The Young Adult market certainly offers a variety of main characters for readers to relate to. However, it also features several problematic tropes, including a common tendency to portray the female main character as incredibly lacking in confidence. Considering these female main characters potentially play the part of role models for young adult readers, this portrayal could have a damaging effect.
It's somewhat miraculous I grew up to embrace positive narcissistic tendencies after dedicating my adolescence to reading about plain girls who could save the world before they could believe in their own beauty. Maybe these girls simply didn’t leave their mark, or maybe I dedicated every ounce of conformity to characters like Rose Hathaway and Luna Lovegood, who both scorn other peoples' opinions in their own unique ways.
Regardless, I'm grateful. I've seen what a lack of confidence—or worse—can do to people, particularly young adult females.
This problematic YA trope centers around a female main character who—usually at the start of the novel—makes it clear that she is plain, not particularly skillful, and has little chance of ever being seen as beautiful. Whether these characters are shy and clumsy, or hardened on the outside, they often scorn common symbols of femininity and beauty, such as gowns and other pretty clothes. Overall, the character’s lack of confidence serves as an important part of her identity, and it presents a model to readers that the main character they should relate to does not feel confident in her own appearance or talents.
This lack of confidence often plays a big role in her inevitable romantic relationship as well. In many stories featuring the unconfident female lead, the male love interest eventually swoops in and proves his special nature by declaring that he does see her as beautiful. This might lead the main character to understand her beauty through the male’s eyes, or she might end the story simply accepting that she can be seen as beautiful or interesting, even though she still doesn’t agree.
This is bad, to say the least.
Not only does this trope encourage the idea that boys are the leading experts on female beauty, but it also encourages a concept that girls are seen as beautiful when they don’t think they are. (Cue “That’s What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction).
This leads into the flipside of the unconfident trope, which is when a shockingly confident female main character immediately earns an unsavory label.
In these stories, narcissism usually characterizes villainous women and/or 'bitches'. If the female main character displays signs of confidence—acknowledging or supporting her own physical beauty, talents, or style—she often receives backlash from other characters within the story as well as from readers.
A prime example is Celaena Sardothien, the female protagonist in Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass. I’m only partway through the first book, so I certainly can’t speak for the character’s attitude later on in the series, but at the start of the series, Celaena makes it very clear that she believes she is beautiful, she thinks incredibly highly of her talents as an assassin, and she loves clothes. When I read reviews beforehand, I came across several reviews tearing down Maas’s novel because of Celaena’s so-called ‘arrogance’.
So far, I find Celaena’s confidence refreshing.
Why is it a problem for a girl to acknowledge her own skills or beauty? Or to go so far as to favor them? Why do such characters immediately earn the description 'arrogant'?
If it were a boy, no one would bat an eye. Dozens of YA male love interests ooze narcissism and arrogance, and readers adore them! Their self-awareness and confidence make hearts flutter.
Is this inherently bad? No. I enjoy confident male characters as well, as long as that confidence doesn't turn itself into misogyny.
The problem is a societal view that boys can be confident but girls cannot. And this societal view has a lasting impact. The portrayal of these female main characters tells readers that it is good and normal for a girl to deny her own worth, and if a girl dares to flaunt her own beauty and talents, she is arrogant, narcissistic, or worse.
It is okay to depict insecurities—we all have them. But I’d argue there’s a benefit to portraying mostly confident girls in YA novels. Use these characters as examples to show girls that it is okay to see yourself as beautiful! It is okay to be proud of your own abilities!
A female lead does not need certain physical characteristics to be beautiful. If we're told a character is beautiful, we believe it. Maybe girls with mousy brown hair and plain features should stop being told they aren't beautiful, or that they're only beautiful because they’re not conventionally pretty. (I’m rolling my eyes).
Being confident, proud, or beautiful does not make you an arrogant, narcissistic bitch. It does not make you a bad person. Being cruel to other people is a whole different ball game, and that comes from a different place. As a society, we need to stop connecting the two together. As booklovers, we need to support confident characters rather than tear them down.
What are your thoughts? Is there a merit to the unconfident lead? Should more female main characters display signs of self-confidence in their narratives? Who are some of your favorite female protagonists, and why?
Last Wednesday, I evacuated my college campus in Florida in preparation for the wrath of Hurricane Irma. I was fortunate enough to leave the state entirely, but several of my close friends and professors remained in Florida to ride out the storm. The past few days were difficult as I worried about my friends and our home away from home, along with the many other people facing the potential devastation of Hurricane Irma.
But these days also offered a small silver lining—a spark in the dark.
