Contrarianism. I have it.

3 Aug

by Savannah J. Foley

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One of  my articles on Sassiness not indicating a strong character got a great response, and provoked a lot of thought about trends, gender roles, and tropes. The discussion reminded me of the topic I’d like to talk about today.

At the time I was writing that article, I was also writing the part in my Sleeping Beauty retelling where the character describes how she looks (or in this case sees herself for the first time after waking up with no memory of her former life). Here’s what she said about her body:

I discovered I had solid limbs with muscles lying dormant beneath slightly freckled skin. My breasts were small but not completely flat, my belly pooched out slightly, and I had what I felt were very masculine feet, but then again there was nothing to compare them to.

Let’s recap: thick limbs, imperfect skin, small breasts, tummy, masculine feet. And this character is still going to kick ass and be beautiful because of who she is.

Not because I’m a feminist or an equalist, but because I’m a stubborn, irreverent contrarian, and I think you should be, too.

When I write, I want to show you characters that are as real as I can make them. That means they don’t look like book cover models (okay, Nameless is an exception because all the men are pretty, but that’s because they’re biologically engineered that way so it doesn’t count). They’ve got stretchmarks and acne, and they hate their noses. They get greasy hair and they stink sometimes. In a genre filled with descriptions of ‘icy blue ‘or ‘startling green’ eyes, I give most of my characters brown eyes. And they’re still, I hope, people you want to be because of what they have inside.

But like I said, that’s not because I’m on some moral high horse. I just happen to have that annoying condition (I can’t help it!) where I dislike what everyone else likes simply because everyone else likes it.

When I was in elementary school, I refused to talk to my friends on the phone because that’s what girls my age were expected to do. I wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt to school EVERY DAY because I was expected to wear cute clothes and jewelry.

When we had to write screenplays in Drama class and the teacher told us they had to start with ‘once upon a time,’ I asked if my story could start, ‘a time upon a once.’  Just, because, you know… I’m a contrarian. *facepalm*

Not always and not on all issues, but a lot of the times I am, and nowhere is this more obvious than in my writing.

Physical characteristics aside, I have a tendency to write YA characters who have a lot of responsibility or maturity for their age, which has created some problems for me. I’ve had to rewrite characters to make them ‘sound younger’, and change plots so that they face more ‘teen-like problems.’ I don’t quite know what to make of this. On one hand, I know that I was always way more adult-thinking than was normal for my age group, but surely I’m not the only one. Where are the readers who want to read about teens with immense leadership responsibilities and making long-term life decisions? Surely there’s a market for that, right?

Pretty much my worst fear is getting a review on one of my books where the reviewer says the characters are either stereotypical or too perfect to be real. There’s a lot of pressure in the industry to write a book that will appeal to a lot of teen readers, but the truth is that in real life individual personalities don’t appeal to everyone.

So how do we balance that?

I’m not blinded by my contrarianism. I understand that you can’t have a germaphobic agoraphobe go on this epic adventure and have it be realistic, no matter how brilliant the character’s creation is. Instead, I fit my desire for ‘real characters’ in the details of characters who have the type of personality that can carry the plot.

For example, on the side I’m currently working on a YA story about a girl trying to escape her high school during the zombie apocalypse. To propel the plot, I needed a girl who could be brave and resourceful, and who is motivated to escape not only out of a sense of self-preservation, but also through the desire to rescue her little brother.

Here’s a typical character who could fit that role (and who I think we see a lot of these days): pretty, athletic, semi-popular (she has a BF and a BFF at least), middle-class, white.

But here’s who cropped up: Milani, a half-Hawaiian, half-white, culturally displaced teen who hates tourists, coping with the potential death of her parents and living in a foster home in Texas after Hawaii collapsed under the zombie infection.

Milani is filled with guilt, hate, confusion, and love, and I find her infinitely more fascinating than Mary Sue, the midwest soccer player.

This blog has talked a lot about Mary Sues. Susan (whose main character in SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY displays some contrarianism herself) did an article about self-indulgent fantasy, and Biljana did one about how Mary Sues are good (in the beginning).

