On kick-butt heroines and fixation on “active” characters

JAIMIE ALEXANDER

I want to talk about something that might be controversial. Or not. I actually suspect not, because I’ve seen others say/ write similar things enough times. There’s been plenty of talk about Strong Female Characters, and the problems of placing too much emphasis on the “strength” of these characters, including this well known essay. Still, I want to revisit how these hypothetically awesome characters can occasionally swerve around the bend of Not-So-Awesome and arrive in the valley of Cheesy and Contrived. (P.S., no disrespect to Lady Sif. I just love that pic of her like my own child.)

I’d like to touch on (again) the realm of online book reviews, and common complaints I see readers making about YA heroines.

One of these complaints is that heroines are too “passive”.

I get it, you guys, I do. It can be frustrating reading about a character who refuses to take control of her situation. But I worry when our fixation on character action comes at the expense of the story. I worry when it makes writers so determined to write an “active” character we have our heroine kick and punch and scream when doing so is completely illogical, and would probably get her killed in real life.

I want to read about someone who would survive in real life, without the writer’s magic hand to shield her.

For this reason, it’s my goal to have my characters act when they should, and back off and stay quiet when they should. I want them to be smart, to think with their heads instead of their fists. I want them to be true survivors, not Strong Female Characters. And if they occasionally act rashly or do something stupid, I want the narrative to acknowledge their mistake by creating real consequences, not rewarding those rash decisions as “strength”.

That’s my goal as a writer. I’m sure I’ll sometimes fail to meet it completely, but I’ll always keep it in mind. And I hope my eventual readers won’t see my characters as passive, but as girls they’d want to have their back.

I know I do.

The literary agent hunt (and other woes)

Literary-Agent-Cat-Iz-On-Da-Job

Soo…you guys may have noticed I’ve been away from this blog for some time. I’ve missed blogging here (and reading your lovely comments!) but I’m glad I took the time away to focus more fully on my writing. I feel like I accomplished a lot in the past months– I shared my manuscript with my first awesome beta readers, and I drafted and began revising the manuscript’s sequel, which I am excited about even though it’s in super early stages.

I also began the hunt for a literary agent.

Anyone who’s done this or is doing this can probably guess how I am feeling now. Does it ever seem like no matter how much advice you get on your query letter, no matter how often you re-revise your first ten pages, the rejections keep coming? I know it’s the same for all new authors and there is no use in getting discouraged. But yeah, it is hard some days, even for the natural-born optimist that is me.

I have learned a few things in the process, however, which in my benevolence I will share with you now. ~ ~ *Drumroll* ~ ~

This website has an awesome query critiques board where you can post your query letter and get feedback. If you are feeling wise, you can also give feedback to other authors. You should probably take every bit of advice with a grain of salt, since not everyone on the board is a professional or necessarily knows what they’re talking about. Some are newbies like I was, and some of the advice given by different posters will be contradictory. Nevertheless, it’s a fantastic resource and a great way for writers to help one another. Because seriously, if we can’t help each other out, who will?

Another piece of advice, which I have heard from published authors, is not to make the agent search your whole life. Send a few queries and then wait a while. Focus on other things, other stories you want to write, whatever. After a while, if the first queries haven’t proven successful, send a few more. Expect the search to take months and months, and value the time that leaves to continue tweaking your manuscript and making the story its best self.

I once heard a successful writer say that young authors should cherish our anonymity, because it’s the best gift we’ll ever have. This idea may seem laughable to those of us hungry for publication, but I’ve found I truly do value this time, and the chance it offers to write without being beholden to deadlines or other Professional Writer commitments. I know things will change once I am published, that the outside voices will become louder, so I value the quiet of the present.

In defense of the selfish heroine

il_570xN.385837119_d7yh

Selfishness. What is it, exactly?

I have been pondering this lately. If you read this blog last year before I went on an extended hiatus, you may recall that I spend a lot of time reading book reviews. Not because I want to buy the book being reviewed (although sometimes I do) but because I want to see what thoughts other readers have on books in the genre I write, and what they view as being the most common pitfalls of that genre, so I can hopefully avoid them. I find it helpful for other reasons too, but that’s the short explanation.

Anyway. The point I am getting to is this: I have noticed a trend, in many reviews, of young adult heroines being labeled “selfish”. The implication behind the label is always the same–that her selfishness lowers her worth as a character, and the worth of the story. But why is that? And why are we readers so quick to judge these characters as selfish? To what kind of standard are we holding them, if we so often find their level of selflessness wanting?

I think it’s natural to want our protagonists to show some degree of selflessness. They are protagonists, after all; they are supposed to be aspirational. (Btw, I am speaking in generalities. Of course not all authors or readers wish their heroes and heroines to be admirable people, but many do, especially in YA.) However, when I see the words “selfish” and “self-centred” applied in so many reviews to so many widely divergent heroines, I have to wonder if something is going on in the reviewers’ minds they don’t realize. Why is it that, of all the reasons one could pick to dislike a character, selfishness is the one that comes up so often? Why do we want our heroines to be endlessly selfless creatures? Why is this something we expect of young women?

I’m sure the reasons are far more complex than I could ever delve into here. However, I believe it primarily comes down to this: Girls and women, according to society’s rules, are not supposed to put ourselves first. We are supposed to put someone else first. That person may be a boyfriend, or a family member, or a friend. It may be a box of kittens. It may be a town full of people who need to be saved from a herd of dragons. No matter the context, our own needs and wants can never come first.

This is not something we should accept, either as readers or as writers. I firmly believe that a little selfishness is a good thing. If a YA heroine can put herself first now and then, maybe the story’s young readers will see that they, too, can put themselves first sometimes, rather than feeling they have to exist solely to please others. And that’s a good thing.