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Old 01-30-2013, 05:14 AM   #1
anobjectofbeauty
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"Bad" YA protagonists: do they have necessarily have to fail?

I'm currently plotting a WIP with a character who basically spends the entire book making increasingly poor decisions. Essentially, the backstory is this: after her parents were convicted of fraud, she lost her entire college fund, and turns to several unorthodox and eventually illegal ways of making money in order to steer her future back on track. It's nothing involving alcohol, drugs, or firearms, but she's definitely not a morally upstanding citizen - she has no qualms about lying, cheating, helping others cheat, or making fake IDs. But when you have a character like this in a YA story, they typically have to lose, get in major trouble, or otherwise learn their lesson at the end.

So my question is... is this absolutely necessary? In the majority of heist films and gangster movies, your heroes may do morally questionable things, but you root for them, and they typically get away scot-free or with a slap on the wrist at the end. Can a complex, interesting YA hero/ine do the same? I'm interested in hearing both sides of this issue, because I really can't figure out where I want this plot to end up.
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Old 01-30-2013, 05:42 AM   #2
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The key to having a likable "bad" character is redeeming qualities. Since your mc's problems originated with her parents, you could probably garner some sympathy for her there. I think I would probably be annoyed if an mc did a lot of questionable or even outright awful things and got away with them in the end. But a lot of it also depends on her other actions throughout the book. Does she ever regret doing these things? Does she ever feel pressure or even forced into doing them? Is doing these things sometimes the difference between getting enough money to eat that night or going to bed hungry? Put your reader in the mc's shoes and get them to see these decisions from her perspective and understand why she's doing them.
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Old 01-30-2013, 05:58 AM   #3
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I'm fully in the camp of YA characters not having to be likable, but they do have to be interesting and ultimately sympathetic -- in the sense that you understand why they do what they do. What might be a bigger problem is her "increasingly poor" decisions. It's hard to follow a character doing stupid things.
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Old 01-30-2013, 05:59 AM   #4
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Have you read Kamikaze Girls, by Novala Takemoto? I'd recommend it just because it's excellent, but it also deals with a teen protagonist who uses "unconventional" methods to improve her finances, doesn't Learn Her Lesson at any point in the book, and still comes across as likeable and entertaining. I think it's fine, as long as the character is still someone readers can root for.
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Old 01-30-2013, 06:45 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Fantasmac View Post
I'm fully in the camp of YA characters not having to be likable, but they do have to be interesting and ultimately sympathetic -- in the sense that you understand why they do what they do. What might be a bigger problem is her "increasingly poor" decisions. It's hard to follow a character doing stupid things.
Seconded. I can stomach all manners of "unlikeable" characters (oh, who am I kidding, I love them), but ones who are unfailingly stupid piss me off. I would rather read about a sociopath protagonist than a stupid one.

Going along those lines, make sure you carefully think out your character's motivations, so that her decisions make sense to the reader. Did she at least consider scholarships or student loans?

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Have you read Kamikaze Girls, by Novala Takemoto? I'd recommend it just because it's excellent, but it also deals with a teen protagonist who uses "unconventional" methods to improve her finances, doesn't Learn Her Lesson at any point in the book, and still comes across as likeable and entertaining. I think it's fine, as long as the character is still someone readers can root for.
Time to go track this book down.
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Old 01-30-2013, 07:07 AM   #6
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I think they can be pretty much anything you want, but they need a character arc. Ultimately, that's probably going to involve them at least learning something. How subversive you want to go with that is entirely up to you.
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Old 01-30-2013, 07:14 AM   #7
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It's hard to follow a character doing stupid things.
1) Have you tried writing it yet?

2) If so, have you showed a beta reader yet?

3) Did you violate the quotation I emphasized above? Characters making dumb decisions is the reason I can't stand zombie fiction.

Almost any "rule" you've learned about writing can be broken if you have a good reason to do so. They're only called rules so that you back up and take a moment to consider why it was made a "rule" in the first place.
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Old 01-30-2013, 07:55 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Fantasmac View Post
I'm fully in the camp of YA characters not having to be likable, but they do have to be interesting and ultimately sympathetic -- in the sense that you understand why they do what they do. What might be a bigger problem is her "increasingly poor" decisions. It's hard to follow a character doing stupid things.
I can totally understand that. I think this character manages to escape that - she's really flawed, but also really intelligent, and starts off with mostly pure intentions. As she becomes more and more successful in her shady endeavors, she becomes a bit more power-hungry and money-driven, which is human nature. But I think her motivation is always clear, and while her decisions may be BAD, they're never actually STUPID. She's totally capable and very intelligent, but doesn't apply her intelligence in a socially acceptable way.