Today I guess the point of this article is just to ask that we all have a little more contrarianism while writing. The world does not need another book about a girl who doesn’t realize she’s pretty until everyone starts telling her so. We don’t need someone who is ‘special’ or has some hidden talent that makes them Important.

Who is more interesting: the girl who was born with a special power that transforms her into being totally kickass over the course of a chapter, or the girl that has to struggle and fight her way to the top in order to achieve that same level of kickassness? Who is going to be the most realistic role model for teens today?

I think we need more real characters, characters that people can relate to through their flaws. Today I encourage you to add detail to your characters that make them more unique, more flawed, and more realistic as human beings. Seek out alternatives, and find the individuality in your characters.

Provided it doesn’t interfere with your plot, of course. (That’s a whole other article about self-indulgence).

~~~

When have you been exhibited contrarianism in your writing?

~~~

Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Nameless (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Her website and blog is at www.savannahjfoley.com. She is currently working with her agent to sell a sleeping beauty retelling about a girl who wakes up after a hundred years with no memory of her former life. You can read excerpts from her stories here.

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35 Responses to “Contrarianism. I have it.”

  1. Katelyn L August 3, 2011 at 12:18 AM #

    I love this post, Savannah! Honestly, I really, really loved it. Something in it just spoke to me, maybe just because I strive to write characters like the ones you described (and you described it way better than I ever could, by the way).

    It’s probably a result of my fanfiction days, but I have a serious dislike of eye color. My current MC has brown hair and brown eyes, simply because that’s what common in my world. What matters about her is her motivations and inner conflict, not the body that houses those things, so who cares if she’s beautiful or unique on the outside?

    Also, I was just like you in elementary school. I hated the phone with a passion and outright refused to wear anything but sweatpants and a sweatshirt… I’m so glad I grew out of that 🙂

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 8:20 AM #

      Long-Lost Sisters moment!!!

      I’m (in)famous for disliking unusual eye color… I once did a whole vlog (I think it’s on this site actually) about how your heroine, for no reason, needs violet eyes.

      Most of my characters have brown eyes, too. Except for Sleeping Beauty, who has blue, because that seemed more cannon.

      • Katelyn L August 3, 2011 at 8:09 PM #

        I’ve definitely seen that vlog. It made me laugh 🙂 And I totally agree

  2. Hannah August 3, 2011 at 12:34 AM #

    I admit it freely. I am a contrarian. It gets really bad sometimes. I might hear or read someone’s opinion, and instantly I have the urge to argue the opposite. It isn’t that I necessarily disagree, but I love playing devil’s advocate.
    So, that being said. I agree with the importance of realism. Yet I get frustrated with the sort of post-modern cynicism that often gets grouped with that description.

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 8:37 AM #

      Oh my goodness, I so agree. Sarcasm and cynicism can rub me the wrong way so easily. When I was in high school, some people thought that cynicism meant you were ‘different’ or more enlightened, but it really made them come off as a dimwit. >:D

  3. Leif G.S. August 3, 2011 at 8:32 AM #

    I think being a contrarian is a good way to change things up and shake you out of a rut. There are times when it is called for, especially if you are writing “perfection” characters because you are right, flaws do make the character interesting. However, I can see the danger in being TOO contrarian, making things so opposite the readers recoil from them instead of bonding with them. It is a delicate balance, no matter how you look at it.

    Great post, filled with good chewy information that I can think about all day while working! Thanks for sharing with us Savannah!

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 8:36 AM #

      That’s an excellent point, and something I almost put in the article but then decided it would make a better separate article.

      Too much contrarianism and you create something that’s unsellable. You can’t not negotiate with your agent and editor to make a product you’re both happy with. I’ve known some amateur writers who raved about how they will insist that certain aspects of their story remain the same, or that they’ll insist on a certain type of cover, etc. No. You won’t. Because if you’re really going to be that big of a pain about it no one will work with you.

      Thanks Leif!

