Disclaimer: Keep in mind that these are my opinions and observations after reading many YA books with weak female characters.
1. If she is pretty, she should know it.
They shouldn’t flaunt it (unless it’s part of their character arc), but they shouldn’t not know it and continually say, “Oh, I wish I was pretty like that girl!” when they have two guys falling head over heels for them.
2. She should be decisive.
But not to the point where they aren’t uncertain. If they have two guys falling for them, they should have a reason to like both. (As a love triangle is a common literary device in YA, I will use it frequently.) Not because one is cute and friendly and the other is hot and mysterious and they can’t decide which one they like better. They must have legitimate reasons.
3. Don’t make her ignorant.
A little naivety is fine. If they are kept in the shadows to “protect them,” that is also fine. As long as there is a good reason for them to be protected. (How many times have you heard the parent saying, “I just wanted you to live a normal life”? Many. Try thinking up something a bit more creative.)
4. If she’s going to save the world, make her worthy of it.
You don’t want a whining, unappreciative protagonist who has no guts, no brains, and just “raw power” to save the world. Someone like that can’t possibly be destined to save the world. It’s not realistic. Yet time upon time you see the same type of people prophesied to save the world from imminent danger. You need someone who’s smart, powerful (but not the kind of power that she “just learned” and happens to be “really good at it”), brave (not stupidly so), and who understands the gravity of what she needs to do.
5. If there is a love triangle, there should be a reason that both boys like her.
She cannot just be pretty. She cannot be their “soulmate,” just because. She cannot have sparked the boys’ interests just because she is “different.” Show us that she’s beautiful inside and out. Show us why she’s their soulmate. Show us why she is different. Give us a reason why two boys would like her.
6. She must have fears, and she must have flaws.
Fears can be flaws, but not all fears are flaws. For example: Fear of losing your family can be a flaw if you are unwilling to let go of your family in order to save the whole world. (Usually, the protagonist finds a way to save both the world and their loved ones, but I find that to be rather dues ex machina.) She cannot be a Mary-Sue (a perfect character). She needs to have realistic flaws. And, as said above, a fear does not always count as a flaw. Flaws are arrogance, hotheadedness, selfishness, etc.
7. She must think about more than just boys.
How many books revolve around just boys? How many books have the protagonist pining over for that perfect guy, and dwelling on it, and nothing else? Make her think for herself. Make her realize that there are some things that are more important that some guy. (Saving the world, her family, stuff like that.) Her world may revolve around that perfect guy, that’s fine, just as long as her thoughts don’t.
8. She must change, for better or for worse.
Your main characters must have these things called arcs. They must change. The change doesn’t necessarily have to be a good change, but as she is your heroine, that generally means she is going to change for the better.
9. Don’t make her good at everything.
This falls under the category of a Mary-Sue. If she picks up a bow and automatically finds herself good with shooting arrows, that’s okay. But if she does this, and finds herself magically gifted, and realizes she can get A-plus grades while saving the world, and finds herself to be a great flirt . . . it doesn’t work that way. She must be good at some things, but make sure these things she can do well work with the plot. Don’t give her random talents that don’t forward the plot.
10. Save the insta-love.
Love at first sight? A bit far-fetched. Like at first sight? Sure, that’s fine. Everyone can crush on someone the first time they meet them. But thinking they’re your soulmate two pages after you meet them, and kissing them two pages after that? No, just no. Give them time to get to know each other. And when they fall in love, don’t have them kiss every page after that. Save the kisses, make them like little gifts for the reader. Also, if you want your readers pining over the two characters to get together, give them lots of fights, break-ups, make-ups, real problems. (Just don’t overdo it, of course.) I have a lot of respect for authors who don’t let their two lovers kiss in the first book. I have even more respect if they don’t kiss in the second book, either. Kissing less than halfway through the book just turns me off.
11. There has to be a reason for her to be the protagonist.
If she is better off as a side character, make her one. Her relation to the plot must be essential. To make her the protagonist, she HAS to be the protagonist.
12. She must have real problems.
Personally, I don’t count having to choose between two boys as a real problem. But if it is a real problem, that’s okay. People rarely have just one problem, though. As well as having a love triangle, make her have some family problems, maybe a best friend ongoing argument, maybe a lack of food in her house, etc. Several problems are okay, as long as you don’t go overboard. And each must have some relevance to the plot.
13. She doesn’t have to be likable, just understandable (or relatable).
She can totally be a selfish pig (aren’t we all sometimes?). But she must have a reason for being a selfish pig. And she must do things that your readers can relate to. Also, usually if someone starts out being unlikeable, they start to be more and more likeable as the story progresses. This can mean they have a physical change in heart, or you just write the character to be more likeable.
14. She must grow.
This is vital. She must grow in strength, in understanding, in personality. She must grow to love the boy of her dreams. She must grow to be worthy of saving the world. She must grow as a character to be a strong, lovable (optional), memorable (not optional) protagonist.
This probably isn’t a full list of everything I could say about this subject, but it is at least the basics and problems of typical YA books. Don’t be discouraged by this list, and don’t take it by heart. Rules, advice, tips, they’re all meant to be broken, aren’t they? Write your protagonist how you want to. These are just a few opinions of mine that I thought I’d share with you. How you write your story is completely up to you.
~ J. Dominique