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Going along those lines, make sure you carefully think out your character's motivations, so that her decisions make sense to the reader. Did she at least consider scholarships or student loans?
Oh yeah. Unfortunately, she doesn't qualify for very many scholarships (white + from a wealthy family + no athletic talent or esoteric hobbies), and even student loans won't cover a full four years of tuition at most schools. This is really a last-resort move for her - the idea of going to a community college and working minimum-wage jobs to put herself through a technical school just isn't an option in her world. She'd rather risk being arrested and getting in huge trouble than accept a future that's something "less" than she always envisioned.
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Old 01-30-2013, 08:11 AM   #9
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No, the bad protagonists don't have to lose.

By the end of the book, your protagonist will probably learn something, but it doesn't even have to be a moral lesson. It could be something along the lines of: "I now know how to successfully run a criminal empire."

Just make your character interesting.
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Old 01-30-2013, 07:37 PM   #10
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I think what you said about her being intelligent and her decisions/motivation being understandable even if her actual actions aren't the brightest is key. I will follow a character making the worst of all decisions as long as I can a) understand, b) sympathize and c) be hella entertained.

In a WIP of mine, a character discovers something shady is going on--though he doesn't know what, exactly--and instead of trying to figure it out or keeping hush-hush so he won't be detected, he decided to hack into the building's intercom and comes up with an outrageous lie for why everyone needs to get out of the building. It might not be smart, but it's proactive and interesting--and his character has already been established as impulsive--so it balances out.

And I would love to see a protag doing all kinds of illegal things and getting away with it. Bah, morals. Who needs ' em.
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Old 01-30-2013, 08:08 PM   #11
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If a character repeatedly does immoral things and is rewarded for that, yeah, it would make me mad.

If a character just makes dumb choices, I might get bored with the MC. Everyone's seen the horror movie where no one in their right mind would go out of the house, etc. Though I see now that you've said she's not dumb, so I'm guessing this isn't something you have to worry about.

That said, if the character has some sort of reason for making the decisions she does OR she learns throughout the book, that might change my opinion. I'm not opposed to "bad" characters, just "bad" characters who are flat.

(P.S., the moral questions you raise about "lying, cheating, helping others cheat, or making fake IDs" don't really seem all that terrible to me, especially when you compare your book to gangster movies at the end of your post. I would assume, given your premise, that she does these things to make money, they get her in trouble, and at some point she realizes that money isn't everything or some fun lesson like that. Of course I may be, probably, almost surely wrong.)

(Also - your comment about student loans not covering 100% of costs at most schools...Really? Things might have changed since I went to college, [I swear it wasn't that long ago] but I had loans that covered all of my tuition. And I could've gotten more money, but I didn't want to. I didn't live in dorms or have a school meal card or anything. Is your MC going to an expensive school? Are cheaper schools another option? I worked all through college, though. Is that not an option for your MC? Just trying to poke holes so you can address them in the writing.)

ETA: Even if she doesn't want to work a "minimum-wage job," there are plenty of other jobs out there. A lot of schools have work-study opportunities or internships.

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Old 01-30-2013, 08:12 PM   #12
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Sounds like the kind of character I like, intelligent and resourceful. Characters who do bad things make good fiction, because it allows the reader to experience that life without breaking any laws. Artemis Fowl is notoriously evil, and we like him that way.
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Old 01-31-2013, 12:08 AM   #13
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Oh yeah. Unfortunately, she doesn't qualify for very many scholarships (white + from a wealthy family + no athletic talent or esoteric hobbies), and even student loans won't cover a full four years of tuition at most schools. This is really a last-resort move for her - the idea of going to a community college and working minimum-wage jobs to put herself through a technical school just isn't an option in her world. She'd rather risk being arrested and getting in huge trouble than accept a future that's something "less" than she always envisioned.
Maybe kind of a derail, but I think it's this attitude that would turn me off, not bad decisions or "bad morals." She sounds like a snob to me. I hate it when YA protagonists sneer at community colleges and other things they deem to be beneath them.
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Old 01-31-2013, 03:35 AM   #14
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Maybe kind of a derail, but I think it's this attitude that would turn me off, not bad decisions or "bad morals." She sounds like a snob to me. I hate it when YA protagonists sneer at community colleges and other things they deem to be beneath them.
Same. If after displaying this attitude the MC didn't learn it was ridiculous, then I would think their perspective was skewed by past privilege and their life is pointlessly hard now because of an unwillingness to adapt. It wouldn't bother me in the slightest if the MC kept lying, stealing, and cheating to make their way in the world - but if they held onto a point-of-view like that, they haven't really changed much so the journey of their story wouldn't seem like it had any point.
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Old 01-31-2013, 04:00 AM   #15
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I agree with castaspell and Becca on that . . . and like itsmary said, do her decisions come out of necessity? If we go the "I refuse to go to community college route" it might not garner as much sympathy.
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Old 01-31-2013, 05:25 AM   #16
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No, just have her rip off even bigger crooks.

