Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Beyond Mary Sues and to the Shining Stars (of YA)

Twilight. The House of Night. Evermore. Hush, Hush. Fallen. All of these titles likely sound familiar to anyone who has followed the young adult market in the past few years. These books have been climbing onto the New York Times Bestsellers lists, convoluting bookstore shelves and even the book sections of large chain stores like Wal-Mart and Target, and eating their ways straight through the purses of teenage girls and into their minds with the allure of pretty covers, tantalizing romance, and otherworldly tales. Forget the literary values of these books (or the arguments of ‘lack thereof’) for a moment: let’s instead discuss the driving forces of their plots -- the heroines. A heroine can often define a book and give the story its grounding, especially if the perspective is first-person -- and, in the right authors’ hands, a book can come to life and beat with a living heart because of a heroine with whom readers can empathize and for whom they can cheer. It doesn’t matter what genre the book falls into, whether it is paranormal or contemporary of fantasy. A good heroine can pull a book together and make it triumph -- just as a bad heroine can cause a book to fall apart at the seams and make it plummet into failure in readers’ minds.

I’ve been reading young adult literature steadily for the past four years, and all five books I mentioned above are ones I have read and discussed with other readers. At their cores, these books have decent ideas -- but, beyond the issue of faulty execution, they all share a common failing: the heroine. Just hop on over to Goodreads and read any negative review of those five YA books. Chances are that at least once in any one- or two-star review there will be a mention of the heroine and her utter stupidity/shallowness/selfishness/etc. What is going wrong with these books that the heroines are driving factors for our dislike and scorn?

In preparation for this post, I asked my fellow Book Lantern bloggers the question “Who are the best YA heroines?” Here was the sad thing: none of us could form a very long list. Our results actually ended up a mixed bag of a few female characters created by male authors, a few heroines from recent YA books that managed to surprise us, and quite a few middle-grade heroines. The sadder thing was that if I would have asked, “Who are the worst YA heroines?”, I likely would have gotten much longer lists.

This whole issue of heroines bothers me for a good reason: I myself am a writer. If so many YA authors out there are failing at creating good heroines, then who am I to think that I won’t fall to the same cheap tricks and shenanigans these authors do? So, to help myself (and any other doubtful aspiring YA writers out there), I made myself a check-list of all the things that tick many readers off when it comes to YA heroines:

(1) Show us the smarts, darling, not just your grades.

In Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush, we meet Nora Grey at school, the place where the reader is told that she has the type of good grades that would make any parent proud. Her ‘smartness,’ however, unravels once she finds herself partnered with a boy named Patch in biology class -- and the teacher assigns her to tutor him even after repeated inappropriate behavior from said boy towards Nora. What does Nora do? After swallowing down her pride and integrity, she follows Patch, practically stalking him, all for the sake of ‘tutoring’ and then, later, finding out who he really is even despite many instances where she almost gets herself killed. Smart? Methinks not.

Recklessness I could forgive -- but stupidity and lack of common sense in a heroine seems downright blasphemous, especially if the heroine was created that way just to further the plot. A story should at least be ironic if it’s going to follow a stupid-on-purpose heroine.

Let’s look at a good example of a heroine who actually is smart: Hermione Granger of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Although Rowling easily could have just had readers take Hermione’s intelligence by word alone, the plot constantly proves that Hermione is more than just a book smart girl who couldn’t work her brain outside of the classroom. Who solves many of the puzzles within the Potter world? Who researches every book there is to find answers and solutions to Harry’s conundrums in the wizarding world? Who calmly assesses a situation while Harry and Ron want to rush in impulsively and muck up an already dangerous set of circumstances? I rest my case.

(2) Shallow thoughts lead to shallow emotions.

Lucinda “Luce” Price of Lauren Kate’s Fallen has secrets and a dark past. . .but, just as the reader begins to wonder just what the heck is going on with Luce and the unanswered questions surrounding her, what happens? She sees a cute boy named Daniel Grigori and gets hooked and sunk. (Never mind that said boy left a really good impression by giving her the finger upon seeing her.) In the ongoing pages, Luce’s obsession with Daniel grows exponentially -- even though she barely has one meaningful conversation with him over the course of the story. Mystery drives her attraction towards him -- and, by the end of the book, she loves him without even knowing him or even much about him.

Shallow, right? Well, it’s sad to say that ‘love’ like Luce’s is rather common in YA novels these days, lust somehow always developing into something more meaningful and deep. Heroines love their heroes. Don’t question it, readers. Love is love. I, however, must disagree since I find it rather insulting to real-life teenagers. There are instances where they have real love instead of shallow love based on just the physical aspects. Girls especially tend to tread carefully where they’re getting their hearts and bodies involved (especially in first relationships), yet the heroines of YA novels jump in straight into the lurve pool at the first sign of interest (or, strangely, disinterest). I might expect that kind of shallow emotion capability from a 90-minute romantic comedy but not from a 300+-page YA novel.

