN TIME, Menolly from the Harper Hall trilogy... My own YA writing tends to follow that pattern as well.

But I also loved girl characters who were confident from the start - Pippi Longstocking, Trixie Belden, Laura Ingalls, Ramona, Nancy and Titty from SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS.

I guess there is a place for both kinds! Thanks for a thought-provoking question.

Melina said...

I think I definitely identified more with the geeky, awkward protagonists when I was at a YA age, though I did read a fair amount of Sweet Valley whatever and Christopher Pike, simply because it was what everyone else read. I'm not sure confident role models in books would have made that much of a difference to me, exactly; I think I would be a vastly different person if there had been confident women in my actual life, though.

Brian F.'s point that this isn't a question we'd be likely to ask about an adult author (which I think is probably true, with some exceptions) and I'm not sure if it matters that YA-aged readers are still at an age where they're looking for clues about how to be and behave and about how the world works, or not. I think it might, but would deliberately creating characters designed to have a specific impact on YA-aged readers actually work, do you think? Or would it backfire, afterschool-special style? And is it possible to write a character who is both confident and flawed? I mean, of course it is, but would a character at that age with those qualities be believable? I wonder. This is starting to make me worry I'm too far removed from my own YA experience to know what's believable! Horrors!

Is the experience for male characters in YA lit different? I haven't read as much of it with male protagonists, and what I have read... well, it's been a while, even if you count the Hardy Boys book my roommate gave me for my 20th birthday. A decade ago.

Amanda said...

Why not both together? A protagonist who may not fit into the perfect idea of what he/she should be but still has confidence in themselves? Those are the ones I like best.

chelle said...

I want both. I still remember that first reading of "A Wrinkle In Time," and recognizing me, with all my self-doubt, in Meg. But I also recognized myself in more confident heroines, like Eilowny (yep, I'm dating myself).

As long as the character was perfect for the story, I was happy.

Kristan said...

I think I'm with Mardou here: I like seeing a range of issues, and a range of confidence/lack of confidence in a character. Because we all have things we think we're good at, and things we're terrified that we suck at. It's good to see that represented (and validated) in fiction.

I don't think one is inherently better than the other. I think it depends on the story and on the reader.

Steff Metal said...

I think it's less a matter of "which is better" and more a matter of "which is better written." I was (and still am) a horribly shy, awkward person, and had so much insecurity growing up (which I no longer have) due to the bullying I suffered throughout my school life. I identify with "misfit" characters, with shy, withdrawn characters, with victims of abuse, bullying and their own internal monologue.

But I also admire those who can stand up for themselves. I love to be inside their heads and FEEL what it's like to be able to say things I'd never be able to say, to win an argument, to tell off a bully. My husband is a strong, confident person, the kind of guy who can't stand by while something bad happens to someone. It's the thing I admire about him most.

BUT, a "misfit" character has to have a reason to feel like a misfit. A confident character has to have reasons for her attitude. As the reader, you have to feel as though you understand them on a deeper level, and their personalities gel with the events of their lives and their reactions to situations. You can't just call someone a misfit and give them feelings of isolation and inadequecy, without setting up a viable situation where someone would feel that way.

I'm not sure I've quite explained this right, but that's my thoughts!

Steff

lale said...

I think that quite often the misfit, who may begin being very self conscious etc. ends up becoming a confident, role-model person, and that's important for teen girls. We like identifying with how they were, and how they've become gives us hope that we can get there someday. Especially when characters are identified as less than beautiful- we love who they are at the end of the book, and even though our own self image might be terrible, it helps us understand that self confidence should be about you, not your appearance.

Kay said...

Both self-confident and doubting work, depending upon your story. Though I lean towards characters that are a mix of both.

I'd also like to mention the true minority here: those that truly don't give a hoot. (d**n)

moonrat said...

Brian (and others)--go ahead and consider the question posed. What are YA authors responsible for?

I know there are camps on this, and sometimes violently opposed ones. I've stumbled into them more than once. But I personally believe in responsible literature for young adults.

