How to Write the Perfect YA Heroine

| Monday, December 30, 2013

Have you been wringing your hands over your YA protagonist and wondering how to avoid a Mary-Sue situation? Are you terrified that you made her too weak, bitchy, straw feminist, "strong with scare quotes," pathetic, slutty, simpering, selfish, annoying, bratty, boring, or whiny? Have you been scouring the internet for that magical list that will tell you exactly what to do in order to ensure she's that heroine everyone's been demanding? You know, the one people will point to and say YES, THIS IS SHE, THIS IS THE PERFECT YA HEROINE?

REJOICE, FOR YOU HAVE FOUND THAT LIST. Instead of telling you everything you SHOULDN'T do, this list will tell you exactly what you SHOULD do. Follow this formula and you will have 100% universally beloved girl protagonist, every time, guaranteed!*

Photo Credit: Guillermo Insfran via Compfight cc

  1. Make her completely sure of herself and fully settled into her personal philosophy and belief system. Every choice should be solid and correct on the first try. Confusion and indecision are the marks of weakness 100% of the time. If you don't have your life completely together by age 17, you're clearly the worst.

  2. If she's pretty, she should definitely know that about herself, but not in a stuck-up way. It's perfectly reasonable to expect every teenage girl to have total body confidence without being a bitch about it. And if she's not pretty, she should still love her body. But not in an unrealistic way, because society.

  3. She should only focus on important things, like the things that each individual reader finds important. Focusing on anything else at any time is annoying.

  4. She should always be firm, positive, and upbeat. Complaining about anything or doubting herself will make her seem whiny.

  5. If she has a love interest, make sure she's only interested in that one person. Feeling confused or attracted to more than one person means she's being selfish or slutty. It's also annoying. She should maybe have sex with this person, but maybe not, because sex is realistic for teenage girls but it also makes them sluts. Your call.

  6. She should be with that person forever, especially if they have sex, because that shows strength of conviction and commitment.

  7. She should break up with that person because teenage relationships are for suckers and thinking about her partner takes up too much plot space.

  8. Actually, maybe she should just be single and proud the whole time, because romance is boring and for losers. It's also annoying.

  9. She should totally be a feminist, as long as it's the right kind of feminist. You know what I mean.

  10. She should dislike feminism because it's not necessary anymore and boys are great. Also, it's obvious that you're just an angry lady author trying to indoctrinate young women with your old dried-up hag ways, so just skip it.

  11. Make sure she's smart, but not unnaturally smart. She can be physically strong as long as it's in a girl way. She should be emotionally strong, also in a girl way, unless that means crying. No crying. Her dialogue should be clever and witty, but not sarcastic or whiny. She should be active and move the plot forward, but not in a way that could be considered selfish, bitchy, or annoying.

  12. Make sure she's a realistic teenager without being a realistic teenager because real teenagers are super annoying and don't you know adults read YA?

  13. She can be superhuman as long as she's not overpowered. That's unrealistic wish-fulfillment.

  14. If she's regular human, she should be human to the Nth power by displaying flawless characteristics, personality, and dialogue. Except not totally flawless. Throw in some flaws, too. But only good flaws. Except not good flaws, because good flaws are too easy. Try some bad flaws. Just not too bad.

  15. In order to avoid accusations of creating an "author cypher" or playing out your own wish fulfillment fantasies, she should be absolutely different from you, the author, in every conceivable way. Physical appearance, hobbies, interests, strengths, weaknesses... make sure nothing reflects you! It'll be difficult not to draw on any of your personal interests or knowledge, but I have faith.

  16. She should be nice to everyone, even jerks, because they're probably just misunderstood and she should be sympathetic to that. She should also be outspoken and clear in all of her opinions so people don't walk all over her, especially jerks.

  17. Make her smile! It ain't so bad! She has it pretty good, post-apocalyptic landscape and people trying to murder her aside! No need to act ungrateful.

