Why We Need YA Novels with Unlikable Female Protagonists

unlikable female protagonists in YA

By Alix Reid, Editorial Director of Carolrhoda Lab™

I had the very great pleasure of working with Elana K. Arnold on her YA novel, What Girls Are Made Of, which is a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature finalist. (You can read more about that here.)

Making bad decisions

unlikeable female protagonists in YA: What Girls Are Made OfEditing her manuscript was a new experience for me because while I loved the manuscript, I didn’t always love the protagonist, Nina. At points she is vindictive and too dependent. She makes some bad decisions, and doesn’t always do what I wanted her to do.

But as I was working on the manuscript, I thought, Does the protagonist have to be likable for the book to be strong and heartfelt? I realized that having a protagonist always do the right thing, always be the hero, is a way of putting the character (and the novel) in a box. It may fulfill the wishes of the reader, but it may not be true to the story the author needs to tell.

In the end, I came to love Nina, warts and all, because she is REAL. She’s a flesh-and-blood creation that I hope all readers can identify with, even in her worst moments, especially because of her worst moments. She is the perfect antidote to the perfect protagonist, and that’s just what she should be.

Nina and Claudia

Nina was in my mind when I started working on another wonderful Lab novel, I, Claudia, which will be published in Fall 2018. It’s by Mary McCoy who wrote the fabulous Camp So-and-So. It’s about a girl, Claudia, who unwittingly (or not?) finds herself wielding power over her fellow students at her elite prep school. Claudia lies and deceives, but she does it for the greater good. Or does she?

Claudia has moments when you absolutely mistrust her, and moments when you want to strangle her. But I came to love her, just as I came to love Nina. She’s not afraid to take power and run with it.

I wonder if Nina and Claudia are challenging to like, at least at first, because they are girls who use power in ways that help themselves. We are more used to heroines who use power to help others, and Nina and Claudia challenge this model. Good.

We need to read about girls who do unlikeable things in pursuit of selfish goals because that is part of being human. No one is purely unselfish. We are all made up of lots of different parts, and kudos to Elana and Mary for being unafraid to let some of the unlikeable in.

One thought on “Why We Need YA Novels with Unlikable Female Protagonists

  1. carmendesousa

    I agree wholeheartedly! In fact, it surprises me that so few get this. Katniss, for example, rarely did what I wanted her to do, but I understood her decisions. If authors can get me to yell at my Kindle, they’ve accomplished something wonderful; they made me believe.

    I sincerely hope my readers feel the same way about my characters.

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