~Jamie said...

oh, this is something I blogged about yesterday!

Here's the thing... I think first and foremost you have to convince teenagers to read your book.

If the MC is a mega hot bimbo cheerleader with superpowers--um, you're kind of screwed because chances are, those aren't the girls reading.

So, I think in order to make the story believable you have to give the character faults, and you have to make them real, but at the same time I want to see growth. I want to see the MC learn about herself and build up her self esteem through the story. That's what makes good YA--the idea that the reader can do things or be something that she thought was beyond her.

:)

Laurel said...

In any fiction writing a "prototype" is hard to pull off. Whether she is supremely confident, and there were a few of those in high school, completely downtrodden, or somewhere in the middle she just needs to be real.

Trying to write a role model nearly never works. Readers, even young ones, know when they are being preached to. Since most of us enjoy characters with qualities we aspire to, there really isn't a need to actively shape the protag into role model worthiness. Something worthy will shine through sometime during the story.

Kerry said...

I think a YA protagonist has to be both. Teens want to be able to see *themselves* in protagonists, but they also want to see what they have the potential to *become.* I don't think you can have one without the other and still really resonante with a YA audience.

Natasha Fondren said...

Okay, setting aside all entertainment preferences and fiction techniques aside:

I'm not sure reading about a girl with a positive self-image CAN promote self-confidence in a reader. How is reading about a confident girl going to make a teen with a poor self-image feel more confident?

I'd think the opposite would more likely happen. When I'm feeling bad about myself, a person who's kickass confident doesn't make me feel better.

If you're looking to make a teen feel better about him/herself, then starting with a misfit or flawed MC and showing how that person learns to accept and live with their flaws and find self-worth in spite of X, is more likely to promote self-confidence in teen readers.

faye said...

Would it be cheating to say "depending on how it's written, either"?

Prior to that, though, I would say some degree of character progression is evident in every YA protagonist, and is in fact what makes YA so exciting to me. I don't think anyone is perfectly secure all the time, even the ones with good self-image.

Still, as for misfit protags, I like the ones that are written well, that touch on progressions that ring true in my own observations or experiences. I don't like characters who whine for no reason (or don't have a good in-story reason to whine), but written well enough, I'll believe it.

Even Frankie in The Disreputable History of Frankie-Laundau Banks, who is self-proclaimed confident, pretty, rational, well-adjusted, and all around kickass, has her opinions and worldviews challenged, and begins to question her values.

Most YA readers want to read about characters like them. Most YA girls, I think, feel uncomfortable with themselves and identify with the misfit cliche. Do I want stronger girl characters? Hell yes. I love them, but then again I'm one of them... though admittedly I'm no longer a teen.

A Mom's Choice said...

I have a 16 year old girl and one of the biggest issues I have with my daughter is trying to be someone else. Their is too much pressure on girls to think and do what the other kids are doing. Recently, my daughter decided to do something that is totally out of character to prove that she was a dare devil. Her lack of thinking before she reacted may cause larger issues is the future.
Girls and boys need to be comfortable being themselves instead of what society demands.

Josin L. McQuein said...

There's a weird phenomena with girls where they seem to think that "positive self-image" = b**ch. I'd like to see more protags that dispel that myth. Also strange is that this rule only applies to the MC. Plenty of flawed MC's have best friends that are outgoing and sunny and appear to be very sure of themselves. You'd think that after a while they'd rub off on each other.

Starting off flawed is fine. Staying flawed is fine. But somewhere between "starting" and "staying", something needs to change. They shouldn't be flawed in the same way at the end as they are at the beginning.

Teens tend to overcompensate when they make a conscious effort to change themselves. (The "boomerang" effect that hits most when they go to college and don't have the parental restrictions any more.) Teens in books should act the same way. They try, they fail - bigtime, they go back toward their start. The pendulum continues to swing until they find an equilibrium they're happy with.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

The thing I have a hard time with is the protagonist who finds her identity in a boy.

