As readers, we can be pretty hard on protagonists. Most of us have a type, and we can get annoyed when characters don’t do what we think they should, or when they don’t behave like we want them to. Especially girl protagonists.
I got to thinking about this when I read Kelly Jensen’s piece Why Talking About Girl Reading Matters. In it, she says:
I see reviews that call out likability as a factor for dinging a book. It’s always a girl who is unlikable, rarely if ever a boy — and if it is a boy, it’s generally qualified. He’s unlikable but he’s also mentally ill. He’s unlikable but he’s also got a tough home life. He’s unlikable but he’s just a bad boy.
Girls, on the other hand, are unlikable. They have girl problems. They have girl drama (drama, always drama). They are girls in crisis, rather than girls living through the challenges they have to confront in order to be their best selves. In so many of the books that tackle these challenges, girl is a qualifier.
I’ve seen it. I’ve even fallen prey to it. Hell, think of Twilight. Hatred of Bella Swan is par for the course these days, but I can safely say that my seventeen-year-old self was not that different from Bella–just mouthier, maybe.
So, with this on my mind and fresh off really enjoying Starcrossed, I checked out some of the other reviews of it on Goodreads. Several of the first shown dinged Helen, the main character, as annoying and overly dramatic. The only thing I could think was:
You know this is about teenagers, right?
I touched on this a little bit a few years ago when I wrote about how Katniss is bad at abstract thought. I think her emotional denseness and submission to the status quo can be attributed to the fact that not only has she grown up in a bleak environment, but she’s also sixteen. As I said then:
I’d like [Katniss] less if she had a perfectly honed sense of empathy and finely tuned abstract reasoning skills. Gaining those things is part of growing up, and we must remember that this is, among other things, a coming-of-age story. We all go through this stage where we learn to relate to people and circumstances in more complex ways than what is immediate and clear.
I remember my teenage years fondly. I also remember that it was HELLA emotional. I don’t know about your school, but where I went melodrama was the name of the game. Everything was either silly or totally serious. “Middle ground” was not in our vocabulary. Thinking rationally, especially when it came to boys and relationships, was not a thing that came naturally.
When I see characters, especially girls, criticized for being too dramatic, I raise an eyebrow. Sometimes it’s true–just as there were always a few kids who stirred up more drama than others, there are characters who are way too extreme. But most of the time? It really is totally within the realm of teenage reaction to be super pissed about having information withheld, or to shut down totally when you’re told you must stay away from the person you love, or whatever.
So, how about this: instead of bitching about how a teenage character is too dramatic, let’s applaud the author for really nailing the teenage voice!
Discuss in the comments! I wanna know what you guys think.