  18. She should have a conflict-free relationship with her parents, dutifully following their wishes at all times, even when they're not being very understanding or respectful of her. Backtalk or defiance will make her a selfish whiny brat, especially if the parents are okay most of the time. After all, they're the adults! It's not like there's a psychological tendency for adolescents to break from their parents or anything.

  19. She should always rebel against injustice, as long as she isn't overreacting and being totally annoying.

  20. Definitely discount any racial, cultural, or religious background that may inform her actions. There's only one way to be strong or interesting!

  21. Her gender presentation and interests should reach the perfect balance between feminine and masculine because all girls can be quantified into a single "correct way to girl" as determined by what someone said somewhere that one time.

  22. If she's disabled, she should be inspirational and always think longingly about how she wishes she was like all the other kids. She should be enthusiastic and kind to anyone who's even halfway decent to her, and her disability should be portrayed in a way that makes non-disabled readers feel comfortable.

  23. If she's dealing with depression, PTSD, or other mental illnesses or trauma, she should stuff those issues down inside and carry on with a smile and a righteous fist of righteousness in the face of her trials. If the reader has no idea that she's having these problems because she's displaying zero annoying outward symptoms, you've done it right!

  24. She should be able to shift and change to match the expectations of anyone who picks up the book.

  25. Have you considered making her NOT a girl? I hear boys are just easier to relate to and male anti-heroes who murder people in twisted ways are super interesting, so maybe you could try that instead.

* Not actually guaranteed at all.

** On the off chance that it wasn't clear, this post is a joke. The entire concept of being able to write a teenage girl that someone won't criticize for being too blah-blah or not blah-blah enough is a joke, honestly.

*** Which is not an argument that all YA heroines are written flawlessly or above criticism; just an illustration of the impossible standards we often hold them to.


{ G. } at: December 30, 2013 at 8:13 AM said...

That's a great list! But the character who wrote it is obsvly being too bitchy. And sarcastic. And the wrong kind of feminist. I think they might have to close your blog.

(I do really like this list.)

{ cathellisen } at: December 30, 2013 at 8:19 AM said...

This is perfect and I love you. The end.

{ Maggie Stiefvater } at: December 30, 2013 at 8:37 AM said...

After reading this glorious post, I was about to ask if you wanted to be friends, but girls don't have friends, so would you like to be frenemies?

{ Sarah Rees Brennan } at: December 30, 2013 at 8:41 AM said...

I have come to braid your hair and have a sleepover, as girls do! *waves hairbrush, await friendship*

{ Luciferadi } at: December 30, 2013 at 8:43 AM said...

I. Love. This. Let's make everyone everywhere read it.

{ 2439ff20-7172-11e3-9c67-000bcdcb2996 } at: December 30, 2013 at 8:50 AM said...

I can't even tell you how much I love this. It's like a plate of fat free, full flavored peanut butter swirl cupcakes that regenerate themselves every time you take one.

{ Zoë Marriott } at: December 30, 2013 at 8:58 AM said...

This is marvellous. So marvellous that I seem, without having meant to, to have written a sequel (only, about five months ago, so maybe a prequel?). I mean, I literally made a list in exactly the same way, only mine is less funny and more rambly. Anyway, here's a link, just so that you can see the way in which we've inadvertantly mind-melded:

{ Tashya } at: December 30, 2013 at 9:01 AM said...

Thank you. Great post!

{ Sara B. Larson } at: December 30, 2013 at 9:03 AM said...

I LOVE this post. I know you have a line forming of people way cooler than me, but pretty sure I could use a friend like you, too. ;-)

{ Katie L. Carroll } at: December 30, 2013 at 9:12 AM said...

OMG! I'll comb your hair and have a tickle fight with you any day!

I'm totally linking to this in my next Females in YA post. :)

{ CindaChima } at: December 30, 2013 at 9:14 AM said...

I love this better than any of these other lame commentors.

{ Kelly Gerner } at: December 30, 2013 at 9:22 AM said...

#9 is the best.

{ marypearson } at: December 30, 2013 at 9:55 AM said...