It was a lousy movie, but Tower Heist is an example where the protagonists seek revenge on their boss for scamming them out of their pensions by robbing his penthouse.

In Ocean's 11 with George Clooney, Danny's character was wanting to rob the man who 'stole' his wife... Who was filthy rich anyway.

If her parents were wealthy, maybe she has inside dibs on who of their friends were stock-market swindlers or laundering money for arms dealers or something. For more low-level scamming, she could target those moronic trust-fund brats who get their daddies to call the Dean whenever their mark is lower than a B and brags about something valuable he keeps in his dorm room or something.

So long as the 'victims' are even less sympathetic it should work.
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Old 01-31-2013, 07:46 AM   #17
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The movie GIRL NEXT DOOR is an example of a character who does "morally questionable" things while remaining likeable and entertaining. When a character feels he has nothing left to lose, it's easy to see him do bad things. When those decisions bear fruit in a rather stick-it-to-the-man kind of way, I think it's easy to root for the character. It's a guilty pleasure movie.

An example of a character who makes increasingly bad decisions and is truly, singularly unlikeable (on purpose) is THE FUCK-UP by Arthur Nersesian. I found it totally entertaining, but at no point did I like the character. And he didn't learn much. But it would be an excellent example of a character who makes poor decisions because he is self-destructive and desperate to feel pleasure (of all kinds). It might be worth noting that it's a slender book, too. I don't think I would have followed through with that character if it had taken 400 pages.

I don't need to like the MC from a literary fiction perspective, but I think in YA I need to connect more. I need to know why I'm here. If I'm here because I secretly wonder what it would be like to rob banks, dance for money, or be a hitman, then yes! I will stick around! Those are sneaky guilty pleasures (er, sort of). But if I'm here because I'm about to prostitute myself, smuggle drugs, or rob the elderly, I'm definitely going to need some major character development and growth, because those aren't pleasurable things. If the MC doesn't make a moral turnaround at some point, then it's got to be written in some kind of gritty, brutal, and bare way that makes me grow at the very least.
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Old 02-03-2013, 08:14 PM   #18
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As she becomes more and more successful in her shady endeavors, she becomes a bit more power-hungry and money-driven, which is human nature. But I think her motivation is always clear, and while her decisions may be BAD, they're never actually STUPID. She's totally capable and very intelligent, but doesn't apply her intelligence in a socially acceptable way.

... She'd rather risk being arrested and getting in huge trouble than accept a future that's something "less" than she always envisioned.
This sounds like a YA version of "Breaking Bad," which I would totally snap up and read. An intelligent protagonist starts breaking laws for what appear to be excellent reasons to him/her — except, if you look beneath the surface, you see a lot of stubborn pride preventing said protagonist from taking law-abiding (but humiliating) ways out of his/her dilemma.

The tragic flaw is the key. Unless this is a light, "caper"-style novel, I'd need the MC to experience consequences that bring her face to face with the bad choices she's made. The consequences don't have to be public disgrace or jail. Sometimes self-awareness is its own punishment. Moments where the MC asks herself, "How did I become this person? I'm such a con artist that it's hard for me to trust or open up to anyone. Is this the rest of my life? Am I OK with that?"

It's not as simple as her "learning a lesson," because it's too late to undo what she's done. She's going to have to find some way to live with herself, whether that involves renouncing crime or accepting the new person she's become.

I don't need to see justice done and social order restored at the end of a story. I don't need to see Hank Schrader catch Walter White (though, to be honest, right now I'd like that). But I do need to see some recognition, either by the MC or other characters, that the MC has gone too far, and his/her rationalizations for crime aren't cutting it.

ETA: I used to teach college and caught many plagiarists (surely not all of them), so I'm biased about cheating. Hate it. Yep, it's a "victimless crime," and many students from all walks of life seem to think nothing of it, because "You need a degree to get a job, and if that means gaming the meaningless system, so be it." But it does raise the question ... is it really worth paying for an expensive school if you're not going to seek an education there? If you think the system is stupid, why not try to change it?

But I would totally read a book about a cheating ring if there was some acknowledgment of those issues.
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Old 02-03-2013, 11:20 PM   #19
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Its kind of like with bizarro fiction you know? You want a character thats unlikeable for the sake of interestingness, but not because the plot will only work because everyone one of the protagonist is an idiot.
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