Ask Me Anything: YA Protagonists

Okay this week's question is:
I'm working on a high-concept YA drama which I'm excited about. An industry person said if I changed the main character from a 16 year-old boy to a 16 year-old girl it could mean the difference between a hit and a massive hit, presumable because of THE HUNGER GAMES's and DIVERGENT's success with female leads. What do you think? Does it matter? FYI In my book's case, even though the lead is male, the three other main characters are female. GRACIAS!
Well I'm all about high-concept YA drama so yay for that!

The advice this industry person gave you is interesting. The Hunger Games and Divergent are good examples of series that have been a massive hit--and they do have female leads.

But there are a few things to think about.

First I want to address something that's not really part of your question: what is the difference between a "hit" and a "massive hit"?

I'm not exactly sure how you define either--I imagine a lot of people have different viewpoints/thresholds. Regardless of the definition though, I think this is the wrong thing to focus on. The truth is that as an author a lot of the publishing process is out of your control. A lot is even out of the publisher's control.

I can think of a number of books that got a big push from their publisher, that I saw everywhere, that I heard someone say "This is the next Hunger Games!" and whether the books were good or not, they did not reach "Hunger Games level" in terms of sales and fan mania.

If you go into publishing looking for your book to be a massive hit, you're bound to be disappointed.

But back to your question. At the root of it, you're asking will your book be more commercial if your protagonist is female.

The answer is: possibly.

I would like to say that it doesn't matter. After all, I'm interested in books that have male protagonists. I like them. I want there to be YA novels for teen boys out there. And I have a problem with telling anyone they should change the gender/race/sexual orientation of their main character for the sake of being more commercial.

But the truth is that right now YA fiction is dominated by female protagonists, because it's also dominated by female readers.

Hunger Games and Divergent have female protagonists as you mention. So do TwilightThe Fifth Wave, A Fault in Our Stars, Shatter Me and The Selection. Even in Cassandra Clare's novels, which have an ensemble cast, arguably the main characters are the female characters: Clary (in Mortal Instruments) and Tessa (in Infernal Devices).

There are of course some exceptions. The Maze Runner and Beautiful Creatures both had male protagonists. Perhaps if John Green had written A Fault in Our Stars from Gus's perspective, it would be just as much of a "massive hit" as it is today. Or perhaps not--it's just not something that I can answer for you. There are a number of really amazing books with male protagonists that didn't take off the way maybe they should have. If I could wave a magic wand, Holly Black's White Cat series would have a movie adaptation and topping the bestseller lists (I loved those books!).

In the end, you'll have to decide what to do with the gender of your protagonist yourself. If you want to think about it from specifically a strategic and commercial angle, I would suggest having a few beta readers, read the ms and get their feedback on whether they would have liked the plot more if the protagonist was female.

Also as them to keeping the following things in mind while they read:

Is this male protagonist a guy that YA readers can love?
Are there some amazing other female characters who are strongly represented throughout the story?

As much as I like money (I do), I'm in this for the love of books and the love of reading and storytelling. If I were you, I would think about what it is that made you fall in love with the story and what made you originally tell a male character's story. Then decide what you think you need to do for this story.

Hopefully you're in this for the long term which means you can always write more books after this one. This feeling that success has to come overnight isn't accurate. After all, both Suzanne Collins, Rick Yancy, and John Green had wonderful books before they perhaps hit the "massive" level of success.

You may also like


Unknown said...

I'm a female reader/writer, and I really like reading books with male protags because I feel that I can connect with male characters more than female ones. Male POV books are somewhat rare in the reader's market, so it's always refreshing to see something 'new' for a change. Whether or not it'll be a hit is anyone's guess, but I'd be more apt to reach for a book with a male protag than a female one, since I've read so many female protag books.

Eric Steinberg said...

I can't help wondering whether the majority of teen girls do gravitate towards YA books with female protagonist or are only more likely to choose books with female protagonists because there are much more of them.

Maybe publishers by providing a larger supply of YA books with female protagonists are assuming a preference that doesn't exist.

mshatch said...

Loved White Cat, and I'm of the mind that you write the story you love first, because hopefully that love will shine through.

Amanda said...

I did read recently that male protagonists are a rising trend, one that the publishing industry thinks is one of the next trends in YA. I personally don't care whether the MC is a male or female. It's all about story and if I can connect with that MC. (And need I say Harry Potter?! I know he's not considered YA, but still.)