For the first time in about a year, I opened a word document with my current work in progress, determined to get back into writing now that I’m a post-grad (for undergraduate, anyway). While rereading my 12,000 word draft, I realized that the character who I found hardest to write was my protagonist. While I knew her struggles and reasons behind her behavior and dialogue, I realized that her motivations may not be as transparent to readers, and that she could come off in less than ideal ways without the right context or background knowledge. This got me thinking about why readers tend to be so critical about female protagonists, and how readers tend to expect so much more from them (myself included).
There are so many double-standards imposed upon female protagonists: they can’t be boring but they can’t be too good at everything. Readers scoff at them if they’re weak but it’s unbelievable if they’re too skilled in all sorts of weaponry/marital arts/etc. God forbid if a protagonist is a Mary Sue, perfect in every way, a thinly veiled wish-fulfillment character who readers are supposed to like because, well, they’re the protagonist. While I’m definitely guilty of being annoyed by these traits, I also want to challenge myself and ask why such tropes annoy me so much as a reader. Is it because I’m a female and thus judge female characters more harshly? Is it because I’ve read so many female YA protagonist that I’ve developed higher standards? Do I hold them to the standards of behavior I believe I would exhibit in such a situation? (I’m not saying that I could survive more than 5 minutes in the Hunger Games arena, but I am quick to stand up for myself and wouldn’t be railroaded by some characters in contemporary novels, for example).
Here are some common tropes that I find tend to irk readers the most in female protagonists:
The perfectly average, brown haired, quiet girl who attracts the attention of the hot paranormal dude:
Why it’s annoying: These types of protagonists all tend to run together after a while. They’re never popular but have pretty features, always outwardly quiet with some snark that only takes the right vampire/angel/werewolf to unlock. It’s sort of unbelievable that someone of such superior skills and genetic differences would like plain old Jane from your science class.
Why we may be too critical: On the flip side, there’s nothing wrong with writing about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. Perhaps readers don’t like reading about these ordinary, average protagonists because we want to spend our fictional time reading about the original and different. I get that, I’m usually that way too. Yet most people are somewhat average, and do spend their high school days doing homework and watching movies with their friends rather than battling demons/saving the world. While these characters can start off as boring and unmemorable, they can be a huge platform for character growth throughout a book or series. Perhaps readers don’t like reading about these ordinary, average protagonists because we want to spend our fictional time reading about the original and different.
The emotionless warrior:
Why it’s annoying: It’s hard to “connect” to such protagonists, as most of my peers aren’t top performers in archery or skilled with a crossbow. These characters come off as aloof and untouchable, and often leave a bitter taste in the reader’s mouth. I can personally vouch for feeling a disconnect with characters like Katniss because she was so emotionally walled off, almost like a machine going through the motions of the story and letting the plot move her along (especially in the movies).
Why we may be too critical: Often times these sort of protagonists are living (or surviving) in dystopian or fantasy worlds that have a lot of horrible, terrible, dangerous stuff going on. Maybe being emotionally closed off is a defense mechanism. I certainly don’t think I’d be able to survive as long as these gals in post-apocalyptic zombie/dystopian land, and I feel like their ability to persevere is overshadowed by a lack of feels. Emotionally connecting with a protagonist is often what will keep me coming back to a book or series, but in some situations that’s not always a realistic expectation given the setting or situation.
The indecisive girl in the middle of a love triangle:
Why it’s annoying: When the whole novel is a back and forth between “Do I love hot guy A or adorable guy B?” It gets really old, really fast. Especially when it’s angsty. Cannot you not just be happy that you have so many fantastic options and people who want to be with you?
Why we may be too critical: Being torn between liking two people is hard. It happens to a lot of people, whether with middle school crushes or when navigating adult relationships. It really can cause a lot of emotional turmoil, and I think readers are quick to dismiss the struggle of a fictional protagonist dealing with this same situation. Especially depending on the genre (like romance), this sort of plot-driven indecisiveness may be important. However, it needs to not overwhelm the entire story if the romance is second to a larger plot or genre.
The damsel in distress:
Why it’s annoying: We want progressive heroines! We don’t want to enforce rigid gender roles that place men in the constant position of power.
Why we may be too critical: This gets tricky when it comes to paranormal and fantasy, because yeah, if you’re dating a paranormal warrior dude he’s probably going to have the upper hand when you get kidnapped/held hostage/attacked. I think that if a heroine can hold her own intelligently and emotionally in this sort of situation, and demands respect, then I can’t criticize her for not being able to physically fight her own way out of a situation.
The obsessive compulsive protagonist:
Why it’s annoying: They tend to go on and on and on about their insecurities. It may convince the readers not to like them as well.
Why we may be too critical: I find this a lot with books featuring teenage protagonists (especially in the contemporary genre) and it helps to remember that being a teenage girl is often REALLY hard. Sure as an older reader such concerns may seem vapid and inconsequential, but it’s often very real to that age group. One of my favorite series is the Princess Diaries, and I often hear critiques that Mia is too insecure/immature/obsessive. Yet her story is told through her diary entries, a place where a character would confess their deeper inner thoughts and fears, so I embrace such content because I expect it from the format of the storytelling.
There are definitely more exhaustingly cliché and irritating female protagonist YA tropes than the ones I’ve mentioned, but by forcing myself to look at both the pros and cons of such tropes I feel myself having a more well-rounded perception of them. Will some of them still annoy me? Certainly. Yet I can acknowledge that writing a character who navigates around falling into these tropes is hard work. I’m not here to state a definitive yes or no answer as to whether a type of character is “good” or “bad,” but rather to point out that some of these standards may be a bit unfair or deserve a more critical evaluation.
I’d also argue that male protagonists in the YA genre tend to not be criticized as much for every nuance of their character. I think that this is largely due to their scarcity, and if there is a male main character people focus on how “different” and “original” it is. There’s nothing wrong with this, and male characters definitely can be refreshing to come across in YA, but I think that they’re not held to as high standards as female ones are and don’t take as much character-bashing because of their rarity (and, arguably, the different ways in which we perceive their situations. For example, Cass in Anna Dressed in Blood depended on Anna to even the score with the villain at the end, but he’s not pegged as weak because it’s a role reversal for typical gender roles. Which is great and I love seeing kick-butt females, but when you think about it it’s a double standard).
It’s also worth noting that there have been some very awesome leading ladies in YA lit lately that have set a higher standard for female protagonists to meet. Celaena from Throne of Glass, Kestrel from The Winner’s Curse, and Penryn from Angelfall are just a few examples of protagonists exemplify all of the tricky traits readers often demand from female characters: femininity balanced with warrior traits, intelligence coupled with vulnerability, romance along with self-sufficiency. Yet do these characters cause disdain and discredit characters who aren’t written with such nuance? Should we continue to push for more Kestrels and Penryns or focus on minimizing the hate toward characters who aren’t as multi-dimensional?
Now I want to hear from you! Do you think readers are too hard on YA female heroines? Do you think there’s a higher standard set for them than male ones? Why do you think we expect so much more from females? Do you think this could be a reflection of values our society places on gender roles? Are there any female protagonists who you initially disliked but have come to understand more when looking at them critically? What stereotypical protagonist tropes irritate you the most, and which don’t bother you as much? Do you think female protagonists get too much hate? Let me know in the comments!