The YA genre, while known for its dramatic plots, fascinating settings, and memorable romances, is also equally as notorious for having bland protagonists intended more as a self-insert for the reader than as fully-developed characters in their own right. Here are a few YA protagonists who break this tradition.
Anne Shirley is Admirably Optimistic
Many 6th and 7th grade girls will have to read about the plight of Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables in school–orphaned, lonely, and about to be sent back to the orphanage because her adopted family wanted a boy. What follows is an eight-book-long series following Anne from her school days all the way to her eventual marriage and having grown-up children of her own. One of the enduring appeals of the Anne series is that there is a book for nearly every phase of life, giving it a lot of re-readability.
Anne is a dreamy, very quotable protagonist, whose struggle to maintain her optimism in the face of the challenges she encounters throughout her life–from getting her adopted family to warm up to her, to struggling to make ends meet in college, to even having to watch her children go off to fight in WWI–is inspiring. Though her story is set more than one hundred years ago, her trials feel very relatable to modern audiences. (Also, her romance with Gilbert Blythe remains one of the most timeless of the genre.)
Artemis Fowl Begins as the Villain of his Own Series
Yep, you read that right–this 11-year-old criminal mastermind is the villain and the protagonist. Granted, he shares this protagonist role with Holly Short, a fairy and a member of the LEPRecon, the fairy police force, when he kidnaps her in order to con the fairy government out of a fortune in gold.
It’s not a very promising start, but this book kicks off an eight-book-long redemption arc, from villain to antihero to hero, that is by far one of the most convincing and well-written in the genre.
Jo March is Inspiringly Nonconformist
With all the discourse swirling around the topic these days, it can seem extremely difficult to write good female characters–which is why so many go back to the classics for help and inspiration, like Jo. While she is technically one protagonist of four in Little Women, Jo is usually considered to be our “main character,” and has been long-celebrated as one of the best-written (though I’d also argue very often misinterpreted) female characters of the genre.
Though she’s quite a multi-faceted character, she is probably best known for her complicated relationship with her own femininity and her struggle with conforming to the social norms of the time–though to reduce her to merely a modern feminist icon is a disservice to her character.
Harry Potter is Surprisingly Relatable
Yes, I’m aware, this one is sure to incite a groan–hear me out. For being the protagonist of one of the bestselling young adult fantasy series of all time, Harry is surprisingly underrated. Think about it: when you ask someone what their favorite Harry Potter character is, how often does someone answer “Harry”?
Many think of Harry as the bland, boring, morally upright hero, easily outshone by far more interesting side characters–but upon reading the books, one will find that nothing could be further from the truth. While Harry does usually end up doing the right thing in the end, it is often quite a struggle for him to do so, as it often requires him to give up things very dear to him that he was so often denied as a child (like his found family, security, etc). He is selfless, yes, but that selflessness is hard-earned, which makes him a really compelling character. (As do his legendary snappy comebacks, most of which were unfortunately left out of the films.)
Cress Darnel Challenges Writing Tropes
We all know the story of Rapunzel: a beautiful maiden is locked up in a tower by an evil sorceress, and is discovered by a prince, who climbs the tower to see her using her ridiculously long hair as a rope. The story of Cress in the The Lunar Chronicles translates these familiar narrative beats into a sci-fi setting–Cress is a young teenager trapped by the evil queen of the moon kingdom of Luna in a satellite orbiting the Earth so that she can take advantage of her prodigious hacking abilities. Cress is discovered by Carswell Thorne–her celebrity crush who she has no idea is actually a criminal–but before he can free her, the satellite is sent plummeting to Earth, Thorne is blinded (a la the original fairy tale), and the two have to help each other survive in the harsh deserts of Africa.
Although she is from a series that follows multiple points of view, Cress stands apart from other protagonists such as Cinder (Cinderella) and Scarlet (Little Red Riding Hood) due to the fact that she is not the typical assertive, kick-butt YA female protagonist. Though she is an incredible hacker, Cress is extremely introverted and suffers from a lot of social anxiety, due to having not been around any other people since before she was locked in her satellite at the age of nine. Refreshingly, though she overcomes a lot of her anxiety, her introversion is not treated like a flaw that needs to be overcome, and neither is her femininity or romantic interest in Thorne.
Christopher Rowe is Absolutely Brilliant
If you love mysteries, secret codes, 17th century British intrigue, explosions, and friendly pigeons, The Blackthorn Key is the series for you. Fourteen-year-old Christopher Rowe is an apothecary’s apprentice, learning from his beloved master, Master Benedict, in their little apothecary’s shop in the heart of London–that is, until Christopher finds his master murdered. What follows is a hunt for his master’s murderer that draws him, along with his best friend, Tom, into a conspiracy running far deeper than either could have ever imagined.