Others might feel differently, but I think writing for kids carries with it a special burden of responsibility (maybe that's the teacher in me speaking).

maybe genius said...

I don't think a heroine needs to be "perfect" in order to be strong. Personally, the young woman I'm opposed to is the one who doesn't take control of her own story - she lets things happen to her and around her, and the other characters are the ones pulling the story along. In my opinion, that is what makes a weak character.

Even a self-doubting, shy heroine can have strengths she draws on to achieve her goals. Every teenager thinks she is the most misunderstood and unique person in the world, and it's important to reflect that in YA lit, but that doesn't mean we need to cripple the characters with self-esteem issues. Having doubts about ourselves and our abilities is natural, but when we're left with a mopey whiner who won't take control of her situation, it's too much.

One thing I wish I could see less of is a preoccupation with physical attractiveness. It's a totally understandable thing - what teenage girl (or any woman) hasn't had self-image issues? Feeling awkward about weight or bushy hair makes sense. But when it starts to edge into almost an obsession with the her own physical beauty or the beauty of those around her, it comes off as shallow. There are other issues plaguing teenage girls besides the constant need to better their looks.

There is already so much in the media reminding us that we're never attractive enough. Some dwelling on the physical is realistic. A constant obsession with it is hurtful.

chelsea said...

I tend to gravitate toward self confident characters, but those characters aren't self confident because they're beautiful/rich/popular. They're self-confident because they love those weird little quirks that make them who they are. I love Pippi, love Eilonwy, love Sita from the Last Vampire.

Also, I think there's a huge difference between being a misfit and being self-deprecating. I love a good misfit, but self-deprecation is the last thing I want to read. I'm fine with a misfit who learns to love herself over the course of a book, but any of this I'm-such-a-loser-no-boy-will-ever-like-me stuff is enough to make me hurl a book across the room.

michelle said...

There are so many great comments here,some that I totally agree with and some that I completely disagree with.
So, I find over-confidence a turn off unless its done in a humorous way, or unless the character is flawed (read; human) in some way. This because a perfect person is a god, or they think they are! and a god cant fail so wheres the conflict, the tension? Imho we all have flaws, and learning to deal with that is part of the human experience, I want my characters to reflect that....

maybe genius said...

I should add that issue novels dealing with say, eating disorders and other damaging outcomes of the obsession to be beautiful are something I consider an exception.

Jen A said...

A couple of people have said this as well, but...why not both? There's no reason that a character can't be a bit unusual or unique or eccentric (or a misfit, if you prefer that) AND have a positive self-image. But I have to say that if I had to pick, I'd err on the side of being out of the ordinary. When I was a teen and identified with those characters, it made me feel better about myself inherently, because someone else had clearly been through the same things and understood - I didn't feel as alone as I had before, and so I felt less like a weirdo and more like a cool eccentric. Who might grow up to be a writer like this author did. Still working on that last bit...

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I think both are fine, as long as they both have some growing to do. I have tended in the past to write about teen girls with low self images, because that's where I was as a teen. My WiP has a much more self-confident character, but she's almost confident to a fault. I find that I relate better to her as an adult because she's more mature than I was as a teen (which isn't saying much, btw!).

As far as responsibility, I think it does come down to showing true consequences in a book. Not that we write a bunch of cautionary tale trash (she smoked that cigarette and died of lung cancer the next day!!!), but we also have to be careful not to pretend destructive behavior is going to land kids rich and famous. I take that back, they may end up rich and famous despite their destructive behavior, but they won't be happy. As novelists we have the power to *show* that.

stephanie said...

Without pontificating, I prefer (non-fatally) flawed to allow plenty of room for character growth.

Phoebe said...

Love this question.

I don't think this is--or should be--a question with a black-and-white answer. Teenage girls, like adult women, are complex. As a teenage, I was confident about my writing and artistic ability. Ninety percent of the time, I felt fine about my appearance, too. But I still turned to mush around boys, still was terrified about kissing, and dreaded competitive sports in gym class because I suspected (and, er, rightly so) that I was terrible at them.

