Heroines in YA Novels

Young Adult is a booming genre in the literary world, an unstoppable juggernaut that refuses to back down. A few weeks ago I discussed What YA novels are, and part of their success is easily attributed to the way YA novels tear down societal and cultural preconceptions.

YA’s most distinctive feature – aside from its targeted focus on teenagers – is the prevalence of female main characters. Not only do girls frequently feature as leading stars, but they have quickly become symbols of feminism and anti-sexism around the world.

Over the years, male YA characters have had their fair share of the limelight, from the most famous like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson or Alex Rider to more recent series like Half-Bad, The Maze Runner and Inheritance.

But there is undoubtedly a far greater number of heroines in YA literature than male heroes – this might, in part, be due to the ratio of female authors to male authors.

As a male writer and blogger, I am distinctly aware of how rare I am, and I respect that the vast majority of my beta-readers and followers are women; but more than simply providing an associable main character, heroines are an excellent example of how established cultural tropes can be turned on their heads.

For me, part of a heroine’s appeal is her range of emotions. Rightly or wrongly, male characters tend to be rugged and stoic, rarely showing more to their emotions than a handful of stock-purchased attributes from the Writer Store of Tropes. This isn’t always a bad thing of course – depending on the genre (for instance, Epic Fantasy), a leading man who is indefatigable in the force of impending doom is par for the course.

But YA is relatively new, and it is a highly dynamic genre.

YA changes from year-to-year, responding to real-world demands and opinions, often changing to tackle cultural issues of the time. In this new age, old-school tropes and clichés are falling by the wayside in favor of showing how things really are.

To this end, heroines provide a complex character with effortless room to grow. Arguably, one of the ‘best known’ heroines is Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games. She first drew attention to the way that a female could actually lead a plot (as a primary POV, rather than being a secondary character like Hermione Granger or Annabeth Chase), but rather than simply acting like a boy with long hair, Katniss played a shifting emotional role that was believable. She was a frustrated but loyal daughter; a dependable and brave sister; a fighter, a leader, a figurehead for a revolution. Her expressive range was not limited to merely being angry or sad – she was everything in-between, and this was the key that unlocked the floodgates for heroines.

In the years since, YA has veritably exploded with the number of heroines, each adding their own unique twist to the formula that was gone before them. Heroines are integral to the plot of their YA novels, tying together romance, action, emotion, and growth – pillars of literature that have proven themselves over and again.

As a male reader and writer, I’m not ashamed to admit that I prefer female main characters to men – there should be no stereotype or judgement on behalf of either author or reader.

I prefer the more expressive palette of female characters, and in this time of societal upheaval, my support for female authors and characters is representative of my belief that the established roles for men and women should be given a serious shakeup.

This goes the other way too – I thoroughly enjoy seeing girls take on the roles of ‘action hero’, and by the same measure, I wish that more male characters were allowed to show emotion, rather than being relegated to muscled heroes with the ’emotional range of a teaspoon’ (to quote one of my favorite lines from Hermione Granger herself).

So what are your favorite heroines?

Of all the books I’ve read, my favorite heroines are: Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games), Marguerite Caine (A Thousand Pieces of You), Mare Barrow (Red Queen), Chan (Way Down Dark), and Risa (Unwind).

I took to Twitter to ask for your favorite heroines.

The overwhelming result was: Celaena Sardothien of Throne of Glass.

However there were dozens of other choices, and you can see the impressive response my tweet gathered below:

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What an amazing response for YA heroines – not only am I impressed by the number and variety of heroines, but by the enthusiastic response from my followers. Thank you so very much to everyone who participated and voted!

This list is really just the tip of an ever-spreading iceberg. Heroines – much like YA itself – aren’t going anywhere, and in fact, we are only now seeing some of the most well-written female characters in the history of young adult literature.

I am excited to see this new wave of fiction that champions the abilities of girls without resorting to ‘girl fiction’; instead, YA books with female leads can oftentimes be far more engaging and exciting than male-led fiction. And at the same time, young girls reading books for the first time will be exposed to powerful characters who can help lead them into a new future where old-world stereotypes are nothing but a half-remembered past.

Thank you for reading my blog post! Please consider sharing via Twitter, and discuss what your favorite heroines are!

Title image credit to Shaun Fisher of Flickr under the CC-BY license.

23 Comments Add yours

  1. Jaz says:

    Really loved reading this Brett! It’s so good to see a guy’s perspective on what’s obviously a female dominated genre in terms of MCs. Celaena ❤ Now my question to you is – would it be so bad for a male protag to display emotions? If written well, wouldn't a male protag in even an epic fantasy be more relatable because of his emotions?

