Gender in all forms of fiction is, and always has been, a contentious issue. Girls in YA get hit pretty hard: they are declared too wimpy, or too brash; they are damsels in distress or punch-first-ask-later, without-weakness warriors. An effective middle ground character is hard to find and even harder to write. Every writer – not just those in YA – must struggle with this conundrum, and it’s a difficult balance to attain.
What makes a strong but realistic female character, then? Here’s the hard part: there’s no one defining answer. It’s not simply the ability to take part in the action or to punch danger in the cojones. Strength is about resolution – determination and perseverance. It’s about having the ability to make a choice and making it, no matter how difficult the outcome. And that goes for every character, regardless of gender.
This strength requires sacrifice, objectives and desire. To keep getting up after getting knocked down, (all) characters need purpose – a reason to. They need ambitions, interests – goals that drive them outside of the central quest. And these simple characteristics are missing in a scary amount of female YA leads today.
Perhaps this issue is simplest to illustrate through a gendered comparison. When it comes to the male leads of HARRY POTTER and THE DEMON’S LEXICON, Harry and Nick each have several interests exclusive from their overall quest in each novel: Harry plays Quidditch and leads clandestine magical defence groups; Nick practices stabbing things and putting the moves on girls. They have goals and ambitions, and a drive to succeed in what they do. Conversely, girls like MATCHED’s Cassia or Nora in HUSH, HUSH seemingly struggle to define themselves outside of the boys they fall in love with and the obstacles standing in the way of that love. They express little to no indication of future career pursuits or even current extra-curriculars.
Sometimes, an imitation of such interests is offered in the form of a fierce, even self-sacrificing desire to protect family members or friends, such as that which seemingly defines THE VAMPIRE DIARIES’ Elena. While this desire is noble and admirable, it is almost always the female character’s defining and only trait. (Compare this to Harry, who is capable of both defending his friends and staying upright on a broomstick.) For female MCs, this protective interest seems to become an inherently maternal/matriarchal role that they exist to fulfil. Alongside this desire, no other interest can compete: it negates the need for ambition or even hobbies, and the female character is purportedly complete.
People will always have aspirations, even when the odds are stacked against them. So, too, must female MCs. And some of them do: think the studious, perfectionist and fiercely competitive Hermione, who will not compromise her intellectuality to score a date with Ron; or Mae in THE DEMON’S LEXICON, whose literary and fashion interests speak of neuroses and individualism both. Both girls have interests outside the quest, but both also display the aforementioned protective instinct over their friends and family. This instinct does not compromise their individuality precisely because it does not define them. They do; they choose who they are and who they will be.
Such choice is a central feature in the lives and relative strengths of two popular YA protagonists: Bella Swan in TWILIGHT and Katniss Everdeen in THE HUNGER GAMES. Katniss and Bella are, of course, very different characters: Katniss shoots forest game to feed her subsisting family; and Bella microwaves pizza for her man-child father. (Both girls do possess an inability to choose between love interests, but that’s another story.) It’s easy to see how the self-sufficient, capable Katniss appears an inherently ‘stronger’ character than Bella, the ultimate damsel in distress for sincerity-starved 21st Century tweens; and yet what defines them is not their relative ass-kicking abilities, but their choices… or lack thereof. This is what Laura Miller espouses so succinctly in her comparison of these female leads:
One thing you can say about Bella Swan, though: She knows what she wants. For the two books leading up to "Mockingjay," Katniss acts decisively and often effectively, but only when she's backed into a corner. […] "I'm not just a piece in their game," is her habitual refrain, but except for a few climactic and highly circumscribed moments, she's often just that. What does Katniss really want? It's hard to say.
Yes, Katniss may shoot to kill, and Bella’s incessant whining can make you want to kill yourself, but Katniss’ relative passivity throughout THE HUNGER GAMES series (especially MOCKINGJAY) ultimately negates her physical strength, and even her desire to protective those she loves. When faced with a difficult choice, such as furthering her role in a destructive war (she wants no part of), Katniss simply shuts down – much as Bella does when Edward abandons her. Without choosing, and without subsequent determination, Katniss and Bella are both lost amongst the physical and mental wars raging around them, ineffective and purposeless.
Characters need strength to make these choices, and to follow through with them. They need goals and ambitions that make such difficult choices worth the risk, and the determination to see these goals through when they are constantly knocked down. Their purpose, as characters and as humans, is what makes them strong.