How To Write A YA Heroine / Popular YA Heroines in Contemporary Novels
What up #writingcommunity? Today’s article is about the types of heroines you can find in YA novels and what makes them likeable, relatable or completely repelling depending on the reader. While there are many novels and many YA heroines, today we’ll zero in on Katniss Everdeen, Bella Swan, Clary Fairchild, Katy Swartz and Lara Jean Song Covey.
If you’re in the midst of creating that incredible female lead in your novel the only piece of advice I have for you is to make her genuine and by all means, do not focus on trends. Read on to see what these YA heroines have in common and what’s at stake on the greatest quest of their lives.
If an author makes me find a heroine annoying, I reckon that’s a job done right. You made me believe in your character, question her choices, put myself in her shoes. You gave me the feels and immersed me in your story enough to be opinionated about it. Some readers will click with your character, some won’t and that’s the beauty of diversity.
A skillfully written literary heroine is by definition one you can remember whether she annoys you or you’re personality twinsies. And sure, you’ll let a few MFfers rip when she makes the obvious wrong choice, but that’s life.
Before we go any further I’d like to highlight that the views expressed in this article are my own and my intention here is not to offend any characters, authors and/or their fans. Shaming of any kind is lame and should not be encouraged because there’s such a big difference between expressing an opinion/disagreement and being a bully. So there’s that!
Instead, we’ll dive into a heroine’s backstory, her quirks and dramas, the details that make her unique and let’s not forget, true to her age and personal circumstances.
We’ll briefly zoom in on:
- Character building for our chosen heroines in YA novels
- Backstory: how did she come to be the person she is
- Quirks: details that complete and shape her personality
- Reader appeal
The Tough Cookie
Katniss Everdeen is a toughie with a backstory to match:
“Katniss is slender with black hair, grey eyes and olive skin. She is sixteen years old and attends a secondary school somewhere in Appalachia, known in the book as District 12, the coal mining sector. She is often quiet and is generally liked by District 12’s residents, mostly because of her ability to provide highly-prized game for a community in which starvation is a constant threat. Katniss is an excellent hunter, archer, gatherer, and trapper, skilled just like her deceased father.
She and her father shared singing ability, too. Since his death in a mine explosion, which killed Gale’s father too, Katniss has been the sole provider for her family, a role she was reluctantly forced to assume at the age of eleven when her mother’s grief overcame her ability to function. Katniss is surprised when her sister is chosen to compete in the Hunger Games, and willingly steps forward to take her place out of love.”
Readers feel for Katniss because she’s had a life no sixteen year old should, but that shaped her into a survivor, a provider and we adore that she hasn’t turned selfish in the process. When so much of your life becomes about surviving, seeing that humanity and emotion not stripped away when it came to fending for her family is what made us relate.
As a writer myself, I loved how Katniss’s backstory was sprinkled throughout the novel, revealing her character layer after layer, shaping her personality in my mind bit by bit with every new piece of information. Given her background, her main trait in my eyes has always been the ability to adapt for survival. She fakes a relationship, pretends to be submissive, makes the choices she sees fit in order to keep herself breathing. And she’s only sixteen.
But not everybody loved Katniss. Readers complained that her character didn’t evolve, only her circumstanced did. Some hated her inability to decide between the two love interests. She’s been called a tease, immature, selfish.
Another angry reader said: “I found her increasingly more childish, irritating and selfish. I believe I was supposed to be irritated by her but I wonder if anyone else found her so dislikeable? I found myself quite angry that she got a fairly honest and happy life after her behaviour during the uprising.”
“I couldn’t believe that Suzanne Collins took such an amazingly strong female character and turned her into such a blubbering mess in Mockingjay. It just frustrated me to see how she this strong female fighter basically spent most of this book in the psych ward. I get that she was traumatized, but her whole life up until this point was horrendous and she was still strong and admirable. Mockingjay turned her into a “victim” and really, for me, ruined Katniss.”
There are as many opinions as there are people and as many sides to a story a reader wants to see. What we can agree on is that Katniss is one of the most resilient, kick-ass, strategists the YA world has ever seen.
