This week over at Editorial Ass, Moonrat asked an interesting question about self image of characters in YA stories. Here's the question in her words:

Which kind of heroine do you think is better in YA fiction--one with a really positive self-image (to promote self-confidence in teen readers), or one with a flawed self-image (e.g. someone who has always felt like a misfit, who has never been labeled conventionally pretty, etc, to promote reader identification)?

The comments are pretty interesting, but I find myself disagreeing with the premise. I don't write, and I don't know many other writers who write to promote an agenda. I'm sure they're out there--the "message" writers--but I don't have any personal experience with them.

I, personally, don't write to promote self confidence in readers. That's not to say that I don't care about the effect of characters on readers, because I do. I'm all about characters and their effects on people. I am concerned about the messages that I give to readers, particularly and especially the messages that teen girls get from the stuff that I write.* But my first concern, always and forever, is for the story. That's what the character should be about.

Also (and also in my limited experience), no one has either a positive self image or a flawed self image. Everyone's self image is flawed. Everyone.


Every person I know has issues or concerns or weak spots in their self image. About how they look, or how they sound, or how they spell, or dress, or function in their jobs. And everyone is vulnerable to having their self image, no matter how strong, battered or damaged. Here's an example from real life: recently a friend of mine changed jobs. She is a talented, gorgeous, brilliant, self confident woman, but she was working for someone who was threatened by her and kept putting her in smaller and smaller jobs, until she was so unhappy that she had to leave.

But even though she knew intellectually that she was not the problem in the situation, more than once she would call me on the phone or come over and cry because emotionally she felt like she was in the wrong. Her boss didn't like her and didn't think she was good at her job, so how could she be likable or good at her job? She was so battered by her situation that her strong self image almost fell apart.

This is pretty typical of how people work. Even someone who has a great self image can have that self image crushed by the situation or circumstances. And most people don't have a great self image.

Also, I have to wonder what story there would be about a person with a great self image. Wasn't it Tolstoy who said that all happy families are alike? Unless you're going to mess with a character's great self image, that sounds like a pretty boring story. "Hey, here's a well adjusted person living out his happy life."


I guess this is my position -- have a good self image in real life. In fiction, people need to be messed up.


* You know, once they have a chance to actually read it. WORLD DOMINATION, 2010.


Great post. Flawless main characters are a snooze-fest! Characters with great self-image can kinda work in plot-driven novels though. And to add an 'unless': a story about someone with a great self-image, in which that self-image is slowly torn down -- like the story you told -- would be interesting.

Heck yes, world domination 2010.

Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 2:44:00 PM EDT  

Thanks, Donna! If I wanted to read stories that were full of perfect characters, I'd read Mary Sue fan fiction, you know? :)

Sunday, March 21, 2010 at 5:04:00 PM EDT  

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