A good author of YA, just like a good author for adults, will flesh out their MC enough to feel like a real, identifiable person. They won't have informed abilities or fears or confidences, but rather the abilities and fears and confidences they have--and any growth they go through--will be true to the character. I think it's problematic when authors saddle their characters awkwardly with "problems" just to force "growth"--so their story can be a broken Aesop for their readership. Honestly? I think that shows a lack of respect for the real teenage girls they're addressing.

Joe Iriarte said...

I've never been a teenage girl, but I relate better to characters with a flawed self-image than to those on the other extreme.

I also think Natasha has the right of it when she wonders how characters with great self-images can promote self-confidence. To me the message that promotes self-confidence to an audience that lacks it is seeing a character who lacks self-confidence blossom and learn that she has more going for herself than she thought.

Lisa Desrochers said...

Great convo. I agree with a lot of what's been said. It's important to be realistic, even in fiction. But a trend I find interesting in YA fiction is that the girls who come across as super confident are usually the antagonists. They're nasty and mean--which probably translates into insecure.

My MC is pretty laid back and fairly confident. That doesn't mean she doesn't have insecurities—more so when her whole world gets turned on its ear. I wrote her to be strong. She's reasonably, but not ridiculously, smart and knows it. She's good at some things and knows what they are. She's not so good at others. In other words, she's a lot like me when I was in high school.

Both my agent and editor liked that about her.

Kaitlyne said...

I think the outsider who finds happiness or confidence or succeeds in spite of that always appealed to me. I was the outsider as well, and I never enjoyed reading about the popular girl who seemed to do everything right. I know I'm simplifying, but it was never a concept I felt comfortable with at the time, so I gravitated toward characters who found strength they didn't know they had.

Nowadays I do appreciate the confident, strong woman more as a starting point, but back when I had self-esteem issues, I would have either not related (and probably sort of resented, if we're being honest) to the character, or felt more insecure because I wasn't like that.

I think positive self-image is important, but back when I was a horribly insecure, outcast teen, it always inspired me more as part of the character development as opposed to the starting point.

Anthony said...

I like a YA heroine who does not have an IQ of 36D. I want her to like boys but doesn’t think she needs one to complete her. I like to read about girls not psychologically addicted to abusive stalkers, malcontents, dishonorable curs and scallywags.

I would like a YA heroine who wants to slap her friend alongside the head for being emo, but loves her too much to do so. I want a YA heroine who is comfortable in her own skin, likes chocolate, but doesn’t like the extra ten pounds from going on the pill. A YA heroine who gets all squishy when she hears a baby giggle, occasionally likes pink nail polish and gets mad that when it’s her turn to cook the family dinner, because her brother is so much better at it. And he seems so lazy, it's rather unfair.

I would like a YA heroine who does normal things like going to church even if it is just to make grandma happy. One who aces her math quiz but still thinks the cute little black dress at the Nordstrom Rack would look great on her for the formal, if only she could figure out how to wear it without a bra while simultaneously avoiding the lecture from her father, the father that can’t quite come to terms that Princess likes to make out with the boyfriend.

I would like a YA heroine who isn’t a doormat and is trying to figure out the difference between self-confidence and being cocky. While we’re at it, I would like a YA heroine who actually isn’t an empty shell the reader can project herself into for a bit of escapism. The world is full of empty shells, filling one up at the end of the novel and saying “Done!” isn’t about the personal struggle. I would like a YA heroine who, at the end of the novel, persevered against conflict despite her mistakes that only a young adult can make. She came out on top because of her strength of character and learning from those mistakes, not some male provided deus ex machina.

I guess that means I am in the “give me an American young woman” category. Give me the visceral, the substance over style, the power in femininity, one who never stopped reaching for her dream because at no time did she think “I can’t do that because I’m a girl.”

annerallen said...

This is a fascinating thread. It might be important to consider subgenre as well. If the book is realistic and introspective, the girl needs some realistic flaws. But Nancy Drew didn't have a self-doubt in her life and readers loved her. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz didn't worry much about her flaws either, although obviously her friends provided more than enough angst for the story.

