Have you been wringing your hands over your YA protagonist and wondering how to avoid a Mary-Sue situation? Are you terrified that you made her too weak, bitchy, straw feminist, "strong with scare quotes," pathetic, slutty, simpering, selfish, annoying, bratty, boring, or whiny? Have you been scouring the internet for that magical list that will tell you exactly what to do in order to ensure she's that heroine everyone's been demanding? You know, the one people will point to and say YES, THIS IS SHE, THIS IS THE PERFECT YA HEROINE?
REJOICE, FOR YOU HAVE FOUND THAT LIST. Instead of telling you everything you SHOULDN'T do, this list will tell you exactly what you SHOULD do. Follow this formula and you will have 100% universally beloved girl protagonist, every time, guaranteed!*
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- Make her completely sure of herself and fully settled into her personal philosophy and belief system. Every choice should be solid and correct on the first try. Confusion and indecision are the marks of weakness 100% of the time. If you don't have your life completely together by age 17, you're clearly the worst.
- If she's pretty, she should definitely know that about herself, but not in a stuck-up way. It's perfectly reasonable to expect every teenage girl to have total body confidence without being a bitch about it. And if she's not pretty, she should still love her body. But not in an unrealistic way, because society.
- She should only focus on important things, like the things that each individual reader finds important. Focusing on anything else at any time is annoying.
- She should always be firm, positive, and upbeat. Complaining about anything or doubting herself will make her seem whiny.
- If she has a love interest, make sure she's only interested in that one person. Feeling confused or attracted to more than one person means she's being selfish or slutty. It's also annoying. She should maybe have sex with this person, but maybe not, because sex is realistic for teenage girls but it also makes them sluts. Your call.
- She should be with that person forever, especially if they have sex, because that shows strength of conviction and commitment.
- She should break up with that person because teenage relationships are for suckers and thinking about her partner takes up too much plot space.
- Actually, maybe she should just be single and proud the whole time, because romance is boring and for losers. It's also annoying.
- She should totally be a feminist, as long as it's the right kind of feminist. You know what I mean.
- She should dislike feminism because it's not necessary anymore and boys are great. Also, it's obvious that you're just an angry lady author trying to indoctrinate young women with your old dried-up hag ways, so just skip it.
- Make sure she's smart, but not unnaturally smart. She can be physically strong as long as it's in a girl way. She should be emotionally strong, also in a girl way, unless that means crying. No crying. Her dialogue should be clever and witty, but not sarcastic or whiny. She should be active and move the plot forward, but not in a way that could be considered selfish, bitchy, or annoying.
- Make sure she's a realistic teenager without being a realistic teenager because real teenagers are super annoying and don't you know adults read YA?
- She can be superhuman as long as she's not overpowered. That's unrealistic wish-fulfillment.
- If she's regular human, she should be human to the Nth power by displaying flawless characteristics, personality, and dialogue. Except not totally flawless. Throw in some flaws, too. But only good flaws. Except not good flaws, because good flaws are too easy. Try some bad flaws. Just not too bad.
- In order to avoid accusations of creating an "author cypher" or playing out your own wish fulfillment fantasies, she should be absolutely different from you, the author, in every conceivable way. Physical appearance, hobbies, interests, strengths, weaknesses... make sure nothing reflects you! It'll be difficult not to draw on any of your personal interests or knowledge, but I have faith.
- She should be nice to everyone, even jerks, because they're probably just misunderstood and she should be sympathetic to that. She should also be outspoken and clear in all of her opinions so people don't walk all over her, especially jerks.
- Make her smile! It ain't so bad! She has it pretty good, post-apocalyptic landscape and people trying to murder her aside! No need to act ungrateful.
- She should have a conflict-free relationship with her parents, dutifully following their wishes at all times, even when they're not being very understanding or respectful of her. Backtalk or defiance will make her a selfish whiny brat, especially if the parents are okay most of the time. After all, they're the adults! It's not like there's a psychological tendency for adolescents to break from their parents or anything.
- She should always rebel against injustice, as long as she isn't overreacting and being totally annoying.
- Definitely discount any racial, cultural, or religious background that may inform her actions. There's only one way to be strong or interesting!
- Her gender presentation and interests should reach the perfect balance between feminine and masculine because all girls can be quantified into a single "correct way to girl" as determined by what someone said somewhere that one time.
- If she's disabled, she should be inspirational and always think longingly about how she wishes she was like all the other kids. She should be enthusiastic and kind to anyone who's even halfway decent to her, and her disability should be portrayed in a way that makes non-disabled readers feel comfortable.
- If she's dealing with depression, PTSD, or other mental illnesses or trauma, she should stuff those issues down inside and carry on with a smile and a righteous fist of righteousness in the face of her trials. If the reader has no idea that she's having these problems because she's displaying zero annoying outward symptoms, you've done it right!
- She should be able to shift and change to match the expectations of anyone who picks up the book.
- Have you considered making her NOT a girl? I hear boys are just easier to relate to and male anti-heroes who murder people in twisted ways are super interesting, so maybe you could try that instead.
* Not actually guaranteed at all.
** On the off chance that it wasn't clear, this post is a joke. The entire concept of being able to write a teenage girl that someone won't criticize for being too blah-blah or not blah-blah enough is a joke, honestly.
*** Which is not an argument that all YA heroines are written flawlessly or above criticism; just an illustration of the impossible standards we often hold them to.