But all hope isn’t lost because there ARE still heroines who are careful in the love department. One such heroine is Katniss Everdeen of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games. Though Katniss has two boys subtly vying for her affections over the course of three books, she keeps her focus on one thing: surviving. However much we readers divide into Teams Peeta and Gale, Katniss doesn’t let the lure of affection and chemistry mess with her decisions and choices. Even when love pushes its way into her heart, she doesn’t bend easily to its will. Sometimes she even doubts if her own feelings are true or fake -- and, because of that and much more, Katniss would beat out any shallow Mary Sue any day.

(3) Love is not an excuse for the dumb or melodramatic.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is infamous for Bella Swan and her constant need to be within reaching distance of her vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen. But Twilight’s sequel, New Moon, is where we see Bella’s shining moment: she breaks down into an emotionless husk and lives like a zombie after Edward breaks up with her and leaves Forks, seemingly for good. Well. That would be bad enough. . .but then Bella, upon reclaiming her boyfriend, neglects everyone else in her life just for the sake of her Adonis-like vampire of a lover. Quite honestly, love makes Bella very much into a detestable character.

Falling in love is supposed to be somewhat consuming -- but, in a YA novel, the heroine’s life cannot revolve around her love life. If her love life is all that defines her, why isn’t she just in a romance novel? She would probably like it much better there -- all the intimacy she could want without too many consequences or too much depth.

Dumbness and melodrama are not the fates for all heroines who fall in love, though. Enter Sophie Mercer, heroine of Rachel Hawkins’s Hex Hall. Now, Sophie could so easily fawn over cute warlock Archer Cross as soon as she arrives at her new school -- but, instead, she tries to fit in and find her place within the walls of the strange Hecate Hall, making new friends and enemies along the way. Though Sophie finds herself drawn to Archer and eventually starts having feelings for him, she is more likely to call him a jerk straight to his face than cry herself to sleep if he doesn’t pay attention to her. She just goes to show that YA heroines can like boys and still keep hold of their wits in the process.

(4) Even goddesses in human flesh cannot be allowed to trample all over people.

P.C. and Kristin Cast’s House of Night series follows Zoey Redbird, a human girl who becomes a super-special Vampyre granted divine gifts from the Vampyre goddess Nyx. What type of shining example does Zoey set, enabling her to have earned these great gifts? Well, she likes to lead boys on quite a bit to the point where she has multiple boys fighting over her. (The last time I read the series, she had two boyfriends, a teacher-turned-lover who died because of her, and two admirers whom she liked to snog.) She can call all manner of girls around her skanks or sluts, but it’s poor, poor Zoey if no one will speak to her because of her own wannabe harem.

. . .Now, beyond the ridiculousness of everything I just wrote, who really wants to read a book about a chick like that? Why must we glorify these spiteful girls who are dressed up as the nice golden girls? They are not meant to be the queens while the rest of the cast are their courtiers whom they can neglect or throw away as they choose.

Thankfully, super powers and otherworldly heritages don’t always lead to arrogance and moral ambiguity in YA heroines. Clara Gardner of Cynthia Hand’s Unearthly is an angel child with a Purpose -- and she is a normal girl for the most part, caring and thoughtful to those around her even as she must focus on figuring out how the visions she is having play into the Purpose she must fulfill. She is a prime example of a YA heroine who, while entangled with the supernatural aspects of her life, can still appreciate and embrace the normalcy that comes with the comforts of family, friends, and love determined by choice and not fate. Clare just proves that heroines don’t need to be powerhouses, beauties, or a part of some star-crossed love affair(s) to be interesting to readers.

(5) All of this happened, and there’s no growth? Then what‘s the point?!

Evermore by Alyson Nöel opens with Ever Bloom, a girl who is still coping with the loss of her parents and little sister, meeting Damen Auguste, a mysterious boy who takes an interest in her despite her recent social pariah status. Her life spirals out of her control as supernatural people and things creep into her life. . .and it all started because of Damen. Now, Ever falls into many of the previous categories of failing heroines, but here’s her special problem: over the course of multiple books, she doesn’t learn a damn thing. I’m serious. You would think that each book would have the heroine growing and learning, correct? Not so with Ever. I dropped the series after three books because Ever obviously was not learning that she must keep her secrets close to her chest and not trust just anyone willing to help her in some way.

It’s nothing new that YA novels (especially those in the paranormal genre) oftentimes lack growth for the characters. Plot isn’t meant to be just a flashy thing to wave at the readers: it’s there for a reason, to give characters obstacles and chances to learn and grow. Their growth gives meaning to the story and reality to the fiction. How can any author forget that?

