In my Internet trolling, I’ve come across so many articles recently related to females in YA or women in writing. They’ve inspired a lot of thoughts and I was going to do a quick round-up (with a few of those thoughts) today. But then I started writing about one article and came across some more related articles (as tends to happen in the wormhole of the Interweb) and it turned into enough material for an entire blog post. So I guess those other articles will have to wait until another day to have their moment on my blog.
This post in particular was inspired in part by the article “Why Talking About Girl Really Matters” on Stacked Books (http://www.stackedbooks.org/2014/03/why-talking-about-girl-reading-matters.html). The article begins with the thought that we need to talk about girls reading and ways to encourage them to read (not just focus on getting the so-called reluctant demographic of boys reading).
The part of the article that really struck me was this statement, “Girls are as complex as boys, but so often, we let girls be placed into one of two categories, based entirely on our preferences: likable or unlikable.These aren’t critiques of story nor are they critiques of character. They are preferences. There’s nothing wrong with preferring a likable or unlikable character, but there is something wrong when that becomes the means through which we critique a story and thus the way that we then present those stories to readers — especially to girl readers who may identify as unlikable or as likable vis a vis those books.”
I can look to my own character Katora in my YA fantasy Elixir Bound. In reader reviews, she has been called self-centered, couldn’t quite be liked by the reader, whiny, selfish, a bit of a pill, stubborn, and a control freak. Yikes! Based on those comments alone, I’d probably make some pretty harsh judgments on Katora.
Yet one reviewer said Katora was her favorite character because she was strong-willed and the novel benefited from Katora’s personality, another adored her, and a third was enchanted by her. She is also described as driven, hard working, likable, a great heroine, having a side of her that really cares for her siblings, self-dependent, strong, and brave. A bit of a different picture of the character of Katora.
(Please note that I appreciate all reviews written of my book, even the unfavorable ones. I’m not saying any of these reviewers are wrong—and many of them mentioned liking her even though they also used unfavorable descriptions, some of the positive and negative descriptions came from a single reviewer—just pointing out that my beloved character can be seen as unlikable by some standards.)
Given in many ways that Katora is a reflection of myself (in a weird fictional way), I could take that to mean that people see me as unlikable. Yikes again! Now what if a teenage girl saw something of herself in Katora and then read a review that described Katora as unlikable or selfish or something much worse. She might make the mistake of thinking herself unlikable or worse. Triple yikes!
I can think of many YA books in which I didn’t always “like” the female character at some point in the book (one in particular that comes to mind is Samantha in Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall), but that didn’t mean I didn’t “like” her in general. Usually a “dislike” moment stemmed from some action she took. In the case of Samantha, she is a popular girl who doesn’t always treat people nicely, but there are many sides to her and part of her journey is learning to treat others better.
So just because Samantha had “unlikable” moments didn’t mean she wasn’t a good character lacking any redeemable qualities, and it certainly didn’t make for a bad book. In fact, Before I Fall was one of my favorite books that year and came highly recommended. Again, it comes back to the fact that so much of what is considered likable or unlikable is subjective and not necessarily a good means of evaluating a character or a book.
And if writing good characters is in part writing characters that are dynamic and realistic, then all characters should possess “unlikable” qualities. In fact, a character who is totally likable would probably be pretty boring to read and would ring untrue to life. The best characters have flaws. Maybe we need to rethink the terminology and stop pegging female characters in YA as “likable” or “unlikable” because those terms hardly encompass what a character’s (or person’s) true personality is.
What females in YA have you found to be either likable or unlikable (or both)?
For more reading on this topic, check out:
“The Girl Myth in YA (And Beyond)” on Book Riot (http://bookriot.com/2013/11/18/girl-myth-ya-fiction-beyond/)
“Unlikable Female Characters in YA Fiction: A Reading List” on Stacked Books (http://www.stackedbooks.org/2013/04/unlikable-female-characters-in-ya.html)
“Boys Will Be Boys, and Girls Will Be Accommodating” by Laurel Snyder (https://medium.com/open-ticket/24530a5a0dee)
“The 10 Most Annoying Teenagers From Books” on Huff Post Books, though these are not all girl characters and not all from YA books, still a worthy—and fun—read (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/18/annoying-teenagers-books-_n_4703343.html)