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Guest Post by Jenn Walkup: Keeping it Real - Female Protagonists in YA Lit

Jenn Walkup is the author of SECOND VERSE, her debut YA thriller. She is also a big supporter of Epilepsy Awareness Month and is donating a portion of her November book sales to epilepsy research (more details below). She's written a guest post on how she thinks about and approaches writing female protagonists in YA literature.

Keeping it Real – Female Protagonists In YA Lit

I was at a school visit a few weeks ago, talking about my new YA mystery/thriller, SECOND VERSE.  It was a lively and fun conversation – the students asked so many amazing and thoughtful questions about writing and publishing. The topic shifted, and we began to talk about books in general and their observations about YA lit, in particular with female main characters and anything that has a love story involved.

As the conversation went deeper, I made sure to absorb every word they had to say. Some of the things we writers have known and talked about from time to time in the YA community – bubbled up to the surface.

YA writers: We have a huge responsibility.

This isn’t just about writing a good story and keeping people entertained. We need to be super aware of what we are representing. And I’m not just talking about avoiding insta-love and abusive love interest tropes. I’m talking about something much more subtle.

The conversation circled around to various recurring problems the teens had with some of the books they’ve read.

“We’re sick of seeing a female main character who isn’t the main character of the book.”

Female characters don’t need to be supporting characters. I mean, this is 2013. We all know we females in real life aren’t just playing the supporting role anymore, and haven’t been for some time. We need to make sure to represent that in our books.

“Tired of seeing girls fall in love and act dumb  – or even worse – like they’re no longer themselves.”

It’s okay for the girl to fall in love. It’s even okay for it to be over the top, corny, mushy wish-fulfillment love (I am a sucker for a good romance, myself, I admit). But, it is NOT okay for the character to lose herself in the process. So she can love as deeply and quickly as she wants, but she needs to stay true to herself and not lose her identity or interests.

“There’s nothing worse than a book that totally goes off track when the romance takes over.”

Keeping  female characters active. Very often, especially in first person point of view, the female protagonist is on the journey of her story until she falls in love. Then she becomes very passive and it’s all about the love interest, the romance, and the rest of the story often falls away. It can work if it’s a straight romance novel, but when a character changes and the plot loses its steam in other capacities, it often loses the reader’s interest too.

For example, Second Verse is at its core a thriller/mystery. There is a decently hefty dose of romance, but it takes a back seat to the thriller and mystery aspects. Staying true to this, even once the romance becomes more important to the book, was something I tried really hard to do, to keep the characters on course and the story from drifting from its original purpose.

Paying attention to these points, while making our stories hopefully better, is not just for story’s sake. It’s for the sake of our young readers too!

Reading is so often the window into seeing and learning the way the world works. I can only speak for myself as a young reader, but we often find out who we are in the pages of books.

I want to try my hardest to represent girls as they should be: empowered individuals who are able to make their own decisions - about any aspects of their story, even, yes, falling in love.

They can decide to fall in love as easily as they can decide to slay a dragon – as long as they remain true to themselves, regardless of where their story takes them.

I’m not sure if I’m always successful with this, but I try my hardest and will keep trying. And after talking to that group of teens and hearing them gripe about the things we’ve discussed in writer’s circles so many times, I realize how very important it is and how hard I have to commit to think about and work on this with each novel.

What do you think? Do you agree? And what other responsibilities do you think we, as YA authors, have to our audience?

Oh, and a note before I go. Since November is Epilepsy Awareness Month (a near and dear cause to my family), I am donating a portion of all SECOND VERSE book sales this month to fund epilepsy research and support the needs of kids with epilepsy. Support a great cause and purchase SECOND VERSE here.

About the book (description from goodreads):

Bad things come in threes. In Shady Springs, that includes murder.

Murder Now
Lange Crawford’s move to Shady Springs, Pennsylvania, lands her a group of awesome friends, a major crush on songwriter Vaughn, and life in a haunted, 200-year-old farmhouse. It also brings The Hunt: an infamous murder mystery festival where students solve a fake, gruesome murder scheme during the week of Halloween. Well, supposedly fake.

Murder Then
Weeks before The Hunt, Lange and her friends hold a séance in the farmhouse’s eerie barn. When a voice rushes through, whispering haunting words that only she and Vaughn can hear, Lange realizes it's begging for help. The mysterious voice leads Lange and Vaughn to uncover letters and photos left behind by a murdered girl, Ginny, and they become obsessed with her story and the horrifying threats that led to her murder.

Murder Yet to Come
But someone doesn’t like their snooping, and Lange and Vaughn begin receiving the same threats that Ginny once did. The mysterious words from the barn become crucial to figuring out Ginny's past and their own, and how closely the two are connected. They must work fast to uncover the truth or risk finding out if history really does repeat itsel

Thank you for joining us, Jenn!
Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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  1. Enjoyed your thoughtful, insightful post! :)

  2. Yes, this is exactly what I try to do, keep the story real and our female protagonist the real MC of her novel. Great post.

  3. I get tired of those situations in books too, but if it's part of the character's transformation I give a little slack. But Famous Vampire Book #2, where the MC is catatonic over being left, made me absolutely furious.

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  5. Thanks everyone for your comments!

    Angelica I agree, if it's purposefully done and part of character ARC, it can be a really powerful tool!

  6. Great points, Jenn. I didn't realize teens were thinking such things! Yay. I think we as writers really DO have a responsibility to create a realistic portrayal of romance, and not let the romance waylay the real story (unless writing straight romance of course, as you said).

  7. I agree. I hate that in real life. I have known so many girls, back in high school and beyond, who are completely independent and then they fall in love and their life then revolves that person. They can no longer make decisions for themselves. They say I don't understand because I haven't found 'my love' yet. Well I refuse to be in any relationship that changes me from who I am. I want to grow not regress. Anyways very enlightening post, I am working on this in my story. Though the romance and normalcy she experiences almost takes her off track that is on will force her to make a very important character building decision. I look forward to reading Second Verse.

  8. Thanks everyone!

    Carol - I was surprised and impressed too! It really highlighted for me - even more - how important this stuff is for us writers to think about!

    Eve - I agree. It is very much like how it often happens in real life. Good luck with your writing!


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Item Reviewed: Guest Post by Jenn Walkup: Keeping it Real - Female Protagonists in YA Lit Rating: 5 Reviewed By: stephanie kuehn