I know I should be firm (#4) but I can't decide which one I love best. *Tossing head from side to side*

{ Danelle Miller } at: December 30, 2013 at 10:35 AM said...

Love love love love.

{ Eliza } at: December 30, 2013 at 11:49 AM said...

Oops, you forgot #26. 'Make her exactly like every single reader, except she should be a little smarter, a little prettier, and a little stronger, 'cause readers only relate to those kinds of characters. Oh, and make sure her flaws aren't the same as your readers flaws. Because when you relate to a stupid, whiny character you realize you're stupid and whiny as well.'

{ Bree Biesinger Despain } at: December 30, 2013 at 12:27 PM said...

This is the best. Ever.

{ Amy Goldman Koss } at: December 30, 2013 at 1:34 PM said...

Wow! Just in the nick-o-time! I was just getting to the "personality" part of this pesky book. Thanks!

{ WriteWorld } at: December 30, 2013 at 1:43 PM said...

I love this post! My favorite is 14, because I think you managed to condense the amount of wishy-washy contradiction present in the YA genre down to just a few sentences there. I might have whiplash, but I can't stop laughing.

{ Kristan Hoffman } at: December 30, 2013 at 1:44 PM said...

I feel like I need to save this list just because it's so comprehensive -- it'll remind me of what facets I might be forgetting! (And you know, I'll just ignore the actual "advice." :P)

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: December 30, 2013 at 4:12 PM said...

I would like to be friends with and/or braid the hair of every commenter on this post :D

{ D. Handler } at: December 30, 2013 at 4:31 PM said...

Had me smiling all the way through.

Personally, I'd love to read a YA book where the protagonist has a decent relationship with her parents; automatic rebellion seems very forced. Not strictly 'conflict-free', but a trust-filled and communicative relationship would be refreshing.

{ Christine Monson } at: December 30, 2013 at 4:56 PM said...

Still laughing. Wonderful. Funny.

P.S. Thanks. I love your hair too.

{ Christine } at: December 30, 2013 at 7:37 PM said...

I think I'll print this out and give it to non-YA reading friends who tell me that my main character needs to rely on her parents to solve all the problems because that is what good parents do.

{ B B Shepherd } at: December 31, 2013 at 3:30 PM said...

Thank you for this! Brilliant. And you can braid my hair anytime. :D

{ Paula Stokes } at: December 31, 2013 at 7:13 PM said...

OMG. I have really long hair for your braiding pleasure, unless you don't like it, and then I'll cut it off.

And my fellow YA Valentine Sara Larson is totally one of those annoying pretty and cool girls who doesn't realize it but, like, every other person in the world does and worships her, so just ignore her comment all together #LoveYouSara

So glad I saw this via @Literaticat :)

{ } at: January 5, 2014 at 8:18 PM said...

With your help, I will create the perfect ya heroine ... a strong, feminist male.

You're hilarious. :-)

{ Jennifer M. Hartsock } at: January 9, 2014 at 2:09 PM said...

Readers somehow forget that young girls AREN'T annoying. In fact, most young people are annoying, and they should be. They're experimenting and hormonal and passionate and eccentric and whatever. They are becoming themselves and don't necessarily know how, or even who that is, yet.

Give young people a friggin' break! Oh, and I appreciate satyr, so this list was a fun read. Thank you for writing it!

Take care,

{ glitter-n-gore } at: January 14, 2014 at 8:24 AM said...

Ha! I love this. Permission to link/share?

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: January 14, 2014 at 9:22 AM said...

Of course! Share away :)

{ orangerful } at: January 20, 2014 at 8:27 AM said...

I can't decide what I enjoyed more, the post or the hilarious comments to follow. Super fun, will now go link to this everywhere. :D

{ Annie J } at: January 23, 2014 at 10:41 AM said...

I know this post is a joke but when I got to #12 I had to pause cause... well, yeah. I do the opposite when I'm reading sometimes though. As an adult reading YA when I find a heroine whiny and annoying I couch my criticism with, "maybe she's just being a realistic teenager, I don't know"

But I'm glad I came across a link to this post because I adore your blog :)

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