  4. Ellen August 3, 2011 at 9:08 AM #

    I loved this entire post, but one thing in particular stood out to me. When you talked about how you always have to rewrite your characters so they sound more like teenagers or face more teenager-like problems, I could completely relate. I’m in the process of querying a novel to agents, and one of the things I’ve been playing with on edits and rewrites is the voice for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Namely, I’m afraid that my characters upon reviewing the first few drafts sounded too old, too mature. I love that because I was always mature for my age and could communicate much better with adults than with other teenagers. But I’m not so sure a potential agent would like it as much.

    It’s a fine line to walk, bending the “rules” of the genre and what’s expected just enough without necessarily shattering every boundary that exists.

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 9:22 AM #

      Everything you’re describing is exactly what I went through. Right now I’m at a place with that novel (after 3 years) where I’m just not sure the story itself can work for YA because of the responsibility involved. But it took 3 years and working on a completely different book for me to get the hang of the YA voice and plot premise.

  5. Rowenna August 3, 2011 at 9:33 AM #

    Masculine feet–I love it! One of the first things my now-husband said about my appearance when we first met was “Wow, you really do have big feet.” Yes, and I still married him. 😛

    I hear you completely on age and thought processes in YA–I can remember getting frustrated with characters’ immaturity because they were older than me but I’d already outgrown some of their angst or whatnot.

    I guess I’m a bit contrary in character appearances–for one, I don’t like telling much, because as a reader I’d rather create the image in my head from a few key details. The other is–huge dork moment–most of my characters are pretty because I think almost all people are pretty. I’m a sap, I know, but there’s something about everyone I know that makes them beautiful in their own way. They don’t always realize it, of course 🙂

    And the same for abilities–everyone has something, even if it’s just better-than-average patience or mad math skills. Utilizing stuff like that can get gimmicky, but done well, I really like seeing “normal” abilities balanced by “normal” flaws. You know, like “normal” people lol. I thought that Hunger Games did an awesome job of this with Prim–her abilities are totally banal, but they’re used so well, especially in the final book. Kind of funny that it’s contrary and revolutionary to aim for normalcy!

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 9:38 AM #

      Confession: I have my father’s feet. They’re huge! I can fit a 13 but I prefer a 14. When I was younger they were 15’s though, and my mother and I resorted to searching for transvestite shoes. Then a bunch of porn ads popped up and our computer got a virus, lol. Looking back now it’s hilarious.

      The problem with ‘normal’ is that normal means something different to everyone. Some teens are really mature, others not so much. I suppose publishers try to buy a variety, but when it comes down to it the lowest common denominator is what makes money.

      I like your outlook on ‘all people are pretty.’ I try to keep in mind that everyone has someone that loves them, that thinks they are beautiful. And I’ve found that when you get to know someone they become more attractive, because you appreciate their personality more. The cool thing about books is that all you get is personality 🙂

  6. sydneygirl90 August 3, 2011 at 11:26 AM #

    Personally, I love heroines (and heros) that are outside of the norm. That’s not to say that a traditionally gorgeous heroine can’t be kick-ass and a great character. It’s just…I like variety. I like fresh ideas and I like characters that could easily be real. Sometimes, a character can be very feminine/masculine or beautiful/handsome, as there are people who fit into those descriptions. But, like you said, when the genre is filled to the brim with the same regenerated character, it gets boring and overdone. That’s why I’m looking forward to upcoming authors (like you and everyone here at LTWF) who are going to mix things up a bit. 🙂

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 11:36 AM #

      I love that term “the same regenerated character.” I feel like that exactly describes some of the characters I’ve seen lately. It’s like it’s the same character across five different books. If I was the writer I don’t know that I would be able to talk about a character like that. “Yeah, umm… she’s pretty, and strong, and stubborn, and she’s not going to take no for an answer.” Could there possibly be something more generic?

  7. Stacy Green August 3, 2011 at 11:29 AM #

    Love this post. I hate the heroine’s who are all perfect. I want to read about women like me, even if they’re tortured. It’s one thing to have an attractive person, but they need to have flaws, and it’s even better when they have unique characteristics that make them attractive.