    Like

    1. Brett Michael Orr says:

      Thank you so much Jaz! It’s definitely a female-heavy genre, but I absolutely love it. I completely agree with you – I wish there were *far* more emotionally responsive male characters, and as a writer, I try my best to represent *human* characters rather than prescribe to a certain stereotype or trope. I really wish more male writers would follow that example.
      Thank you for reading and sharing!

      Like

  2. I see lots of Celaena Sardothien mentions there. 😀 YAY FOR CELEANA! And yay for YA heroines! I agree that often YA heroes seem to have…erm, yes, limited teaspoon emotional ranges. >_> And I definitely don’t think that’s right. Hence I love all of Maggie Stiefvater’s books because her dudes are just AMAZING and emotional and intelligent and all those things. I particularly love how you mentioned that books change as they need to fit what society wants, and THAT IS SO COOL.

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    1. Brett Michael Orr says:

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting Cait, I’m so glad that you liked the post; and there are definitely issues with some male characters that need to be changed. YA is a very interesting and dynamic genre, and I’m so glad to be part of it!
      Thank you!

      Like

  3. Awesome post Brett – it’s true that there are so many more YA novels out there now showcasing strong female leads who really take charge in the story. One of my favourites is Rosie from The Rosie Black Chronicles by Lara Morgan (Australian YA too!) – it’s the first YA sci-fi series that I really enjoyed, and the strength of her character was part of that. I really need to read some of these other books that people have mentioned as well – they sound really good 🙂

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    1. Brett Michael Orr says:

      Hi Eugenia! If you’re interested in getting your Sci-Fi heroine fix, I highly recommend Way Down Dark and A Thousand Pieces of You (though I think you may have read ATPoY already).

      Thank you for your recommendations too, and for commenting on my blog!

      Like

  4. Rachel Stevenson says:

    Awesome post, Brett!! 😀

    Like

    1. Brett Michael Orr says:

      Thanks Rachel! 🙂

      Like

  5. Emily says:

    Great post! Aside from Hermione, my favourites include Liesel Meminger and Blue Sargent from The Raven Cycle. I wouldn’t necessarily say I prefer female MCs, but I’m so glad we’re living in a world that sees both females and males rather than the one-time male-dominated world of books, where most MCs were either male or a chauvinistic version of a woman, and only a few – Austen, Eliot, the Brontes – flew the flag for female MCs!

    Like

    1. Brett Michael Orr says:

      You’re completely right – it’s excellent to see gender diversity in novels, even though I’d argue that there is now a much heavier weighting towards girls than guys (particularly in YA). Definitely good to see more girl characters and girl actors in films getting their chance to shine!

      Thanks so much for commenting!

      Like

  6. Heather says:

    Wow, I truly love this post. I always really appreciate heroines in YA that are relatable, enjoyable, and diverse—and not just because I like to read about them, but because I have three little sisters and I really want them, and all girls really, to have characters they can identify with, but also characters that challenge them, help them see other points of view, and give them a chance to find a heroine not only for themselves but in themselves. It’s also a lot of pressure as a writer, because there are so many fantastic women out there, and I feel like it would be a crime to dishonor any one of them by creating a character who isn’t all she’s meant to be.

    Of course, it can be hard… Like when I sympathize with a highly unpopular character because I see so much of her in myself (like, we’re similar people, she didn’t turn me into someone else) it’s hard because sometimes it feels like people think it’s a bad thing to be that kind of person. So there’s a lot of give and take as you not only become comfortable with the characters you like, but becoming comfortable with characters other people like and you don’t as well.

    Thanks for the awesome post. Brett!

    Like

    1. Brett Michael Orr says:

      Thanks so much Heather, I’m glad it meant that much to you!

      I completely understand about the role model aspect of things. It’s why I’m so proud to write this post and champion the growing number of female characters in books and films; there certainly *is* a lot of pressure as a writer (and for me, I feel it intensely writing female characters), but I find that it’s important to focus less on writing a girl or a guy, and more about writing a *human* character first.

      Thank you so much for reading, sharing and commenting!

      Like

  7. Elspeth LaMorte says:

    Ohhhh Brett, I know you mean well but you need to do your research! Dude! Katniss Everdeen is not the inaugural strong female protagonist in YA! ‘Young Adult’ as a term only really came to the fore with the post-Harry Potter wave of fiction aimed at teenagers but as a marketing category it has existed for much longer! Some examples of the strong female protagonist you’re talking about; Alanna (Song of the Lioness, Tamora Pierce, originally pubbed 1983), Sophie Hatter (Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones, originally pubbed 1986), Elspeth Gordie (Obernewtyn, Isobelle Carmody, originally pubbed 1987), Sabriel (Sabriel, Garth Nix, originally pubbed 1995) and so on. Not to mention all of the classically known heroines of literature; Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina etc.