Your character’s backstory is as important as her development. It helps the reader get a glimpse into who she really is, her beliefs, fears, quirks and all the necessary details to create a profiled literary heroine to begin with. If we don’t know who she is before she gets a chance to grow, we won’t fully understand her journey. That doesn’t mean a writer should write 50 pages of backstory. In can be sprinkled throughout the novel, especially in the opening chapter maybe through flashbacks, bits and pieces of dialogue, etc. Just some important details to make sure we can paint a clear picture of your MC (main character).
When peering at reviews on Goodreads I’ve often seen shelves titled “worthless heroine” or reviews shaming any kind of heroine who was not the embodiment of the kick-ass, badass, fearless, Xena warrior princess type BUT… shouldn’t beauty be in the variety? Did no one suffer from insecurity at the age of seventeen?
Bella’s life took a different turn when she moved to the town of Forks to live with her dad. As hard as that can be for someone who’s shy and awkward in social contexts, Bella soon discovers her handsome lab partner is going the extra mile to… stay away from her. Until he saves her from an accident in a metal-bending display of strength, that is.
I’m going to defend Bella Swan for the rest of my days because although sometimes she did get on my nerves either by being too passive, not confrontational, yadda yadda, that’s all part of who she is.
Bella Swan is the definition of an introvert. She’s described as being clumsy, having a weak constitution, being nonathletic, reclusive, shy, insecure and very sensitive. I mean, c’mon!
My cousin is exactly like Bella and I couldn’t love her more. I sometimes wish I could be more like Bella too. Many girls clicked and identified with Bella especially because she’s not some overly confident badass.
Some women go from dough to tough cookie with experience, and sometimes they never get tough at all. Not all literary heroines will be Wonder Women of the written word. Some will have the magnetism of a towel, some will throw around enough offensive lingo to make the whole Tribeca and beyond shake in their boots. Point is, there’s enough room for daisies as there is for Nepenthes rajah (massive carnivorous plant, look it up).
I choose to love Bella for what she is rather than hate her for what she’s not. Any writer who manages to spark this kind of emotion out of me is doing a spectacular job. Fo reals.
Oftentimes a heroine starts out as a misfit rather than a savior. It’s a nice surprise when the MCs are antiheroes or just regular well written teens or young adults. First and foremost, your MC needs to have credibility.
Now this fifteen year old fiery redhead has been the subject of controversy given that some YA readers have compared her to Katniss Everdeen and some to Bella Swan. And that’s comparing a sunrise with a sunset – both are great of course but so, so different.
Described as a petite artsy redhead, Clary Fairchild displays characteristics of her age: she doesn’t feel like she belongs, she’s reckless and sometimes has a temper. Her best friend is nerdy Simon who also happens to have a crush on her since, well… forever.
Clarissa Fairchild a.k.a. Clary Fray is a Shadowhunter (a race of humans enhanced with angel blood) who was raised among mundanes (humans), unaware of her true origins. Her life changed when she witnessed a scene at a club – a scene that no one else could apparently see. Later, her mother was kidnapped and that’s when the adventure begins. Befriending Jace, a seemingly arrogant Shadowhunter, Clary starts her own journey of self-discovery in the dangerous and magical Shadow World – a world of vampires, demons, fairies, warlocks and all sorts mystical creatures.
I like Clary because she’s quite authentic. Unlike Bella who is super shy and wouldn’t hurt a fly or Katniss who is a natural born strategist and wouldn’t make a move until assessing every angle, Clary’s sometimes a blabber-mouth and speaks before she thinks things through.
She’s genuine, a little too reckless at times but good at heart. I think we love her because she’s trying to do the right thing despite her feelings and her journey of growing into her true self is both adventurous and sometimes funny. As a writer I really love it when we can discover a protagonist through her dialogues with others and Cassandra Clare does a splendid job adding character to her heroine through witty replies.
As I said before, a skillfully written YA heroine has enough backstory for the reader to get a glimpse into who she is at present while still allowing the chance for her to grow through how she decides to handle her choices. Crafty dialogue is a huge part of that, so kudos Cassie Clare! The Shadowhunters Saga is a perfect example of witty dialogue between complex yet highly relatable characters.
