Is it time to do away with the self-conscious YA protagonist?

Leah Commandeur argues that the insecure YA protagonist may be out-dated and that Young Adult readers need a greater range of personalities among their protagonists.

Young Adult novels have once again taken the world by storm and, with it, every bookshop display window. There is something for everyone on the YA spectrum – fantasy, social commentary, self-discovery, oh my! Yet, there is a pattern which is impossible to miss after you have read a handful of the bestselling titles which desperately try to stand out in a variety of quirky fonts amongst the shelves in your local Easons: the self-conscious protagonists which have an iron grip on the genre. 

The commonly used formula YA authors favour when it comes to creating main characters works, and, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? Usually, the plot follows some variation of this: The self-conscious lead, with all their insecurities and quirks, are embraced by the super hot love interest (and sometimes even a second admirer) because the lead stumbles across a perfect someone who sees beyond the restrictive boxes that society has lumped them into. 

This character arc is seen in many YA classics such as Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and Stephen Chbsoky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Even Charles Dickens couldn’t resist this with Pip in his coming-of-age classic Great Expectations. Such novels are hailed as must-reads on a variety of YA literature lists – the appeal of stories with insecure main characters being a clear success. The relatability of reading about the ordinary Joe who can inspire such change in the world is reassuring. It makes the reader believe that if the imperfect protagonist can do it, so can you, dear reader. Following a character who struggles with anxieties such as fear of change, revisiting trauma and becoming your own person in a world full of people who seem like they have it sorted out can make you feel less alone in your own worries. You realise that being a teenager is a bumpy ride for everyone, not just you. These characters and their journeys can be taken as the reader wishes; a guidebook to growing up or escapism into a world where there’s one major conflict and a few glitches on the way to a happy ever after. V.E Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is the book to buy the next time you crave reuniting with the self-conscious protagonist.

 “The once refreshing character traits may have turned stale as it is confident, incorrigible and morally gray characters which are what is desperately needed to diversify and authenticate the young adult experience.”

While reading these characters is enjoyable, this motif can become repetitive if you have been in the YA sphere for a while. The Young Adult genre is not new, but as society evolves there is also need for the evolution of its protagonists. There are more people in the world than overlooked teenagers who live in an angst fuelled universe. The once refreshing character traits may have turned stale as it is confident, incorrigible and morally gray characters which are what is desperately needed to diversify and authenticate the young adult experience. Reading varied characters who explore a variety of issues such as sexuality, cultural identity and societal injustices is important in the time we are living: the true nitty gritty of becoming an adult. Growing pains do not end once you hit 18, so why should we expect our protagonist to find a happy ever after so soon?

If you are interested in reading a YA novel with a fierce and unapologetic protagonist, pick up Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of The Sower which sees Lauren Olamina refuse to compromise her identity and takes a nosedive into the real world where she confronts unfiltered evil and good. Or, for those who like classics like Little Women, Anzia Yezierka’s Bread Givers, which follows Sara Smolinsky as she faces issues of simulation and oppression in 1920’s New York. 

The insecure protagonist has been around for decades and is here to stay but space needs to be cleared for new voices. By doing so, this broadens the YA world into a universe. The beauty of literature is that you choose what world you want to dip your toes into. Gravitate toward the book with an awkward main character when you are in the mood for nostalgia and comfort or ride alongside the self-aware lead when you are looking for a new perspective. This is not an angsty love triangle - why choose when you can have both?