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 11:36 AM #

      I totally love the ‘ugly on the outside, completely fascinating on the inside’ characters.

  8. Vee August 3, 2011 at 11:50 AM #

    I love this post, Sav! YA often feels like a world of exclusively beautiful people. I’d love to see more broken noses, and more acne, and more terrible hair. Flawed characters (both physically and mentally flawed) are the most interesting, imo.

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 1:53 PM #

      That’s a very interesting thing to say: YA feels like a world of exclusively beautiful people. While I haven’t read every YA book out there, I would say that definitely is the perception.

  9. Asia Morela August 3, 2011 at 12:01 PM #

    I completely relate! 😛 I’m also a sucker for brown eyes, non-Caucasian types (also because that’s all there is in my entourage) and generally anti-stereotypical characters. I don’t think freckled skin is “imperfect”, though; what’s wrong with it?

    In one of the novels I’m writing, I decided to use the trio cliche where one is a blonde, one is a redhead and one is dark-haired (as if that was realistic!), but I tried to give them the opposite characters of those usually given to these respective hair colours. The blonde is the shy, brainy one; the redhead is beautiful and mysterious, and the dark-haired one is quirky and strong-willed.

    “The world does not need another book about a girl who doesn’t realize she’s pretty until everyone starts telling her so.”
    LOL, and yet that’s the story of my life!

    I think my kind of contrarianism is more about taking cliches and twisting them, rather than just ignoring them or going the opposite way. I sometimes get a little annoyed when I hear things like, “real people don’t look like models”. Does that mean that models aren’t real people? (‘Cause that’s really offensive.)

    One of my best friends was a professional model in London for three years (she was signed with Ford). My sister was a model too (she’s now completing her PhD in physics and she’s 25). That’s also real lives, real people, with real personalities. That doesn’t mean they don’t have the same problems and struggles as anybody else.

    The midwest soccer player may look like a Mary Sue at first glance, but what would happen if we bothered to look under the surface? Wouldn’t we find traumas or worries that may be even less cliche than cultural displacement or the potential death of her parents? Just as an example, being pretty introduces a woman to a whole new level of horror in terms of gender inequality.

    As for teenage characters’ maturity, I personally try and solve the problem by teaching my characters a lesson I’ve learnt myself when I grew up. I was always a bright kid, and certainly mature on an intellectual level, but that doesn’t mean life didn’t try me and prove me wrong on so many other levels. I think mature children or teenagers will typically think that they have most stuff figured out, but paradoxically, it’s this same maturity that will enable them to eventually realize how little they truly know, and how much they’ve still got to learn.

    I’m also writing a fantasy novel in which the teenage heroine unexpectedly becomes queen of her realm… Talk about leadership responsibilities and lifelong-term decisions! I really enjoy playing with how she struggles against being patronized, while discovering that she’s not so grown-up as she thought either… Basically, she will effectively mature through having to play the part. (a recurrent theme of mine)

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 1:55 PM #

      That’s also something I thought about including in the article but didn’t so that I didn’t make it too long: By avoiding trends we can’t marginalize or trivialize people. As someone mentioned below, midwest soccer players can be powerful and dynamic characters as well; the important part is to just make good characters.

      I agree with you on the model thing. Models are real people; they just have different body types. Just like everyone’s body is different 🙂

      That’s what I tell myself about celebrities and celebrity writers… they’re regular people, and they get tired and procrastinate and have to deal with issues like ‘the rest of us’.

  10. thegildedpage August 3, 2011 at 1:33 PM #

    I feel like you aren’t actually talking about contrarianism at the heart of this post, but instead are making a plea for individuality in basic character outline. I think this article is a great reference to read in time with this one:

    http://thezoe-trope.blogspot.com/2011/08/you-can-stuff-your-mary-sue-where-sun.html?spref=tw

    What I like about the above is that she breaks down the expectation of the Mary Sue as a specific set of qualities; it’s true, most female characters that are dubbed Mary Sues aren’t, in fact Mary Sues, but are simply characters who are ‘qualities’. They’re empty voids connected by a few attributes that put them in canonical relation with others in the genre. But that’s no surprise: expectation is the easiest thing to write.