Christopher stands out from other protagonists in his genre due to his intelligence–particularly his knowledge of chemistry, code-breaking, and foreign languages–being his strength rather than his fighting ability (though he does eventually become pretty savvy with pistols!). The novels are also told in first-person, which might seem like a red flag for some, but Christopher makes for a very witty, entertaining narrator without being annoying. And who doesn’t love a protagonist who begins every novel by blowing something up?
Sophie Hatter is Entertainingly Stubborn
If you were just minding your own business running your mom’s hat shop, when suddenly a witch walks in and curses you into transforming into an old woman, most of us probably wouldn’t react by immediately setting off on an adventure to seek our fortunes. However, Sophie Hatter isn’t most of us. In Howl’s Moving Castle, though Sophie is at first dismayed by her transformation, she quickly comes to see it as a way to escape her drab and uneventful life, as because she is the eldest daughter in the fairytale-convention-ruled land of Ingary, she isn’t expected to amount to much. Very soon, her “adventuring” leads to her forcing her way into becoming the cleaning lady of the Howl, a wicked, equal parts dashing and ridiculous wizard who supposedly eats the hearts of beautiful girls, in hopes that he’ll be able to break the curse put upon her.
Sophie is initially an insecure and self-depreciating protagonist who has fully internalized the “bad luck of the eldest daughter” narrative that’s been forced on her for her entire life. Throughout the novel, she overcomes this, but she does it in a very entertaining and fitting way–as she is now an old woman, she becomes less concerned with what others think of her, and thus becomes more comfortable with how naturally strong-willed and stubborn she is. Watching her turn the witch’s curse into a tool to help her character development is highly entertaining–and if you don’t get a kick out of Sophie and Howl’s constant bickering, you must be truly heartless. (Ha-ha.)
(Note: the Sophie Hatter from the Ghibli film adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, while also very well-written, is so drastically different from her original counterpart that it feels more correct to consider them two separate characters. Check out our article here to learn about some of the other differences between the book and the film.)
Janner Wingfeather is Not Your Typical “Chosen Hero”
Imagine the following scenario: you’re a boy who’s grown up in a small village with your two siblings, mom, and grandpa. You don’t remember your father, and your mom and grandpa refuse to talk about him. Your village, as long as you can remember, has been ruled by monsters with an iron grip. After a strange encounter with a dragon, the monsters begin hunting you for reasons you don’t quite understand. Finally, after you escape, your mother finally explains: your father was a king of a faraway kingdom that was destroyed by these monsters when you were a baby, and now they are searching for you. It’s up to you and your family to reclaim your lost kingdom. Sounds like a pretty run-of-the-mill fantasy story, right? However, there are two caveats:
- You’re not the king. It’s your annoying little brother.
- You’re the Throne Warden, which means it’s your duty to protect your brother and keep him out of trouble for the rest of your life.
Thus is the plight of Janner Wingfeather, the protagonist of The Wingfeather Saga.
He’s probably the least well-known character on this list, but don’t let that deter you–Janner’s journey and character arc is something truly unique to the genre and hits genuinely unexpected emotional beats. While many YA protagonists riff on the “Chosen One” trope, or harp on the character’s specialness, Janner’s arc subverts this trope in all the best ways. His story is one of duty, sacrifice, and learning to be okay with not being “chosen”–and while it would be a crime to spoil his story for you, I will warn you, good luck with getting through the series without crying.
(Additionally, The Wingfeather Saga is currently being adapted into an animated show. The first season, which covers the first book, just wrapped up, and is free to watch on angel.com. It is currently the largest crowd-funded children’s animated series of all time, and currently has a 100% average audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.)
Meg Murry is Wonderfully Flawed
A Wrinkle in Time is nowadays an often overlooked YA sci-fi classic, as is its main protagonist, Meg Murry. Poor Meg is an awkward, academically struggling girl dealing with the typical pressures of middle school, which would be enough to deal with without the fact that her beloved father has been missing for an entire year. Unwillingly, she finds herself dragged into a universe-traversing adventure with her little brother, Charles Wallace, and Calvin, a popular boy from her school, to try to save her father.
One of the most compelling things about Meg is that she manages to walk the line of being extremely flawed without being unlikeable. She is deeply distrustful, resentful, angry, and self-depreciating to the point of frustration–but watching her overcome these things and learn to believe in the miraculous is truly beautiful to watch.