Linda said...

I like the idea of a YA girl who doesn't fit in (looks, smarts, disability, race/ethnicity, weird tick, whatever) and finds her peace by the end of the story.

As someone who never fit in as a kid (and still really doesn't), it's the story that always resonates.

Then again, I'm always a sucker for the underdog... Peace, Linda

claire said...

I agree with those commenters who say: both. I think the key in YA fiction is diversity: diversity of perspective and experience, as well as demographic diversity. Any well-written protagonist will enable a great number of readers to identify with her. I think it's important that reading girls get the opportunity to live many lives through fictional proxies, to give them many choices and strategies.

In addition to the self-confident and the low-self-esteem girl, I'd like to see girls who are neither confident or lacking in confidence: girls who are focused on things other than themselves, like their families or their goals, or their social circles or their dreams. Or even their boyfriends (or girlfriends.) The more the better!

moonrat said...

Anthony--I loved your opening line.

TLH said...

Way too much for a comment here... I had to make a post about it.

http://bloodcrossed.blogspot.com/2010/03/protagonize.html

Sarah said...

Both. That seems most natural. Even folks who are pretty confident in their own skin are insecure about some issues. And relatively insecure girls may have even one aspect about themselves that they love.

Few things intrigue me as much as the play between confidence and doubt- within the same person.

(And I so agree that bitchy doesn't equal confidence! I most often think of it a rather brittle veneer for insecurity.)

KID LIT WRITERS said...

I agree with what Marissa and Linda and others said about loving a flawed heroine with self-confidence issues who comes into her own. And I also love what Sarah about few things intriguing her as much as the play between confidence and doubt within the same person. To me, that's the essence of YA.

I love the YA character arc that reaffirms what so many teenage girls need: the option for a Cinderella ending in their own lives, where they end up valued for their special traits and characteristics, even if those aren't the "norm" shared by the popular crowd. And lets face it, the perfect, popular girls aren't always the ones reading the books.

Flawed YA heroines let girls know it's okay to be different--that you can still be special and valued if you hang on to your own sense of self.

I even wonder if that isn't part of what's pushing the popularity of YA among adults these days?

_*rachel*_ said...

I like it when a misfit grows confident. Dynamic characters are essential.

michelle said...

Just had to pipe up again to say that I love Anthony's character...write the book already Anthony!

Claire Dawn said...

I think it's personal.

Let's use an analogy (cuz I love them).

Some people would love an antidrug lecture to be from a scientist/doctor/researcher who knows the empirical evidence. Some people will only take advice from a former drug addict who can say, drugs ruined my life stay away.

In the same way some girls like to read perfect characters as they dream of perfect lives. Others like to read flawed characters to remind them that they are not the only imperfect person in the world and they can still rise above.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Great discussion, and I'm sorry I'm late to it. My instinct--and I'm sure that of many commenters--is to write about the misfit, the shy teenager who doesn't fit in. The kind of teenager I was. However, my most successful works of fiction (the novels that have gotten published, in other words) present girls/young women who are capable and confident but whose belief in themselves leads them into situations they can't control.

The two young female MCs emerged for me as aspirational rather than autobiographical characters, and I suspect they may be aspirational to many readers. But rather than making each one of them "perfect" in all respects, I give them something that they do really well and that's the source of their confidence. In one novel, the MC is a gifted athlete, which I wished I was in high school. In the other, she's a committed activist, strong in her Christian beliefs, who doesn't stress about what other people think of her because she has her own values and goals. I didn't write these characters to be positive role models for young readers, but I also think that young people can take strength from the things they enjoy doing and do well, and that's also what gives heart to a character.

randomshelly said...

This is a great question, and thinking about it made me sway my vote to both sides.

I like to see confident characters, but not cocky ones - same as in real life. But most YA are still working on their confidence level, as are most old adults too!

I also don't want to read a book where the main character doesn't believe in ANYTHING about herself, how depressing! No matter how much she builds up in the end - and in the end you may have joy that she grew, but ughhh in getting there!

