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?
25 thoughts on “Writing Rambles: Should YA Characters Be Role Models?”
“It is not the mere that such a relationship” Typo? “the mere” should be “merely.” Feel free to delete the typo-notification part from my comment. 😉
Being a librarian, this post made me think, instantly, of the issues surrounding banned books. The fact that books like Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” become banned shows that people are not always good at comprehending that the message of a book is not the sum of the actions or beliefs its characters. Sometimes people shy away from sharp or dark themes in books regardless of what the book actually does with those themes.
Yes! Thank you! Maybe I can find a way to blame this on Krysta since I asked her to proofread it. …No? :p
That’s a very good point. I remember reading that one of the primary reasons To Kill a Mockingbird is banned is because of racism. I was immensely confused. So it’s very interesting to think that readers may object to books because they don’t understand what the book is actually trying to say. (There’s probably a degree to which you can try to fault the author for presenting a message confusingly, but not really in the case of classics, which we all generally recognize are well-written in some sense!)
Typos are like gremlins. Sneaky.
My brother teaches Literature in college. Every time he teaches on Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” there is at least one student who fails to realize that the essay is intended as satire. I guess there is a nebulous area between what is in the writing and what is in the interpretation; a kind of no-man’s-land.
That is both awkward and hilarious. I think we were warned beforehand when we read it in high school that it was satire. Maybe the teacher used to have the same issue! If it were intended seriously,I think it should raise the question of why it is being read in a literature class. Hopefully students don’t think it was a common or accepted view! But otherwise you’re just reading it to laugh at how crazy one author was? That might be interesting, but I don’t know that it really adds anything to an English class.
Hmm….. I agree that a lot of things are just your preference. Personally, the only thing that really turns me off is the instant love that happens all too often nowadays.
That’s very true! I don’t like it either, but I think the good thing here is that a lot of people don’t like it, and it’s both because they think it’s not as exciting to read about as a build-up of romantic tension and because they recognize it isn’t realistic. So, as long as readers continue to recognize instalove as a literary technique to shove a couple together in the short space of a novel (even if it is annoying) and not a model of how love actually works, there’s some benefit to that.
Superb post. So much of this really needs to be said.
I am one of those readers who just yearns for more ‘passive’ characters, especially heroines. The sarcastic, buttkicking ones will bore me if the author doesn’t give me a very empathetic picture of their vulnerabilities–which even the strongest character must possess in order to seem real.
I’d defend Twilight, though, on several grounds; I’m one of those who liked it and thought it worth reading, though it certainly needs to be talked through with younger readers–I can’t imagine just dropping it in a thirteen-year-old’s lap. But defending it from the general accusations of the internet is a whole blog-post, so I’ll keep that out of your combox. 😉
Your writing rambles have been fantastic. Keep them coming!
I love passive characters, too. Most of the time I don’t see them as passive at all, actually–there’s just a misconception that anyone who doesn’t go around screaming or wielding a sword isn’t being effective. But people have different talents and different strengths and, as a rather quiet person myself, I enjoy seeing women wielding influence under the radar, so to speak.
I haven’t read Twilight, so I can’t really comment on it, but occasionally I look in on the debate. I think a lot of the criticism has come from those who have seen impressionable young women reading it. As with any book, there needs to be a judgment call by individuals and by parents as to what is or is not a healthy reading option. Perhaps there’s a whole new discussion post here. 😀
Thank you so much!
I also like more passive characters in many cases. A lot of times, I think waiting to take action is simply realistic. People should be uncertain in unusual circumstances, or at least cautious.
I picked Twilight in part because it’s an example many people would agree with. I understand there are defenders, but it’s just an easy target in many ways. Sorry! Also, it kick-started an entire genre of literature in which girls just stand around waiting for controlling men to save them. So while Twilight itself might not be a problem (I certainly don’t think it’s single-handedly corrupting the youth!), it accidentally helped create a larger problem.
No need to apologize! I happened to be thinking about the book and its controversies before I read your post, and when I sat down to comment, out came the thought. Not very helpfully, looking back, since I didn’t actually say anything but that I sometimes speak in the book’s favor! You were making a passing point, and I don’t know why I thought it would be a good idea to respond directly to it. I must’ve been sleepy. 😛
Anyway, your post was great. And back to the passive protagonists–I’ll second Krysta, being likewise a quiet person–it tends to mean a lot to me to find a heroine who manages to be effective by “wielding influence under the radar.”
Oh, no problem! I’ve been struggling with the idea of mentioning specific books at all in these types of posts (except in as good examples). It just seems mean to point at a book here and say something like, “The author thinks teens speak in cliche idioms!” or “The protagonist is going to make teens think depression is cool!” And then it’s weird because I recognize do say negative things about specific books in reviews; I don’t know why I think this is different. But Twilight takes criticism all the time, so it seemed a safer bet as an example that many readers would agree with, and that the author wouldn’t be surprised and offended in the off-chance she saw it since, sadly, her book is the go-to literary punching bag.
I prefer a mix of more passive and more active characters, both male and female. Too many of either kind becomes wearisome, and some characters, of either bent, are just boring because they are flat. What I desire, more than anything from the characters I read, is for them to seem like real people to me.
For sure! I love both types of characters, too. I have a special place for more passive characters because I relate to them more, but, conversely, I really love characters who do things I could never do. As you said, the key is for them to seem real, no matter what actions they choose to perform.
I tend to be drawn to the Eowyns of the literary world. I am definitely not a passive person, but I do not relate to the overbearing characters either. I love the balance.
Eowyn is a great character–assertive, but not overbearing. That being said, I am liking Paulina from The Winter’s Tale more and more. If she thinks something needs to be done, she’s going to be the one to do it!
I’ve never read that play. Perhaps I should. 🙂
It’s a great play. Unfortunately, I do have trouble finding anyone who’s read it!
Sadly, it has the reputation for being one of the “problem plays” and that epithet cuts down on readership. I plan to read through all the plays at some point, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.
Yes, the poor romances do have to bear a lot of criticism, but I think opinion has softened up on them at least a little in past years. Reading all the plays is certainly a laudable goal. I wish you luck!
Perhaps it has.
More worthwhile than laudable. Shakespeare rewards his readers very well! 🙂
“awkward and hilarious” sums it up perfectly! I’d be less worried about a high-school student who didn’t have a satire-radar than a college student. There are some things that one should already have encountered before entering college! Alas!
Thank you for this post. I’m the kind of reader that hardly ever judges a character for not doing things the way I want them to. As long as it’s part of their growth as a person, I’m okay with it. We all make mistakes that not everyone else understands, so I believe characters should too.
Thanks for stopping by! I completely agree with you. Most readers, I think, like their characters flawed–it’s why we complain they’re Mary Sue’s if they’re not!
Wow, this post must have taken forever for you to write! But it was worth it, it’s great! I actually have a thing for role models (in books, in movies, in Hollywood…) and I think it can make people turn a 180 if they see how someone (real or not) deals with certain situations in life!
I always think it’s interesting to see how the people presented as heroes in art deal with their problems.