    Emotionally complex women have been around for a very long time, both in YA and out. Katniss and the Hunger Games (originally pubbed 2008 btw) was not new, it was just a comparatively early success in our modern, commercially driven world.

    Like

    1. Brett Michael Orr says:

      Well, indeed my research wasn’t complete in its entirety – it was largely based on the ‘modern’ wave of YA, which started almost seven to eight years ago in the 2007 and 2008 and has grown exponentially.

      Definitely you’re right – female leads have been around for a while, but their numbers are growing rapidly and the number of female-POV books published each year are staggering. It’s a cultural movement that’s only growing in strength, and coincides with the most powerful feminism movement that has recently seen light thanks to Emma Watson herself.

      But yes, female leads were certainly around long before the modern wave.
      Thanks for reading.

      Like

      1. I’ve gotta agree with Els, I think. If we’re talking about a ‘modern’ wave of YA, surely that would date back to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The success of HP mid-series onward initiated the model of crossover success that we’ve seen with the most popular YA titles since (Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, even TFIOS). As a marketing category (with is all the label ‘YA’ is), the YA crossover blockbuster started with HP.

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  8. Rae Oestreich says:

    Aaaand, another reason you rock. Really, what I love more than your comments on female protagonists is your tone: you’re showing so much respect for the other women in this field from the start of your post (“As a male writer and blogger, I am distinctly aware of how rare I am,
    and I respect that the vast majority of my beta-readers and followers
    are women; but more than simply providing an associable main character,
    heroines are an excellent example of how established cultural tropes can
    be turned on their heads.”).

    I think that’s what I love about your posts so much in general: you treat every subject with the respect and seriousness it deserves.

    Like

    1. Brett Michael Orr says:

      Aww, stop Rae, you’re making me blush! Thanks so much – I’m thrilled that you enjoy the blog. And well, I am proud to be a male writer and to write diverse gender-balanced books that use both female and male leads.
      I do treat everything seriously, so thank you for noticing!
      Thanks so much for the lovely comment!

      Like

  9. Emily Meredith says:

    It’s great that YA has such a prevalence of female heroines, though it does annoy me that some series get relegated to the YA genre purely because their heroines, and authors, are female. This occurs primarily in fantasy, where the bookshelves are covered in male authors, whereas female-dominated fantasy is in the YA/children’s section. I know this has a lot to do with the age of the protagonist, but it means that these books miss a huge segment of the population!

    Like

    1. Brett Michael Orr says:

      Absolutely there needs to be a fairer spread of female protagonists into previously male-dominated genres like epic fantasy or thriller; YA itself *has* become distinctive for choosing female leads, and this simply happens to be a marketing trend – but the impact YA girls have made is sure to flow over into other genres like fantasy too!
      Thanks so much for reading!

      Like

  10. Nirvana @ Quenching the Quill says:

    I’ve been reading the comments, and I have to say, that all of these are great examples. Some people say that Katniss isn’t it, but lately YA has been getting depth into characters, making them real, believable, flawed, a HUMAN. And I love that. She is it. A lot of them are it. If I were to name all them, we’d be here forever (I think that bucketful of tweets did that for us XD)

    So yes, heroines are great. But male heroines, ones with proper character development, the fact that they should be allowed to show emotion, break down and cry, do what makes them human. It shouldn’t be shown as them being “weak” or “unmanly” but legitimately accepted in society, so representation in the media and books is the perfect form to do that. SO YES. This discussion is perfect, and I agree with all of the points you brought up. Lovely post, Brett :”)

    Like

    1. Brett Michael Orr says:

      Hi Nirvana!
      I agree that Katniss isn’t necessarily the best YA heroine, but she’s certainly the most iconic (despite some comments indicating the contrary). There are many others that are far more rounded and deep, so the YA genre has done amazing things in that direction.
      Male heroes should be more well-rounded, too. Men have emotions too, but sometimes we just have to hide them because society tells us that’s what men do – it’s time to start shaking things up by a push from the media.
      Thanks so much for reading!

      Like

  11. Zoe N. says:

    This is such an eye-opening and informative post Brett! I haven’t thought about this topic before, but now that you’ve mentioned it I completely see where you’re coming from. I agree about the fact that a lot of protagonists nowadays are female, probably because, like you mentioned, they’re so much more prone to showing their emotions and whanot. Glad to see Annabeth and Hermione mentioned here – they both are absolutely wonderful. Thank you for sharing this and, as always, fabulous post! 🙂

    ~ Zoe @ Stories on Stage

    Like

    1. Brett Michael Orr says:

      Hi Zoe, welcome to my blog!

      It’s definitely a topic that needs more discussion, particularly on whether the rapid rise of female protagonists has started to alienate male readers (a topic for another post, perhaps). Regardless, I love seeing strong, well-rounded female characters!
      Thank you so much for reading!

      Like

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