I said what I said.
But really: Why I’m over “good girls”
There’s this constant need to heroines, it seems, who are so pure and selfless that they will always neglect their own needs and desires for the sake of their loved ones. This is done in a way that sometimes harms the heroine, and a lot of time wasn’t a necessary choice but a rashly chosen one in a situation where a less harmful choice could have been made if everybody had just slowed down. What’s more, this trait becomes so prevalent and so prominent that many times it is equated with inherent goodness. The trope of a recklessly selfless character has since become more widespread, and is idealized in a lot of ways that result in a bit of an internalized mess. A lot of people grapple with the difference between self-care and selfishness, but this trope is most often applied to young female characters in fiction.
What’s a bad girl, anyways?
A “bad girl” heroine is honestly nothing groundbreaking. But as I pointed out above, a lot of main protagonists who happen to be women or girls tend to be required to follow a strict code of conduct–and deviation from this can often come under a lot of criticism. “Bad girls” really are just characters that want to be allowed to have flaws. Characters that can admit they’ve done wrong, but also acknowledge that the whole world and the whole cast has done wrong as well. A “bad girl” really just embraces the necessities of being human. Sometimes you’ll have to do something terrible to defend yourself or your loved ones, sometimes we make mistakes due to anger or misunderstandings. A “good girl” takes full responsibility and asks nothing of anybody else, but the heroines I like acknowledge where they have wronged and where they have been wronged.
What about real bad girls?
Oh yes, I love them, too. While I believe we need to be finding and promoting more nuanced characters so that more of fiction represents reality, I also think it’s a lot of fun to have genuinely morally grey antiheroes in fiction. I love an unapologetically bad character. But also, I’ve noticed a lot of these characters are the dashing male love interest, who while horrible is still a softy for the lead–women are still not allowed to be so terrible as to be “bad.” Unless they’re queer. But this isn’t a post about how much I dislike the demonization of my community in fiction, but rather a celebration of the characters who are bad but so great.
Newer trends have started to emerge with what I call Justifiable Villain Arcs. This is where the story is essentially a villain origin story in which the “protagonist” is a future villain and the plot is the way they were corrupted. While I do enjoy these stories, they are still stories about villains, regardless of the POV role the villain takes in the writing of the story. Ultimately, these characters usually get a traditionally sticky ending as comeuppance, or the story ends with the character settling into the role of a traditional villain with the implication that the story that’s about to play out will end poorly for them–such as setting up a fairy tale villain, knowing that we as an audience know how they will be defeated later. What I am more interested in reading is a similarly nuanced story in which a genuine protagonist gets to do whatever it takes to make their goals happen, and is never quite transformed into an actual villain.
Minor Spoilers Ahead for The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh.
The main protagonist of The Beautiful is the young and beautiful Celine. Following a tragic and terrifying event in Paris, Celline has left the atelier she studied at and traveled to New Orleans. Here, she and a handful of other young European women will live in a convent until suitable marriage matches are made for them. Celine feels different from the other girls for several reasons. Number one, she harbors multiple secrets, including one regarding her heritage. Number two, she feels immense guilt for what she had to do to protect herself from assault in Paris. Number three, she isn’t all that enthused about living and working in a convent until she can find a husband.
As the story goes on, Celine demonstrates a defiant streak. She chafes against the rules of the convent and despite the guilt she feels over her actions in Paris, she comes to find that she feels she does not deserve punishment. She is not demure or as ladylike as her companions, and she is immediately drawn to the dangerous underbelly of New Orleans–and she likes it. Having been told for years that her beauty was something to hold back, especially considering the unwanted advances it has led to, Celine embraces it as a tool to manipulate the men around her who seem incapable of protecting young women from harm during a string of violent murders. As she is new to the manipulation game as a whole, she isn’t very good at it. She reacts in anger when she is called out for her attempts, and doubles down to try and achieve her goals.
Ultimately, Celine embraces the fact that she attacked a man in self defense, and prepares herself to do so again when she becomes the target for the serial killer in New Orleans. She also finds herself in a game of wits against her love interest’s uncle who threatens to reveal her actions in Paris in order to keep her and his nephew apart. Unwilling to be a pawn in someone else’s game, Celine again lies and manipulates in order to take over the board. She embraces the “darkness” and “wickedness” in herself, and doesn’t end up regretting it the way a “good girl” would. She does what she has to and she won’t apologize for it.
Really this post is just a long winded way of saying I want more nuance in my protagonists. But I could just Tweet that and then I wouldn’t have blog content today. The big thing that I want out of my protagonists is an acknowledgement that somethings “wrong” behavior has to be used, and when they use it they don’t need to spiral into themselves thinking they’re terrible people. Especially in YA books, I feel that the nuance is often lacking. Perhaps this is because YA books feel they need to stick to the ideals of children’s and MG books where the protagonist is meant to lead by example for children. If so, I think YA writers are underestimating their age range. Even at the younger end of the spectrum, I think the age range for YA can understand the nuance of “I was in a bad situation and did something that helped me, but that I would not do if I had other options.” If anything, I would argue that YA is the time to start introducing readers to the idea of surviving in a world that isn’t always looking out for your best interests. Sure, it’s good to have a character that has respect, diligence, and empathy in their character traits–but it’s also good to teach teens that empathy won’t always fix a bad situation. Not every manipulative jackass will change once you empathize with their shitty childhood–sometimes they’ll just fire you, or scream at you, or throw a restaurant menu at you (a real experience that happened when I was a server, she threw the menu at me because her food was going to take fifteen minutes).
I would really like it if we stopped requiring protagonists across the board to be paragons of virtue, but I would especially appreciate it if female characters–and also feminine coded characters–could be less virtuous and self sacrificing and empathetic, and start demanding respect.