Lauren Oliver obviously didn’t forget the meaning of the word growth when it came to her heroine Samantha Kingston of Before I Fall. At first, Sam is the popular girl, following the strides of her mean girl friends and ruling the high school scene. . .until the night she dies. Death is not the end for her, though, since she is granted seven more days to make things right. Growth is never so hard-earned as Sam stumbles through her extra week. . .but, through all the heartache and emotional stress, grow she does, making the story so worthwhile and meaningful. If only such heroines were the majority and the minority.

In conclusion, let it be known that I’m harsh because I care. I want to read YA books where the heroines are empowered by choice and the freedom to pave their own ways. I want there to be YA books that inspire a new generation of YA writers who will grow up and write their own meaningful novels with strong heroines (and heroes). I want the cycle of inspiration to continue. However much publishing may need to thrive on commercialism and quick sells, there also needs to be substance. Readers need to speak their minds about the injustices and flaws in YA so that the market can be swayed into changing. We the readers can change the way YA books are being written if only we will open our mouths and say what bothers us in the stories being published. A little can go a long way. Let’s hope that soon there will be more heroines in YA who makes us cheer instead of cringe.

I hope this post has been entertaining and enlightening to both writers and readers who struggle in finding YA heroines to like and admire.  Feel free to discuss in the comments section who some of YOUR favorite heroines are in YA because here at the Book Lantern we are always in search of great heroines in great books!

Tomorrow, Ceilidh of The Sparkle Project will be posting about feminism and her new fictional feminist hero, so don't miss it!


  1. Fantastic post Jillian. I'm still wondering about the definition of strength and love according to YA. But I'm surprised you didn't mention any John Green or Melina Marchetta heriones. Even if John Green's are just manic pixies.

  2. I love Marchetta's heroines, every one of them, but they're on a whole other level of substance in YA. Honestly, Marchetta's books deserve a post all their own, so I'll probably do a blog post about the Marchetta Obsession in the near future.

    John Green's heroines didn't warrant a mention for this reason alone: I still have all three of his novels left unfinished on my bookshelf. Not because they're bad or unreadable but because other books keep calling to me instead. Thus, I know next to nothing about the heroines in John Green's novels other than what I've read in some reviews of his books.

  3. Good job, Jillian! :) One thing that also annoys me about YA heroines is how easily they accept paranormal phenomenon. Oh, my true love, is a fallen angel/ vampire/ greek god? That's just fine. Let's go make out now, shall we?

    If some guy came up to me and said, I'm a vampire, I'd laugh in his face and recommend therapy.

  4. Good post. I really appreciate the list of good protagonists in recent paranormal YA.

    But I do feel I should protest the knocking of romance novels-- good ones have just as much depth as good YA, and they both struggle with being taken seriously rather than just being seen as profitable fluff.

  5. Chrysoula, that comment crept in there because I read a few romance novels recently that just rubbed me the wrong way because there were exactly that: mostly fluff. I guess I should have clarified by saying shallow heroines belong in BAD romance novels instead. :)

  6. Awesome post!

    Personally, I love Risa from Neal Shusterman's Unwind - she's not just smart, she's clinically logical, delightfully so. She has her moments of weakness, but she generally relies on herself and doesn't let Connor control her life (she worries for him, but not too obviously so).

  7. I so agree with this entire post! One good contemporary YA-fiction heroine, in my opinion (other than the other great mentions in the comments) is Jessica Darling of the Sloppy Firsts series. She's a great example that a heroine can have flaws and be selfish and a brat (sometimes), but if she is smart, grows, and develops a real (if complex) relationship with her love interest she remains a vital and compelling character.

    I know many people have mixed feelings about Jessica Darling, but I feel like often people who enjoy the Twilight-type heroines argue that we want our characters to perfectly fit into our own conception of what an ideal female would be and to me Jessica Darling exemplifies that: NO! We want our heroines to be fully realized people that live their lives on their own merits and not on their love interests'.

  8. This is probably one of the most in-depth and awesome posts I have ever seen. You made the best assessments and counterparts. Thanks!

  9. I'm a fan of Evie from Kiersten White's Paranormalcy. She's smart, incredibly funny, and able to defend herself against most threats, with little to no help from paranormal boys. I'm new to this blog, but I've been reading lots of the archived stuff, and I have to say that I'm excited to find other young women with similar opinions on YA as mine. It's refreshing. :)

  10. I'm glad you like the TBL. I've had my eye on Paranormalcy for a while,
    especially since I've been told that it's funny, so you've given me another
    reason to check it out. I love smart, witty(love the word), heroines that
    can stick up for themselves.