I recently wrote a distinctive teenage female character named Cady LaBrie. She’s not what you’d call “sweet.” She’s definitely not the picture of human kindness. She’s not knock ‘em dead gorgeous, as many female protagonists of books and movies seem to be. (Not that beauty is a redeeming characteristic.) And Cady’s certainly not selfless. If you get to know her, you may not like her… To be honest, sometimes I didn’t, and I created her.
Question: Is it necessarily a bad thing to dislike a female protagonist in YA fiction? Or is it okay to recognize her weaknesses, possess a healthy respect for her strengths, and still not be particularly fond of her?
Cady LaBrie is a fierce female character. Despite a secret desire to fit in, she accepts that she doesn’t and probably never will. Unwilling to forfeit the status as her parents’ “perfect child,” Cady has long refused to break the rules—she won’t attend parties or drive too fast or leave her homework undone. But even as she’s following the rules, she can be ruthless. Cady refuses to bond with her twin brother when he returns from rehab because the potential for hurt, if he relapses, is too great a risk to her fragile heart. And she breaks a promise to the homeless boy she and her BFF Cooper briefly take under their wing—for the purpose of completing the items on the Weekend Bucket List—because she sees him as a threat to a possible romance with Cooper.
But within the safety zone of her longtime friendship with Cooper Murphy, Cady is something of a ringleader. She possesses the initiative to dream big and the power to set her ideas into motion. Some of her plans may not seem particularly over the top to you. For example, she planned an acceptable alternative to the junior prom—both Cady and Cooper refuse to dance—that featured eighties music streamed on a boom box, an oversized bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a spectacular evening view of Tamarack Lake, all to be consumed by her strict 10PM curfew. But for a small-town girl with seriously overprotective parents, Cady’s a mover and a shaker. Once a notion takes root in her brain, there’s no yanking it out. No matter how hard you pull.
Don’t get me wrong, Cady may be fierce, but she’s not strong all the time. Sometimes she’s scared and needy, which accounts for a measure of her power over Cooper. I think of Cady as a paradox of strength and fragility. Most of the time, she’s opinionated and brave enough to voice her beliefs, if only to her audience of one teenage boy, and later in the book, two. By being bossy, and even intimidating at times, Cady negotiates difficult and painful interactions at home and at school. She’s come away with the realization that the best defensereally can be a good offense. So, sure, sometimes Cady’s prickly, but other times she’s soft. Cooper lives in fear of her rare moments of tearfulness. I’ll put it this way: Cady’spower faucet runs hot and cold, always hard to predict, leaving a reader wary.
In her alternating behavior—cruel and then kind and then cruel again—Cady proves that she is the polar opposite of the traditional, well-behaved “perfect” female character. But then, why should she be? (Yes, we’re back to the original question.) Are female characters obliged to play by the rules? Try looking at it this way: Have you met a teenage girl who doesn’t sometimes recklessly strive for what she wants, even when she knows that it isn’t what she needs? Have you encountered a female teen who doesn’t, on occasion, behave selfishly? Is every female teenager you know a fountain of sensitivity? (Is anybody?) Have you closely related to a teenage girl who hasn’t cut you with sarcasm?
I’ve raised (and am still raising) four teenagers—three girls and a boy—and they have always been as fantastic as they are infuriating. AndIwas a teenage girl once… I still remember how Mom pulled her hair out regularly, but loved me just the same. Teenagers, both boys and girls, are constantly in flux, learning about life through doing things the right way and then screwing it all up quite monumentally. They’re not supposed to be consistent, and we shouldn’t expect them to be perfect.
Time for anew question: Would you even wantto read a book about a perfect teenage girl?
As readers, Cady’s deepest thoughts are accessible to us. And believe me, they’re not always pretty. Beyond that, her actions are, at times—to phrase it delicately—inelegant. Sometimes she stands up and pulls off a good deed, and other times she runs and hides from the hard stuff. We, as readers, see it all.And we judge her—it’s our job. Cady makes a lot of mistakes, so our jobs as judges keep us busy.
If we’re fair judges, we’ll note that Cady’s incredible fear of loss drives her to err—to hurt people and to hide from them so that her heart is always just out of reach. Overcoming this intense fear is Cady’s task. But this is also what is most awesome about Cady’s character.Of the three protagonists in the story, the imperfect Cady has greatest potential for growth. And yes, this puts a positive spin on her behavior, which at the start of the story is sometimes truly crappy.
I’m not going to give away exactly how successful Cady is at achieving human growth. (No spoilers from me.) But she tries like heck, and it’s extremely uncomfortable for her. Okay, she hates every second of it. She’s scared to take a risk that could humiliate her, leaving her more alone than ever. But, like I said before, Cady is the kind of person who sets a goal and gets things done.
And sometimes I wonder whether we, as readers, would be more forgiving of Cady if she were a boy. Maybe that old cliché would filter our thoughts—“boys will be boys”—and we’d excuse her bossiness, her avoidance of emotion, her sarcasm, her inelegance. What do you think? Can male characters get away with more “imperfect” behavior?
The bottom line is found in this last line of interrogation: Why do we read YA novels?
Do we read YA merely to reaffirm that a nice, sweet, pretty, and well-behaved female characterisquite likeable, and therefore “a good character” in “a good book?” Is a book in which the main female character pisses you off or makes you cry or roll your eyes a lot“a bad character” in “a bad book?” I don’t see it that way. I read YA novels to meet people I don’t know—teenagers I want so badly to hug on page twenty-seven and growl at on page thirty-two. I don’t want to be able to predict every singsong line of pleasant dialogue by a succession of flawless characters. And I crave for damaged characters and a twisting plot to whisk me off to places where a (figurative) knife slices into my gut as well as toplaces I feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
A character like Cady LaBrie guarantees that I will feel something as I read… and that I will wonder. I don’t have to like everything about her to get psyched when she speaks up at moments I wouldn’t. I don’t have to agree with her entire philosophy of life when she rudely confronts her best friend, harasses the sweet stranger, or backs down like a coward from bullies. Maybe I cringe at her choices, but it’s because I’m feeling something more than “well, that’s nice.” Cady isn’t good or bad. But she isa work in progress—a character who grows before your eyes and makes you consider what you’d do in her shoes.
You can meet Cady LaBrie in my recent YA fiction release from Duet Books, The Weekend Bucket List. Fair warning: you may want to brace yourself.