Today’s guest post for the “About the Girls” series comes to us from Amy Reed. She’s talking about writing those “unlikable” girls and why she does it.
Amy Reed is the author of the gritty, contemporary YA novels BEAUTIFUL, CLEAN, CRAZY, OVER YOU, and DAMAGED. Her new book, INVINCIBLE, the first in a two-book series, releases April 28th. Find out more at www.amyreedfiction.com.
Something I see a lot in reviews of YA fiction (including my own books) is the complaint that a main character isn’t “likeable.” A book can be written beautifully and have a compelling plot, but if the protagonist isn’t likeable, it’s as if the rest of the book’s great qualities don’t matter. It’s as if the book isn’t worthy of being read if the main character doesn’t meet a certain list of qualities that a perfect girl should have. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this complaint in a review of an adult literary novel written by a man. In fact, some of the most celebrated books in the straight white male literary cannon—Infinite Jest, A Confederacy of Dunces, The Catcher in the Rye, anything by Jonathan Franzen– are full of main characters who are detestable. Lolita is about a pedophile. Crime and Punishment is about a murderer. No one says these books suck because the main character is unlikeable. These books, these characters, are judged by a different set of criteria.
So who are these girls we’re supposed to be writing? Are they girls we think our readers would want to be friends with? Are they girls we think boys want to date? I think about some of the best-selling YA books I’ve read over the years, and there is definitely a standard “type” in many of them. These girls are white and of average height. They are thin, but not too thin. They are smart, but not too smart. They are a little bit shy, but not disastrously so. They are mostly nice, and when they are not nice, they feel bad about it. They make mistakes, but recognize them quickly. They want to be good. They fall deeply and madly in love with a boy, and that love defines them. The conflicts in their lives tend to be external rather than resulting from their own character flaws. Theirs are the stories of good girls fighting against a world that wants to corrupt good girls.
But what about the rest of us? I imagine myself as a teenager and reading these characters. I imagine myself throwing these books across the room. Not because they are not good books, but because I did not see myself in their pages. I was not the good girl they described. I was a girl who did bad things and did not always feel bad about them. I was a girl who struggled with addiction and mental illness. I starved myself skinny and I ate myself borderline obese. I loved both boys and girls, but my relationships were rarely about love. My friendships were deep and passionate and far more meaningful than any romance. I was a leader, a loner, and sometimes a follower. I was a mean girl and I was bullied. I was too smart and too entitled. I was a bitch and I was a victim. I was obnoxious and righteous, and I was pathologically shy and insecure. I was a million different kinds of girls. And they were all valid.
These are the girls I know. These are the girls I write. They are sometimes unlikable, but they are always worthy of love. They are worthy of having their stories told.
I am a feminist YA author. I want a feminist YA. I want a YA where all girls see themselves represented, where all girls see hope and truth, struggle and redemption. I want them to find home inside the pages. I want them to find both escape and gritty reality. I want them to see their mistakes being made, their feelings being felt, and their problems being resolved. I want them to know it is okay that they exist. I want them to know their existence is worthy of being written about.
If we are to have a feminist YA, we must write about all the girls, not just the ones that are “likeable”. Because “likeable” is just another way of prescribing a right way to be a girl. Because girls and women are complicated and deep and layered and messy and infinitely fascinating. Because if male characters are allowed to be those things and still be worthy of reading, so should female characters. Because I don’t want to read just one kind of woman. Because I don’t want to be one kind of woman. Because if we do not give our female characters the right to be all kinds of women, how do we expect our readers to know they have that right, too?
Invincible will be available April 28.