    Because girls so often work to be take on expectation. They take on multiple veils and projections in order to delve through what’s expected by them from others and what’s expected by them for themselves. Being female comes with a lot of supposed responsibility; personally, I believe that the reason we find so many characters people claim to be ‘Sues’ because we’re unwilling, at the heart of it, to accept these projections and expectations as representational of a legitimate female character.

    That doesn’t make it less easy to write. So many YA Authors are women, who’ve lived, if not with themselves, with their friends who take on roles, and represent themselves as something that isn’t at the core who they are. It’s what’s known. We don’t understand it, but we know it. And that’s what calls for the canon of the not-fully-there female character.

    (Mind, I think this is just as much a factor with the representation of boys and men in YA, but it hasn’t been considered a problem yet because there are so comparably few of them. But mygod, am I tired of boys being empty shells of ubersex.)

    I don’t think it’s the QUALITIES that create this character, however. As Asia Morela said above me, any character can be brought to terms with wholeness if you take the time to understand them. It’s the fact that the qualities are connected only by an empty void, and not a full idea of a character. I’m excited most for the day when a YA contemp doesn’t represent cheerleaders and jocks as fictional caricatures, but as kids who are just as interesting – and worthwhile – as the nerdy artist with no friends. In fact, this is a case that I believe has been developed BY contrarianism, and then has descended into a cliche from there. We live in this world where ‘popular’ is good and ‘unpopular’ is bad, so books about the ‘unpopular’ breaking out and showing how it can be the other way around (either by joining the ranks, reshaping them, or stepping outside of them) must have originally gone against the grain. A better book would question whether popular or unpopular exist at all, at least the way we expect.

    There’s so little to gain in writing, actually, if you look at characters just for their qualities and their stances, and the projections/roles they choose for themselves; which I think might be what’s binding this post together. A character shouldn’t just be a character, written up as a reused expectation, but as an individual who has a story to tell. Regardless of what color their hair.

    – Kae

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 1:38 PM #

      I admit I wasn’t thrilled with how this article turned out. It took me a few months to write, and I agree the point may not be communicated clearly. I was trying to communicate how I try to structure my characters, and how seeking outside the norm (within reason) can be a good thing.

      Funnily enough, I was at this very moment reading this article about Sylvia Plath, which talks about how she battled with the part of her that wanted to be popular and generous and kind all the time, versus the ‘selfish’ person that just wanted to be alone and write: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/242402

      I completely agree with what you said about cheerleaders and jocks. I also have ‘contrarianism’ when it comes to them. In my zombie book, Milani eventually joins up with some other students, including a female softball player, and a male baseball player, and I specifically planned them so that they wouldn’t be stereotypes, even though Milani feels about them like they are at first.

      I love the way you sum up your comment, and you’re absolutely right. I should have said that it doesn’t matter what type of normal or not normal physical features you give your characters, because the most important part is for them to be realistic and fully-formed on the inside.

      Thank you for your comment!

      • thegildedpage August 3, 2011 at 2:02 PM #

        Oooh~ Thankyouforthelink, I will most likely now devour that article.

        And -AHH. Looking at my last paragraph, just to clarify, I meant that what was binding it together was that you were SAYING regardless of qualities characters possess, yaddayaddayadda. My sentence building was not so clear there. xD (It’s what I get from waking up in the afternoon and perusing the nets without eating/showering first…)

        • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 2:05 PM #

          No problem 🙂 Hope you enjoy the article! I found myself totally engrossed.

  11. Brenda Agaro August 3, 2011 at 3:00 PM #

    I needed this.

    I’ve been struggling with my main character in my current WIP. I just can’t help but wonder if she’s “relatable” enough (and I’m talking about a character who’s not really human and with a personality different from mine.) She looks like a teen, yet she has a huge responsibility – and that’s where I get stuck on.

