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Celebrating the Complicated Girl

Women's History Month is drawing to a close, and that means I'm thinking about girls. Namely, I've been thinking about the way we talk about our intrepid girl heroes in YA, labeling them as "unlikable" or "too stupid to live" when they make poor choices--even going so far as calling them sluts when they engage in sexual behavior with which we disagree. Generally, there seems to exist significant pressure for writers to create characters that are wish fulfillment for teenage girls, not only in their situations (they go to magic school, or fall in love with magical boys), but their behavior, too. In YA, it often feels like teenage girls are better than our real, thorny, weird and sometimes unlikable selves. They let us forget the mistakes we've made--the awful boys we've fallen for, the times we've hurt our friends or been irresponsible or petty. When they have flaws, they're cute flaws. You know, they're clumsy. Or so pretty that everyone loves them (which is such an inconvenience, you guys!).

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.
I say all of this not to prove what a terrible, messed-up kid I was. In fact, I was pretty "good"; I didn't drink or do drugs or cheat on tests. I had friends and family I loved, who loved me, too. In fact, I think a lot of these things are within the realm of normal for adolescents. And yet they're experiences that, when seen in YA characters who are girls, are rarely celebrated.

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.

When I was a kid--long before I was an angsty, angry adolescent--my favorite book was The Secret Garden. Sure, I loved this Frances Hodgson Burnett classic for the mystery and lush setting (not to mention because of Dickon, tamer of wild beasts and my heart). But what I loved most of all was Mary.

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.
Phoebe North

Phoebe writes stories about aliens for teenagers. She loves both Star Trek and Star Wars and doesn't believe you should ever have to choose. She is the author of Starglass and Starbreak, both from Simon and Schuster.

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  1. It might just be all the recent hype but Katniss, defs goes into this category for me. Strong, but way far from perfect.

    I totally agree with what you're saying. I hate the expectation of perfect lives in YA. My own "complicated bit" of teendom was sex-related, but I think most teens deal with some major issue, drugs, alcohol, bullying, etc. And I think prettying that up can do as much harm as help. After all, how depressing is it that everybody in literature is more perfect than you are?

    1. I think Katniss is a great example--flawed and thorny and interesting. It's nice to see a girl like her celebrated!

  2. I really like this post. I haven't finished my story but I think my main character is a real female. She may have things people envy but she is a hot mess too.

  3. I love this post! Very timely to hear about The Secret Garden too, as we just passed its 100th birthday fairly recently.

  4. Hooray! Jo March was so complicated she still jumps off the page 100+ years later.

  5. The hardest thing for me and writing teenagers was that I hated being a teenager. So I'm not real wild about going back there in my mind. For me, though, writing teenagers is more about writing their personality and inner conflicts than fixating on the "OMG it's a teenager!" I'm currently tinkering with a story in which a young woman in her early 20s, who had a rough time as a teenager (teen pregnancy and all that) having to counsel a 16 year old who has escaped from an oppressive religious cult and is extremely angry.

    (Angry teens are even worse when they can turn into a giant bird and try to peck out your eyes.)

  6. YA guys that act like that, especially the love interests, drive me nuts. But I'm probably in the minority there :)

    As far as other writers go, I know GRRM gets a lot of flak for Dany and Sansa in the ASOIAF series, who are probably the two most hated POV characters (aside from Cersei). People think Sansa is stupid and useless, and Dany, well they seem to hate everything about Dany. She makes stupid decisions, she has it too easy, blah blah blah.

    I personally think Dany is one of the most well written characters, and for a 60 year old dude, he did extremely well capturing the emotional complexities of a teenage girl. And Sansa's naivety is refreshing, especially as she comes to realize that the world isn't one big romantic song with handsome princes and fair maidens.

    1. I agree that the girls and women in this ASOIAF series are a fantastically complex bunch of assholes and hot messes. I love them!

  7. Most of the young women I've ever written have been not so good girls, some more so than others. Most of the "good" girls I've written are the unpopular goody-goodies who are always being called out or made fun of because they're not living in the real world and doing and saying stuff real teens and preteens do and say. If you wouldn't want to read about a goody-goody, it follows that you shouldn't write about one either.

  8. The MC in my novel starts out as a very unlikeable girl. This seems to go against all the collective literary wisdom that says we should make our MCs likeable. But my story hinges on the fact that she starts out as every parent's nightmare 16-yr-old. Interestingly, one of my beta readers found it hard to connect with her like that, but another actually liked her more when she was bad!