Ladies and gents, meet Katy Swartz the personification of riding the edge of a razor. This sharp-tongued YA heroine has more of a temper than all of our previous gals. With her mousy brown hair, light gray eyes and petite figure, Jennifer Armentrout’s heroine is also a book blogger with a quirky zombie movie fetish.
Much like Bella Swan, her life changes once her mother decides to move them from Florida to West Virginia where (surprise!) her neighbors are not who they seem to be. Yeah, you read me… they’re not human but Luxen a.k.a. aliens!
Our headstrong FMC (female main character) meets nextdoor neighbor Daemon Black and befriends his sister Dee. Daemon uselessly tries to chase Katy away by being a jerk and that’s when we see Katy’s comebacks which (given her age) are sometimes witty sometimes abrupt. This heroine however, knows exactly what she wants and although sometimes her impulses get the better of her, she still comes across as genuine and likeable for most readers.
Also, how did I not read this saga sooner? I mean whoaaa! I wrote a Paranormal Romance featuring aliens and I hadn’t read any before publishing mine. This gem has been out there for a while and by all means, if you’re a fan of PNR, this is a perfect example. Plus the steamy romance between Katy and Daemon.
No one likes a bland character. Does your MC have a foul mouth? Is she a drama queen? Too loud and proud? Or maybe she’s too much of a chicken to stand up for herself at times? Great! There’s someone for everyone, so as long as she doesn’t go unnoticed, that’s a job done right.
Jenny Han’s YA heroine is sixteen year old Lara Jean. And readers love her because she’s the embodiment of a contemporary teen with all the angst and end-of-the-world moments. Raised by her dad and older sister Margot following her mother’s premature death, Lara Jean Song Covey is one lovable, quirky character we couldn’t help but fall in love with.
When Lara Jean’s not scrapbooking, baking or picking her next best outfit, she’s known to write her feelings away. She’s written five letters to the five boys she had a major crush on, each letter marking the end of the so-called crush. She neatly stores all the letters in a box without intending to ever send them out. It takes a major sister fight for Kitty (the youngest Song girl) to mail out all her sister’s letters. Now they all know.
There’s no magic in this book, no other-world-superpower but OMG did I love it!
A well written YA contemporary heroine is in my view true to age with all it implies (lingo, habits, interests and reactions). If you’re writing a book about a teen protagonist she’s most likely not going to be politically correct and wise throughout her entire journey, although there are notable exceptions to every rule in the book. Most of the characters I really loved either made me relate to them or made me click with their situation. Once that link with the reader is created, there’s no going back.
What Do All These YA Heroines Have In Common?
If you’re at that point where you’re writing your next best YA heroine, let’s see what these literary gals have in common:
I’d say they’re all at that point in their lives when change is imminent whether they like it or not. They’ve all been shaped by their backstories and past dramas: death or divorce of their parents, moving residence, changing schools, etc.
They all need to face a major challenge: falling in love with a vampire, having a private moment exposed to the whole school, uncovering dark secrets from a hidden past, morphing into a hybrid and dealing with a new reality or even having to hunt and kill their friends.
They don’t have it easy when it comes to matters of the heart: Clary and Jace find out they’re siblings, Katniss has to kill her romantic interest if she wants to survive, Bella risks death herself if she gets too close and what started out as a silly game for Lara Jean has spiraled out of control.
Their growth comes with sacrifice and some of their innocence is lost in the process. To avoid spoilers I’ll just say some have to live their whole life away from their loved ones, some lose their treasured secrets and some their only living parent. I mean, things are rough and a lot is at stake for that happy ending.
The tougher the journey the more rewarding the grand finale. Good luck to you all with your current WIPs and let me know if there’s any issue I haven’t tackled and you’d like to read.
For the ones of you who are new to my blog, I’m Esther, writer, content creator for authors and massive nerd. If you’re interested to know all the tips & tricks surrounding the process From Writing To Publishing Your Novel, you’re only a click away.
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She just wanted to mope over her breakup but the universe had other plans for Zoey Mills.
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