    But after reading this, I thought about it further. If I have a character who is determined on the outside but doubting on the inside, wants to know who she is and her place in the world, I think I’m on the right path. Maybe… Yeah…I have trouble keeping my characters sound “young” too. XP

    Then again, I tend to stay away from “gingerbeard” characters, even those who whine about silly things like not having a boyfriend or not having everything they want. Okay, teenagers whine from time to time (and sometimes it can be understandable), but still…

    And Milani sounds awesome. I’d definitely read about her. 🙂

    Sorry if my comment is jumbled.Thanks!

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 4:19 PM #

      I hope that you got the inspiration you needed to figure out your character issue! I think that wanting to know your place in the wold is a very relatable issue to teens.

  12. Heather August 3, 2011 at 4:12 PM #

    I agree with you… up to an extent.

    I completely understand what you’re saying in that we – as YA readers and writers – don’t want to read/create the same sort of generic character over and over again with the same flaws, the same beauty, etc. However, the recent YA books I’ve picked up – whether they’re dystopian, supernatural, modern – seem to want to stand out by having the brown hair – brown eyed girl who’s not perfect and she’s shy but pretty in her own way and her foil seems to be the outgoing blonde girl.

    And that’s great. Really.

    Except I’m the blonde girl. I’m perky. I’m the middle-class white, blonde haired-green eyed girl. I happen to like the way I look. I have big boobs and a flat stomach and nice skin. I’ve been asked out by boys. I’m social and nice and good at things (except cooking). And I’m not trying to brag – this is just who I am.

    And while I love reading about girls who probably aren’t like me and face different problems that I’ve had to face, I feel that characters I can relate to are now all but avoided. It’s hard to find a main character who looks like me and/or goes through what I have to go through. Maybe I don’t have to worry about money, but I deal with pressure I put on myself to keep with grades at my university. I still second-guess myself around guys I crush on.

    I don’t think I’d mind a diverse set of heroines in YA, but from what I’ve read throughout the different genres within YA, I’ve encountered the same character in every story. And to be honest, I’m getting frustrated by it.

    I hope I didn’t offend you because I completely understand what you’re saying, and like I’ve said before, I agree with you. But there are other girls like me who aren’t as represented in YA except to make the heroine’s life miserable for whatever cliched reason the author comes up with. In my own humble opinion, of course. 🙂

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 4:18 PM #

      Thank you so much for commenting and sharing your perspective. As I say in some of the other comments, something I didn’t include in this article was destroying stereotypes as well.

      I think that Sarah Maas once said that she writes heroines with blonde hair and blue eyes because (as someone with those features herself), those characters are absent from fiction.

      And though I didn’t say it as well as I could, that is what I meant by this post: writing characters outside what we expect is good. Writing about a beautiful, white, blonde, green-eyed girl can be outside what we expect 🙂

  13. kaye August 3, 2011 at 5:01 PM #

    I really love this article and think it spawned a really interesting discussion. I think contrarianism in ya is kind of like a circle. We have all of these talented, beautiful blonde heroines, so people began writing the shy brunettes who don’t know they’re pretty, but now there seems to be more of a resurgence of ‘special’ characters again. It’s like kickass special characters is the answering force to average ones, but then we end but then that becomes the norm and people write average characters to break the new stereotypes. I don’t know if any of this actually made sense like it did in my head.

    That aside, I love writing flawed characters. But like someone else mentioned above, it’s such a delicate balance. I worry all the time that the mc in the story I’m currently working on is *too* flawed, and people will just see her as an unlikeable bitch. She grows less unlikeable as the story goes on, I think, but I still worry that she’ll initially just drive readers off.

    Anyway, this rambling comment aside, I really liked this article 🙂

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 5:04 PM #

      No, no, that made total sense, and I agree!

      Glad you liked the article!

