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You know YA is about teenagers, right?

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.

Me, being all moody and dramatic as a teenager.
Me, being all moody and dramatic as a teenager.

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.

20 thoughts on “You know YA is about teenagers, right?

  1. Reblogged this on The Thirst of Tantalus.

  2. “Instead of bitching about how a teenage character is too dramatic, let’s applaud the author for really nailing the teenage voice!” THANK YOU for pointing this out. Granted no one wants to read about a teenager who is dramatic all the time or ALWAYS too extreme. But teenagers-even level-headed teenagers-do A LOT of stuff for no good reason. I WAS that teenager. I remember having conversations with my mom because I had no idea why I’d done or said something. Anyway, end of mini-rant 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts!

    1. Thanks for commenting! 😀 And I so agree. I was constantly told how “mature” I was when I was a teenager, but I certainly had times when I acted like the kid that I was. Things could get black and white really quickly, especially when it was all going wrong. It’s good to remember this when reading YA.

  3. Yes yes and yes! I am so excited to read this post and hear more people talking about this. I think the hatred of certain female YA protagonists has gotten so out of hand. Either they are too perfect or too flawed. Personally, I would rather a character be flawed and unlikable. It seems to reflect real life more.

    I do think if a character is un-relatable it’s a problem. But that should be the concern not whether someone is likable or not.

    1. I so agree with you! Just like in the real world, girl characters have their own little box of double standards to try and squeeze into. Fundamentally I think this quest to write “likable” characters hurts fiction. And I agree that relatability and likability aren’t necessarily the same thing. I can admit that I relate to Bella Swan, for example. That doesn’t mean I like her. What it DOES mean is that I can and will read about her.

      1. Yes. You can relate to a character and root for them without liking them, or thinking you would be friends with them. Some of the best YA fiction moments are where the protagonist is doing something so terrible and cringe-worthy that you are like no …. but can totally relate because of all the stupid mistakes you made as a teen (or in my case are still making as an adult).

        1. For sure. Sometimes I even find myself rooting for the bad choices. Especially when it comes to the subtle romances. I just started watching The Vampire Diaries and am I sitting there saying “Good job Elena, way to resist the charming bad boy Damon”? NOPE. They get within a foot of each other and I’m like KISS HIM ELENA DO IT even though that would likely be seen as a fickle, stupid choice.

          So. I mean. Let’s be real here. Good, level-headed decision making does NOT exactly make fiction go round.

  4. Note to self: add a bit more drama to my main character’s thoughts and actions when I get back to editing, so it’s never in doubt that I’m working with a 17-year-old girl. ^_^

    You’re right, though. I was never one for drama growing up, even in high school, but damn, it was happening all around me like crazy. And even when characters in books get into situations we never could have when we were teenagers – vampires, werewolves, aliens, all of that – they should still be teenagers, there’s no way they should react perfectly to everything that’s happening to them.

    1. Agreed! I mean, that’s why we like these urban fantasy stories about ordinary kids getting swept up into these huge adventures, right? Because they’re (at least at first) regular teenagers? That’s why I like them anyway, haha.

  5. […] You know YA is about teenagers, right? ( […]

  6. Reblogged this on Part Time Monster and commented:
    Very interesting take on the nature of the girl character.

  7. I agree with you on the nature of the girl protagonist. I think the reason why readers complain about the drama and extremism of teenage characters is that they – and we (as authors) – forget that YA is about teenagers, and readers automatically default to casting themselves as the heroine. Their negative response comes from that forgetful moment – “I wouldn’t act like this; I’m much more mature and experienced.” Well, yeah, but the story isn’t about the reader.

    The flip-side of that comes when the teenaged characters start speaking beyond their years, and I think that is much more jarring. “The Fault in Our Stars” is the most recent example of teenagers talking like well-educated thirty-somethings. And yet, it works for the story.

    Here’s a question: is it possible to have a YA novel with the main character in her mid-20s?

    1. Definitely interesting to think about age as a marker. New Adult has emerged as a new category for characters in their late teens and early twenties, and it’s really thematic just as YA is, but with a focus on identity in the greater world more than just personal self-discovery.

      Voice is super important to both, and I think a lot of the negativity comes because we have gotten used to YA characters whose voices simply aren’t teenage. Combine that with our personal rose-colored glasses on our own teenage years, and we get frustration!

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  11. This is very true, YA is about teenagers… which is the main reason I’m not a big fan of it. But “not liking YA” has become almost taboo these days. I get that a lot of people dismiss it without giving it a chance, and it’s fair for both fans and authors to get frustrated by that. But at the same time, it’s not for everyone. And maybe some of these comments are coming from people who just shouldn’t be reading YA because they don’t enjoy it for what it is… but, for whatever reason, can’t admit that to themselves?

    I don’t know. I could be totally wrong. But that was my first thought.

    1. I agree, Charleen! YA isn’t for everyone. I think that what’s happening is that there are a lot of people now in their 20s and 30s who grew up with YA being a thing, and that was what they mostly read, so that’s what they keep going back to when they read books. This was true for me for many years–the YA section of the bookstore was so much more familiar and straightforward than the general adult sections. So you have these people who are really ready to move on to more mature lit who just aren’t, and so they get frustrated with YA.

      Many adults can read and enjoy YA just fine, but just as many can’t, and I think that is hard for some to come to terms with. That’s why I love and recommend New Adult (particularly non-contemporary NA) as a stepping stone!

  12. I completely agree with what Alison said above – I don’t mind if a character is unlikeable, as long as the author can make me understand why they are the way they are. It’s relatability not likeability that matters to me. However, I’m not sure I buy this new trend of complaining about how only female characters are unlikable. Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley is the absolute least likeable character I’ve ever read. Obviously, as a feminist, I might not be one of the people being complained about for giving female characters a hard time. Perhaps I’m the exception. But I don’t feel like this is a problem I’ve noticed among any of the other bloggers I read either.

    1. Agreed! Relatability is king. 😀

      I don’t read too many book blogs, at least not ones run by people who are not also writers, so I haven’t noticed the “The main character was unlikable therefore the book is bad” trend there so much as in regular reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, etc.

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