Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the need for more diversity in YA literature. I’m excited that every time I go on my Twitter feed, someone is saying something new about the importance of characters breaking the standard white/cis/hetero mold. What really helped me grasp the enormity of the change that needs to occur was reading other people’s personal stories about the effect non-diverse stories have had on their lives and their identities.
I have seen countless bloggers talk about their desire to see themselves represented in their favorite books and to read their own stories. Hearing so many different bloggers express this frustration got me thinking about whether I actually see myself in the books I read.
On one hand, the answer is an unequivocal and incredibly privileged YES. I’m a white teenage girl—quite literally the default for YA protagonists. Nearly every book I pick up has a main character whose skin I could slip into, and it is only through hearing other people talk about not being able to do this that I’ve realized how lucky I have been.
On the other hand, I’m an introvert with a deep-seated fear of standing up to authority or society. I touched on this in a post I wrote about reading YA as a girl who cries a lot, but I’m going to explore it more now. Keep in mind that this is just me rambling to myself, trying to get my thoughts in order, and if something I say rubs you the wrong way, please tell me, because the point of this is to grow as a person.
My favorite protagonists are dramatically not introverts. They are the badass women who stand up for what they believe in, defy authority, flirt with skill instead of self-consciousness, and sass everyone in their general vicinity. And honestly? I love reading about them. They are everything I am not, but they also make for amazing stories.
So when I started really thinking and realized how few main characters I relate to, I thought I didn’t care. Girls like me don’t bring kingdoms to their knees or go on spur-of-the-moment life-changing road trips, but those are the stories I wand to read. Reading is an escape, a chance to be someone I’m not…so why would I care that I don’t get to read about myself?
But then I really started thinking about it, and I realized that my favorite protagonists are the ones I can relate to. The shy girls who do brave things anyway. The quiet girls who save the world but never get over that doubting voice in the back of their head. The girls who count on extroverted best friends to get them to do crazy things, because there is no way they would do them themselves.
When I think about the characters whose stories captured me the most, the ones that truly grabbed my heart, they all have characters I can actually relate to. Of course, other stories with different protagonists capture me as well, but never in the same way.
I also realized something else. Sometimes, in stories with brash, unabashed protagonists, there are scenes that are so awkward, so painfully socially cringey, that I actually have to stop reading and remind myself that it isn’t real. That the main character is braver than I am. That the main character can deal with awkwardness better than I can.
Scenes like these are so common in literature that I don’t question them anymore; they’re just a roller coaster I have to get through to enjoy the rest of the story.
And yet…why am I willing to struggle through scenes that make every socially awkward nerve in my body scream because I assume other people find those scenes fun?
The answer, of course, is that the larger stories are worth it. Still, it was only by realizing how much I’ve shoved aside what I personally like in the name of enjoying the author’s overall story that I started to understand what it would be like if you had to do that for something as fundamental as the main character’s identity.
I have it easy. No matter how out-of-touch I feel with a protagonist, I still 99% of the time relate to them in terms of gender, sexuality, and/or race. Nevertheless, it was important for me to explore the times I didn’t relate to the protagonist to empathize with others as they beg authors to write their own stories.
It is easy as a white/cis/hetero person to see people talking about diversity and feel like you don’t have a place in (or a right to take part in) the discussion. However, I think if we all looked at ourselves closer, we would find some part of us that empathizes with the frustrations people are sharing right now. It would probably seem like a small change, but this discussion needs all the empathy it can get right now.