  14. Ashley August 3, 2011 at 7:37 PM #

    You’ve basically stated one of the reasons I want to write YA fiction. There’s an abundance of beautiful and perfect in every way heroines and even love interests in book these days, which is unrealistic and a bit unfair to the ordinary people who read about them. There should be more characters who look like us, and that means with perceived flaws, even noticeable ones. 😉

    Finding beauty I think is essential instead of having it smacking you in the face.

    Great post, Savannah! 😀

    • savannahjfoley August 3, 2011 at 10:26 PM #

      Thank you! And I’m glad we have you in YA 😀

  15. Ella August 5, 2011 at 6:41 AM #

    Haven’t been on here for a while, but I really enjoyed this one. c:

    It sounds like I’m a little bit similar to how you were as a teen – defiantly opposed to trends and more attracted by complexity than cliches. I started seriously writing original work in my early teens, so I haven’t had as much experience, but I can kind of see my characters getting more mature with my personality – or maybe they’re just getting uglier and older and crazier along with me, I wouldn’t know. ;3

    The idea of changing a book to appeal to a target audience has always left sort of a bad taste in my mouth, particularly – as you mentioned – the idea of simplifying plots and characters so that they “appeal to teens.” Not because I think I know better than professional agents and editors, but because I wish there were more books for young adults who want complex characters and themes. Dumbing down a protagonist or throwing in boyfriend problems to make a book YA seems as cheap to me as trying to widen the appeal of an adult novel by adding sex scenes.

    I could never empathize with the special snowflake protagonists I so commonly saw in YA, because they never felt like real people to me. They never had unglamorous problems like midterms and acne. They were never fat or ugly, and if they were it was generally an excuse for the love interest to sweep them off their feet and tell them how beautiful they were on the inside. They were always “smart” – enough to sweep through school without too much trouble, but not enough to suspect the backstabbing best friend before it was plot-important. They never had to struggle to get to the top against vicious competition; they never came out without a love interest on each arm. And they always made sure you knew their eye color before the end of the first chapter. Always.

    I personally feel that the most important part of a story is the characters, and YA authors often seem to stick to what they’ve seen before rather than going through the trouble of writing a /real/ person. To me, the hardest part about being a teen wasn’t cliques or boys or what to wear for homecoming. It was struggling to find an identity after I became capable of thinking for myself for the first time, after I began questioning what I had taken for granted in my childhood. It was my need to look at the world through new eyes and discover what was real, what was honest, what was important and what was not. There’s more to being a teen than falling in love with whoever has the hottest abs.

    I guess this is what I’m trying to say: thank you for this article in defense of flat feet, brown eyes, and unpopular skin colors. Speaking as a real live teenage girl, I have all of those and worse – now all we need is a FMC who /doesn’t/ wind up with the hottest boyfriend on this side of the sun, and then we know we’ve won. 😛

    • savannahjfoley August 5, 2011 at 12:14 PM #

      The hardest lesson to learn about publishing is that it’s not about brilliance; it’s about what sells. More deeply, that means it’s about what people want to read about, not what is necessarily good. So if the world was filled with eclectic readers we could get away with more of this stuff 🙂

  16. linda August 6, 2011 at 7:12 PM #

    Hahaha I get the contrarianism thing. When I was in elementary school, I decided I hated pizza and soda and the color green because those were everyone else’s favorites. But since then I’ve decided I should just like things I like and not worry about what’s popular. I discovered I like green, pizza is ok, and that I’d rather do without soda.

    I definitely agree with you about the specialness. I’m tired of reading about characters who happen to have zomg-once-in-a-thousand-year special powers (though I realize this is a matter of personal preference; some people love those types of stories). I’d rather read about a character who earns her role as heroine and “kickassness” than someone who gets those handed to her by virtue of being born.

    Thanks for the post!

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  1. Should Your Story Be Told by an Unreliable Narrator? « Let The Words Flow - September 26, 2011

    […] from a lot of angles, and my colleagues here have given some great advice, such as in this post on contrarianism by Savannah, this great post about sassiness, also by Savannah, and this post about Mary Sues by […]

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