    And I think you're right. Bad girls seem to be much harder to sell in YA. I wonder if it's because, as I understand it, most YA readers are girls, so it's harder for them to relate to a bad girl (especially one who might remind the reader of a bully at school)? Whereas bad boys have that mystique and "forbidden" quality that a lot of girls seem to go for. My wife excepted--I'm a good boy. :D Just a thought.

  9. I love this post. I want to think of something intelligent to say in response but you've said it all so well, "These days, I'd much rather talk about truth and growth and resonance." I will only say, 'Amen to that'

  10. I was once marked down by a contest judge because my female character was self-centered. I could see her point, but at the same time, I was thinking "But, if she's not, she'll suffer from Perfect Syndrome, and that would be boring." I'm not saying I need all my characters to be snorting coke and running with criminals, but come on--teenagers are far from perfect human beings. That's why they're so interesting to write about!

    Some of my favorites from recent reading: Briony in CHIME, Tris from DIVERGENT, Ruby Oliver from REAL LIVE BOYFRIENDS, Donna from PUTTING MAKEUP ON DEAD PEOPLE, and Mia from WHERE SHE WENT. These are some girls who make some bad and weird choices and learn from them. Some of them know how to take punch, others know how to hurt someone else (usually unintentionally) but they're all complicated and recognizable as humans. Fantastic stuff.

    Great post!
    - Liz

  11. Brilliant post. I loved Mary from The Secret Garden. Equally fantastic is Jane Winter in Noel Streatfeild's The Painted Garden (in which Jane plays Mary in a film of The Secret Garden.) She's a bad-tempered, proud and stubborn little girl. I completely identified with her. I think it's important that girls get to read about other girls who live with their flawed personalities without magically transforming into some vapid, saccharine ideal of girlhood.

  12. Fantastic post! Mary is contrary...and makes the reader feel delightfully wicked with her rottenness. But the thing is that her behaviour is also understandable. It's how she copes as much as the situation she's in. This makes her complicated, yet sympathetic. Perfecto!

  13. I love this post! You've brought up some great points!

    I actually think that by having the girl with tiny "cute" flaws like clumsiness that it can actually hurt the real teenage girl reading it's self esteem. I mean imagine a normal teenage girl with regular self esteem issues reading a book about a girl with a "too pretty problem."

    And of course, I will always have this special spot on my heart for Katniss Everdeen whom is pretty much my ultimate hero.

    Fabulous post!


  14. Ahh, love this post! Just what I needed to hear!

    I think sometimes we can get so wrapped in likeability that we lose our sense of relateability. I don't have to like a character right off the bat, but I would like to at least relate to them.

    Again, great post!


  15. I think the way fictional girls are regarded is parallel to the way real ones are in that there is an unrealistic bar they are expected to reach. I think as writers we should be somewhat vigilant in not perpetuating unrealistic expectations on a younger generation and taking care not to tie unlikeable traits to gender. Great post.

  16. Great post, and I totally agree. Like you, I was a "good" teenager, but I sure as hell wasn't perfect. Those are the kind of heroes and heroines I prefer to write and read about.

    Other good examples (off the top of my head):
    - Mia from IF I STAY
    - Katsa from GRACELING

  17. I really love this. (Thanks for the shout out, too.) I especially like your point about the "cute" flaws, as Meredith also mentioned. I find those to be annoying because it's like the author is not brave enough to have their character make actual mistakes. I sympathize with that, because it's hard sometimes, but it must be done. It is so important for characters' flaws to be REAL.

    One thing I've been working on is not just maintaining the flaws (which I'm now sort of used to) but making sure that not all my characters' decisions are smart, even if the character herself is smart. I was a smart teenager but I still made stupid, if often understandable, decisions. Bad decisions do not make a character stupid, and they are an important part of adolescence (as well as a part of adulthood! I still make bad decisions and have to learn from them!).

  18. This is such a fantastic post, I can really relate to it and I hope many more writers and readers see this!

  19. Yes, yes, yes. I'm into it. True, human, flawed, complicated > Likable.

  20. "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."

    I'm seriously thinking about writing this post myself now. I love my male YA characters, and I feel like sometimes their motives are swept under the rug in favor of making them mysterious or more enticing, but it doesn't always work.

    This is such a great post, and everything here really needed to be shared.


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Item Reviewed: Celebrating the Complicated Girl Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Phoebe North