Monday, March 20, 2017

Well Behaved Women Seldom Make... Great Protagonists

Heroines, interesting girls, YA lit, Children's lit, strong female protagonists

I finished a middle grade/YA book at the beginning of this month, Wolf Hollow, that's been getting some buzz lately (I think it got a Newberry Honor award). The number one thing I'd read about this book before starting it was some variation of: It's being touted as a new To Kill a Mockingbird, but it's no To Kill A Mockingbird! And after reading it, I understood both sides of those sentiments. I can see the comparisons to TKAM. It's about children getting wrapped up in some very serious adult politics, and the choices one girl makes to fight for justice. It has some heavy stuff to it that is handled in a very compelling way. Things don't necessarily end happy. But the material and themes of that book is a post for another day.

What I've mostly been thinking about since finishing that book is the second half of the popular sentiment I kept reading about: this book is no TKAM. I agree. Despite the heavy material and seemingly similar set-up, Wolf Hollow simply does not live up to To Kill A Mockingbird. I've been trying to pinpoint just exactly why that is, and for me it boils down to this: Annabelle is not Scout.

And this was a really sad realization, because I am probably far more like Annabelle than I am like Scout, yet Annabelle was simply not as interesting nor compelling of a protagonist.

Annabelle is eleven years old, and while she does make some mistakes in the book (mistakes that have serious consequences), she's otherwise practically perfect in every way. And it's boring. She's just so darn virtuous. She's generally quiet and neat and dutiful. She's dedicated to her family, to her schoolwork, and mostly to her chores. Yes, she likes doing chores, even talks about how doing the dishes soothes her troubled mind. And when the new girl begins to bully her for no explainable reason, Annabelle's response is one of strength and surprising maturity.

While reading this book I just kept thinking, She is too good! What eleven year-old-girl actually acts like this?

Well, me as an eleven-year-old, that's who. Because while I certainly did not share Annabelle's affinity for chores at that age, I was definitely a teacher's pet, rule-following, obedient, mature kind of eleven-year-old (though thankfully I never experienced that kind of bullying).

But precisely what makes Annabelle (and made me) a dream child for the adults around her, makes for a rather boring character on paper. The more I thought about it, the more true, and sad, I found it. Universally good girls do not make for good protagonists. Remember Dora from Anne of Avonlea? Even though her twin brother Davy is the trouble-maker and rascal, everybody still likes him better because Dora is too good to be interesting.

Just think about all of your favorite heroines. How many of the truly classic, interesting, wonderful heroines out there are "good" girls? Let me read about a Scout any day. Now there's some spit and fire! That makes for good reading! Or what about Jo? Cutting her hair and hanging out with the boys! Shocking! (But delightfully interesting.) What about our beloved Anne? She tried so hard to be good, but didn't we all just love it when she told off Mrs. Rachel Lynde like that? Or slammed that slate over Gilbert's head? And, looking at more recent awesome heroines, we all have to admit that Hermione was a truly snobbish, boring character until she started breaking the rules with Harry and Ron. Am I right?

This may not be just a girl character thing. This may hold true for boys too, I just haven't thought about them too much. But it was interesting to realize that this is what bothered me about Wolf Hollow's Annabelle. She wasn't interesting because she was too good.

But I'm a good girl! Does that mean I wouldn't make an interesting character? Probably. (*Cue existential crisis*)

I am curious, has anyone else out there read this book? How did you feel about Annabelle? What about this idea of good girls being boring?


  1. Oh now I know why we get on so well, we're soul sisters, though actually I was good about housework, blush.
    But yes you're right, though we may be a breath of relaxation to our parents, we're boring on paper

    1. Doesn't surprise me at all you were good about housework. :)

  2. On a similar but not quite related thought, I was remembering recently how the "bad kids" in school usually seemed to like me. Like you, I was a shy, rule-following, teacher's dream, so I often got assigned a seat next to the disruptive kids because I would supposedly be a good influence on them. It always baffled me that those kids liked me - sometimes they would tease or try to get a reaction out of me, but it was always good-natured. I would have thought that they would scorn me as a goody-goody.

    I think it's really, really hard to write a true-to-life good girl, but I think those characters would be more interesting if they were written more accurately. I was always rule-following and obedient at school, but the thoughts running through my head definitely weren't bland.

    I've gotten more rebellious and more outspoken as I've gotten older, so I hope I wouldn't be a bland character in my present form....although I'm also an 84-year-old woman at heart. I don't know how exciting a character who lies around reading all the time would be!

    1. I love that! I think you are right, that a "good girl" character just needs to be written in the right way, because I totally relate. I was a good girl, but my thoughts were funny and interesting. I think I wanted Annabelle to have some more humor, or anger, or something to make her more interesting, even if she was such a good girl on the outside.

      And I love that you are an 84-year-old woman at heart (sometimes, old people are the most interesting of all!).