Writing Rambles is a feature at Pages Unbound where we discuss what makes good writing in general, rather than focusing on the writing of a specific book. If you like this post, check out our most popular: Writing Fantasy Dialogue and In Defense of YA.
If one enters into enough book discussions or reads enough book reviews, it becomes apparent that criticizing protagonists—particularly YA protagonists—for not having the “right” personality type is common. These criticisms can range from simple complaints that the character is annoying or unlikeable to passionate arguments for why the character is a terrible example for readers everywhere, and that the book featuring such a disgrace should have never been published.
Readers certainly have a right to hold and to voice such opinions. I, too, have protested characters I thought were bad role models (or have objected to some of their actions, if not to the character as a whole). I, like most readers, air these grievances because I believe that the books we give young people—or any people—matter. Books can change lives and save lives. They can shape readers’ philosophies and characters, often lastingly. Books are both beautiful and dangerous things.
Nonetheless, I think bad characters, characters who make bad decisions, and characters with “weak” personalities are important for readers to experience.
Do Authors Have a Duty to Present Good Morals?
When considering whether certain characters, character actions, or whole books should be condemned, one of the first questions that naturally arises is whether authors even have a duty to write good characters, or ones who in some way move from making the wrong decisions to the right ones.
Such a question requires moral considerations—and it will be difficult for readers to come to a consensus. Whether there exists an absolute morality in the first place, and then what that morality asks us to do, have been long debated. There is not really space to address the topics here. So, maybe it turns out that authors are free to write whatever types of characters they wish and owe the populace nothing in terms of morals or good examples. Yet, I think there is generally some form of natural agreement between readers and writers that this is not so.
Writers tend to be readers. As such, they understand the powers that books hold. They understand that books influence thoughts and lives. And I think most do not take that power lightly. Most, particularly those interested in writing for a young audience, probably have some intention of writing stories that will be an influence for good—not didactic stories, but ones that help readers live just a little better, whether it be through demonstrating that they are not alone, showing them ways to handle difficult situations, or even just giving them a story that is beautiful and proves art is wonderful and there are good things in the world.
Ideas of Role Models Are Different
The problem is: readers, writers, and people all have different ideas of what is “right.”
Currently, one of the most maligned character types is the female who is too passive, or just not as kick-ass as Katniss, Katsa, or Celaena. This, in the end, is simply a preference. Although some readers have argued that more passive characters actually are bad examples for teen girls because they do not teach them proper independence and how to break out of what they view as outdated gender roles, it is hard to take this 100% seriously. More likely, many people just find intense characters more interesting. Yet these readers should understand that other readers might find those characters off-putting and overly aggressive and enjoy reading about other protagonists.
Still, there are often more serious issues at stake in YA literature. Prominent ones include romantic relationships and the portrayal of sex and drugs. Even here, however, there is room for debate. Opinions on these matters vary in real people as much as they do in characters. An author who portrays teenagers having frequent casual sex is as likely to believe she is providing good role models as one whose characters are waiting for marriage.
The Need for “Bad” Characters and Bad Decisions
First, YA (and every book group or genre) needs a variety of characters just to remain interesting. No one actually wants to read hundreds of books about the same personality. Although it sounds odd to state that a sarcastic, kickass heroine could be boring—she could, if she were the only character one ever had the pleasure to meet.
Second, different character types appeal to different reader types. Readers who find characters with low self-esteem annoying, for example, have probably always been fortunate enough to know confidence. Yet they should understand that other readers do have low self-esteem and that they can relate to and benefit from reading a story about someone like them. Reading about a shy character, an abused character, a generally passive character who ultimately achieves good things can help readers who are like those characters learn how to live their own lives more fully.
Intent Is Different From Representation
Nonetheless, readers are entitled—and I believe should be encouraged—to judge characters, character actions, and even books by their own personal morals. If one believes books can teach readers how to live, it does not only make sense, but is also incredibly important, to read and recommend books one thinks provide the best examples and messages.
It is worth noting, however, that there is a difference between representing a character with flaws and approving of those flaws. A “good” story might have a character overcome a bad personality trait or learn from his or her poor decisions—but it does not have to. A reader’s objection to a book, therefore, should not be that characters do stupid, unlikeable, or immoral things, but that something about the book suggests that these things are actually good ideas.
Unfortunately, an author’s “intentions” are always a gray area. Yet there are times where the “message” is often another subliminal state of understanding between reader and writer. This is one of the primary reasons many readers object to books like Twilight, which many have argued portrays an abusive romantic relationship. It is not merely that such a relationship exists in the book, or the fact that Bella does not come to her senses and deliver a monologue to her teen fans about the dangers of such relationships. The problem is that something about the tone of the book glorifies the relationship and presents it as desirable. Of course Meyers never inserts an authorial voice and says, “This is the type of boyfriend you should look for.” She does, however, present Edward as the perfect boyfriend. She is obviously expecting readers to swoon and not to write lengthy blog posts examining his controlling behavior.
It is the glorification or approval of bad characters or decisions that should be the greater basis for character condemnation, not the mere fact that a character makes poor life choices.
Readers have a wide variety of tastes, personalities, and moral compasses. This fact alone can explain why there is—and needs to be—a variety of characters and character life styles in young adult literature. Most would agree, however, that it is important for authors and publishers to provide a young audience with books that inspire their readers to become better people even as they tell a fantastic story. Readers have the right, and arguably a responsibility, to support books they think send positive messages and to condemn ones they believe send poor ones. Nonetheless, I think it makes more sense to condemn those books that seem to be actively promoting or encouraging bad behaviors rather than ones that simply include characters who make decisions with which a reader personally disagrees.
What are your thoughts? Should YA characters be role models? Do lessons need to be clearly stated? Must bad protagonists learn a lesson by the end of the book?