I wonder if other writers struggle with this expectation--that their protagonists, particularly female protagonists, not only be well-written but good. Hypergood, it often seems. Because it might have been more than a decade ago now, but I have pretty vivid memories of my own teen years, and they include:
- Punching a hole in the dining room wall when I was a thirteen-year-old with anger issues.
- Liking some boys who were distinctly not good for me.
- Flipping my best friend the bird when she sat down next to a boy I liked at a punk concert.
- Getting into many shouting matches with my mother.
- . . . among other things.
This isn't true for guys, of course. A YA guy who acts jealous is often just showing how much he cares. A YA guy who breaks stuff? Highly likely to be built up as a mysterious, passionate love interest. The issue of representation and responsibility when it comes to writing teenage boys deserves a post in itself. My point is, however, that we're more forgiving when it comes to these complicated behaviors in the male characters of the genre.
If you've never read The Secret Garden you should know that Mary begins to book as a rather complicated girl. She's been spoiled by her wealthy parents and servants in colonial India. When they die, she's shipped back to England, where she continues to lord over other people like an entitled brat. Later, she meets another entitled brat. And it's only through their friendship that both characters grow a little more human.
I think we could do worse here than to look to the classics. Mary's character arc is satisfying. She grows and changes and learns. This process would not be quite so satisfying if she herself weren't quite so terrible a person at the outset of the novel. In this way, the narrative depends on Mary being an unlikable character. She's certainly not a wish fulfillment character. It's her situation, not her person, that's enviable (because really, what kid wouldn't envy her situation? I know I would have loved a secret garden, a little robin who understood me, and a boy who could tame foxes and crows). However, she's still compelling. She's an interesting person, and much of what makes her interesting are her flaws--and her own initial refusal to see those flaws.
More, Mary's arc is realistic. There are repercussions to her actions and her behaviors. The servants at Misselthwaite Manor know that she's a brat, after all. And through these repercussions, and the experiences of the book, Mary begins to grow. She softens, though she's still flawed, of course. She learns and changes, as most girls do. As I did, too. I no longer punch holes in walls like I did at thirteen (thank you, therapy!). I no longer flip my friends off--I talk to them, instead. By the end of my teen years, as I grew into adulthood, I began to make better choices for myself, evolving from the person I once was.
So I'll admit that it's girls like Mary--and girls like me--who I most enjoy reading about in YA. Girls who are compelling, like Mandarin and Grace from Like Mandarin, but complicated (like Tris from Divergent). Girls who make mistakes with their hearts, like Bianca from The DUFF and Lissa from Shut Out, but learn from those mistakes, too. Girls who are a little bit of a hot mess at times, it's true--but girls who remain interesting and above all real. I'll admit that I've grown a bit tired of talking about Mary Sues and whether girls are too stupid to live. These days, I'd much rather talk about truth and growth and resonance. These are the things that make life interesting, after all--much less literature.