That said, I think there should be a good balance. I agree with a lot of the comments I read in here. Sometimes it is nice to read about someone who has their life together, is confident and can conquer the world - just as long as you throw in that she doesn't like _____ about herself, or is working to improve _____ in her life!

EVERYBODY is flawed in some way and when you write a good character who prevails despite those flaws (who knows them and works on them) - that is the kind I like to read...

I also would love to read Anthony's book! :)

Kenmeer livermaile said...

Readers prefer polarized characters. Confident, bossy, sassy (like Scout in Mockingbird); quiet, shy, hesitant (like the young Capote in Mockingbird).

Also, YA tends to be less plot-driven.

YA novel blurbs rarely climax with, "And perhaps save the entire world in the process." (Even Harry Potter just saved Hogwarts, I gather.)

Point being that YA novels are mostly about their central young adult, and therefore need to be dramatically positioned (weak or strong). Add to which that YAs themselves tend to be one or the other. It is a time of extremes.

Kenmeer livermaile said...

Oops, Having framed it, I forgot to answer the question. Whether the YA is strong or weak is not so important as how far they go in the opposite direction, and how satisfying is the final resolution or synthesis this journey creates.

Joe Iriarte said...

I don't agree that YA is not as plot-driven just because the stakes aren't as high as the end of the world. You'll have to be more convincing. ;)

Kenmeer livermaile said...

For a YA, the misfortunes and heartbreaks they encounter *feel* like the saving or destruction of the whole world. ;)

Kenmeer livermaile said...

I know we're mostly joking, Joe ("...oking oe has left and gone away, hey hey hey...")..ahem. Where was I? But the joke is based on my miscommunication.

In more plot-driven fiction, say, a police procedural, the plot is about the world not the protag. The detective or victim-of-circumstances in such a book is a cog in the wheels of the world, and their character is more of a filter through which the grindings sift.

In YA, the world is more of a cog in the wheels of their... soul, circumstances, self (analogy grinds to a halt for lack of precise machining).

More coffee!!!

Kenmeer livermaile said...

Joking Joe the wisecracker not oking Joe the unconditional approver.

moonrat said...

Ok, I've mostly just been reading quietly, because I find the spectrum of opinions here fascinating. But as long as we're talking about plot, I'm going to jump in.

I've noticed another pair of trends in YA fiction I've read recently (so another kind of either/or scenario): YA fiction often tends to be EITHER very heavily plot-driven with only a light/superficial atmospheric narration (like certain unmentionable series that take place in ritzy high schools), OR (much more common) it is very deeply entrenched in its moods/feelings/emotions and moves around relatively little plot per page.

I'd say many of the bestselling sagas, Harry Potter and Twilight among them, fall easily into the second category. I admit I find moody nattering to be pretty annoying, and would very much have liked to take a knife to large portions of TWILIGHT and ORDER OF THE PHOENIX. At the same time, I prefer moody nattering to plotplotplot pacey kinds of narratives, so I'm sure I'll go on reading them. But it IS very interesting to me that moody nattering is so par for the course in YA, while adult fiction editors would strike that shizzle.

Meanwhile--I am currently reading Tamora Pierce's FIRST TEST (on the recommendation of the excellent Faye, who has made me a reading list after our recent conversation about YA/fantasy literature). Halfway into it, Pierce's story is both pacey/action-packed and emotional. I like the balance she's struck. I'd like to read more authors who can strike the same.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if it's only teens who have positive or flawed self-images of themselves? You are who you are by the people you interact with and yes your genes as well. The fact is, at 40, I still feel ugly and unpopular despite the fact I am neither.

I'd like to read about teens over coming what ever hurdle there is in their life and succeeding. I want to read about the teen that feels the whole world is against them and through some inner strength, family, friends or random outside influence finds themselves and turns things around.

That's life: always moving and changing. We're all born the way we are but only life's daily challenges make us the person we become whether good or bad. I'd like to read about young people growing up and facing their twists and turns in life head on.