Monday, September 26, 2011

I Can Bring Home the Bacon!

Song of the Day: "Quiet Little Voices" ~We Were Promised Jet Packs

Deren Hansen posted on Utah Children's Writers regarding what it means to have a strong female main character in YA novels. This is something I've thought a lot about, so I decided to add my own opinion on my blog.

Here are the two quotes Deren used that were meaningful to me:

Sheila Nielson

"There are more kinds of strength than the 'kick butt' kind. The women who had the greatest influence on me all had a quiet, daily kind of strength."

Clint  Johnson

"In the best stories, the strongest characters are those that act with the greatest strength in spite of their weaknesses."

When I read agent blogs, I frequently find that agents are looking for stories with "a strong female lead."

I think writers tend to interpret that as kick butt heroines, like Angelina Jolie in Salt. Girls that can go in with guns blazing. And sure, they have a softer side, a weak spot, but it's buried so deep, very few get to see it.

Unfortunately, while that makes a great action movie, I don't think it's the best for YA. Most teenage girls don't relate to characters like that. YA girls are vulnerable, conflicted--they want to fit in, but they also want to stand out, they want to find their place in life. Like Anne of Green Gables.

I believe teen girls today relate to the kinds of characters mentioned by Sheila and Clint. Regular girls just trying to figure out life, but when faced with difficult circumstances, they put their weaknesses aside and step up to the plate. 

As Exhibit A, I submit Twilight. Why is that book so darn popular? I think teens relate to Bella. An average girl, average intelligence, living an average life--just trying to fit in while still maintaining her identity. 

Then of course, when the handsome, immortal hottie shows interest in her, it's every teenage girl's dream come true. If it could happen to regular old Bella, it could happen to them.

But is Bella a "strong female lead"? Good question. She seems a little bland, vulnerable. For an answer I submit Exhibit B, Twilight. In the end *spoiler alert* Bella is faced with an option to sacrifice herself to save her mother. This is a choice that almost all teens can relate to. It's personal, not save the world or the random hostage, it's save someone you know and love and who loves you. Teens, as we all know, are very "me" centered. 

But the real heart of the matter is that Bella chooses to live life on her own terms. And that is something all YA girls want. And that is why Twilight has sold over a million copies. Bella may not be the strongest of female lead characters in terms of fight, but she is the kind teen girls totally relate to, and that's what teen girls want. 

*Please note that I refer only to Twilight, and none of the other books in the saga. They are a completely different story!


  1. I can't remember what I thought about Bella the first time I read Twilight. I'd like to slap her fictional face at this point, but I think that's because, as you pointed out, the books change quite a bit down the road. I mostly love Edward :) (Too bad it's been a while since I was a teenage girl!)
    I've been thinking about this subject too. I really don't like it when female authors write about weak girls. We have to stand up for ourselves! But I definitely agree that physically strong isn't always what is important, and often comes across as very unrealistic. We just read "Rebecca" for book club, and while I liked the book, I really didn't like the main character. She was very introverted, had extremely low self-esteem, and didn't really seem to do anything ever. A few reviews I read compared the book to Jane Eyre. I'm not sure I agree with the comparision, but I can understand why someone would say that. However, the biggest difference was the main female characters. Jane is a very strong woman, but not in ways the world might appreciate. She might not be outgoing, but she holds her own and appreciates her worth. She's not going to let anyone push her around. I think she's an amazing example of a character that is strong, but that you can relate too. And she whines a lot less than Bella :)
    I love this subject, as you can tell! Thanks for posting about it.

  2. Great comment, Michelle. I totally agree with you!

  3. Interesting post. Of quiet heroines I've read of late, I'd say the lead in C.J. Omolulu's Dirty Little Secrets is a good example. Also, a couple of the characters in Beauty Queens by Libba Bray were quiet heroines, they I loved the Kick-A Taylor from Texas.

    Not such a big fan of Bella, she's a bit too simpering for me, but after I read the first one I said to myself, "this is the perfect teen girl read."

  4. @Jaye: After I read the last several books of the Twilight Saga, Bella was ruined for me forever. But Twilight really was the perfect teen-girl read.

  5. totally, totally agree. I'm reading a YA book right now that I really don't like, and it's mainly b/c of the MC. She's a teenage girl who lacks the normal teenage feelings of interest in guys, being self-conscious, worrying. She's self-assured, not interested in guys, not very kind to her friends, and so unlike every teenage girl I've ever met that I don't like her. I like seeing people who are real. Flawed. and awesome anyway.

  6. The hard thing about female teenage leads is that you have to find the balance between normal, low self esteem teenage girls, and standing out or doing something extraordinary (doing something worth writing about). This is a tough line. That's why Hunger Games (#1) is so interesting to me. It seems like in that book she still has normal teenage insecurities and worries, but she also looks beyond that to do extraordinary things.

  7. Nice post, Julie! I just finished another series where I kept waiting for ANY of the girls to step up and be strong. They chased their "true love" across the country. Did the reader think that made them strong? I have no idea. But in the end none of those relationships worked out.