I’ll never forget reading book 5 of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Suddenly, sunny, kind little Harry was a brooding teenager. I remember thinking that I didn’t like him as much anymore. I understood that he was evolving as a character, and part of being a teenager is embracing angst – especially if you’ve just witnessed first-hand the death of a classmate. But his likeability factor plummeted. Of course, in spite of this change, this book is still incredible. I cried at the end. But it always stayed with me as the one book in the series where Harry didn’t feel like Harry.
So you’d think I learned a lesson from reading that, but after sending the second book in The Conjurors Series to beta readers, everyone said the same thing. My protagonist, Valerie, was too angst-ridden. And as I re-read and made edits, I realized they were right. Low self-esteem is part of her character, but it was over-the-top. Maybe massive low self-doubt is a natural part of being a teenage girl, but it didn’t read well in a heroine.
That’s when I realized that we don’t want to read about people who are exactly like everyone we meet in daily life. We want heroines who are exceptional, who, in spite of their flaws, rise above petty concerns and are capable of a depth of compassion or bravery or intelligence that we hope we are capable of, but we know most people aren’t. Maybe this isn’t true for every genre, but I truly believe the best YA fantasy books I’ve read all adhere to this idea in their protagonist. Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior – I could go on and on – all tap into the best versions of themselves under difficult circumstances.
That being said, I know this opinion isn’t one that everyone shares. The Twilight Series or even The Catcher in the Rye prove that you can be successful with a whiny protagonist who is written well. But I confess that these books are not on my favorites list. However, if you do love super-angsty protagonists, check out this Goodreads list on popular whiny protagonists – it gave me a good chuckle. It’s a definite counterpoint to the heroes I mentioned above, and proof that in the hands of a skilled writer, any protagonist can be compelling.
Of course, the danger is going to the opposite extreme and making protagonists too perfect – something that can be equally annoying. Finding that tricky balance with my own heroine is something that evolves with every chapter I write. Hopefully, after hundreds of hours of writing and edits, Valerie will come across as a real, but exceptional, teenage girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances who rises to the challenges she encounters.