Perhaps it’s because I got away from school, or because I needed a distraction, but I found the energy to write again. (By this I mean more than my effort to spend an hour each day working towards writing goals, which often means an hour staring at a blank document). I found the energy to write, and the desire to only write.
In the past few days, I’ve spent hours brainstorming and writing. Although it means pushing aside my other responsibilities—e.g. my homework—I feel more fulfilled than I have in weeks. Writing gives me a purpose, and it serves as a distraction. In those moments I spent writing, I temporarily forgot my fears about Florida.
Sometimes a difficult situation can offer a spark of inspiration or an unforeseen opportunity.
Maybe experiencing a trial of your own helps you feel more in touch with a protagonist’s feelings and thoughts. Maybe it inspires you to write about a similar situation, or an entirely different situation which creates those same emotions.
Or maybe you need to escape the suffering for a short period of time, and that’s okay.
In Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Cath says she writes fiction in order to escape herself and disappear. Sometimes we need to be someone other than ourselves, and live a life other than our own. Writing gives us this opportunity, and allows us to share that opportunity with those who wish to read in order to escape.
It’s okay to escape. It’s okay to seek out distraction, or to find a source of positivity in an otherwise challenging time. Sometimes these are the greatest sources of inspiration.
What are your thoughts? If you are experiencing the impacts of Hurricane Irma in one way or another, feel free to talk to me. Please keep those affected by the recent hurricanes in your thoughts.
When I picked up A Court of Thorns and Roses from a Barnes & Noble bookshelf, I mostly did so because the beautiful cover drew me towards it. I purchased three new books that day, but Sarah J. Maas’s story of a girl named Feyre dragged into the world of High Fae claimed my attention first—and the series as a whole claimed my heart.
I will start this series review with the short and simple, spoiler-free version for those of you interested in potentially reading the series, and then I will go into the spoiler-heavy detail for those who have already read the series or have zero qualms against spoilers.
Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses is a New Adult series with three books published and a novella on the way. If you want to know more about New Adult, check out my previous blog post on the topic. In general, New Adult follows characters in the age range directly after Young Adult.
A Court of Thorns and Roses tells the story of Feyre, a human who spends most of her time hunting in order to feed her father and two sisters after her father loses their previous wealth. When Feyre kills a strange wolf in the woods, a beast breaks into her house and forces her to go to Prythian, the land of the Fae. Once in Prythian, she finds herself at the Spring Court, where her hatred for Fae conflicts with a growing passion for Tamlin, the High Lord of Spring. Meanwhile, Feyre slowly learns of a growing threat that could harm not only the Fae she’s come to know but also the humans she left behind.
If you decide to read this series, you will likely become frustrated with the first book. Here’s my advice to you—stick with it.
A Court of Thorns and Roses contains problematic relationships and unhealthy self-sacrifice. Despite the impressive world building and interesting plot, I found these other aspects understandably difficult to overlook.
However, I encourage you to continue on to A Court of Mist and Fury because overall, Maas’s series tells the story of a girl who experiences horrors and then faces the challenge of acknowledging and overcoming those horrors. Feyre is strong and incredibly caring, and the series introduces a cast of endearing characters with strengths, flaws, and intricate and admirable relationships.
Besides these characteristics, Maas builds a beautiful fantasy world and tells a fascinating story in each book and across the series as a whole. I originally found issues with the casual language and slang used because it didn't seem to reflect the time period depicted, but I eventually accepted it as part of the world, and it creates an amusing, casual vibe. The books are not fast-paced, but I don’t see this as a weakness. Although Feyre remains the primary focus of the series, the lives of the characters around her play a significant role in the plot. When there are action scenes, Maas picks up the pace to reflect the excitement or fear of the scene.
I highly recommend this series to anyone with particular interest in fantasy, especially if you enjoy YA but want older characters and more mature themes.
Check out Sarah J. Maas’s website for more information about her books. You can find A Court of Thorns and Roses online at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, or hit up your local bookstore. If you’re a fan of the series or want extra inspiration to pick it up, take a look at the amazing art by Charlie Bowater, an illustrator of the A Court of Thorns and Roses coloring book. (Want to know more about YA/NA coloring books? Read my blog post about it!)
Now I will discuss the elements that stood out to me in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series. Spoilers ahead!
Abusive Relationships, Mental Health, and Recovery
“I had done everything--everything for that love. I had ripped myself to shreds, I had killed innocents and debased myself, and he had sat beside Amarantha on that throne . . . And when Amarantha had broken me, when she had snapped my bones and made my blood boil in its veins, he’d just knelt and begged her. He hadn’t tried to kill her, hadn’t crawled for me. Yes, he’d fought for me—but I’d fought harder for him”-- Feyre, A Court of Mist and Fury
I did not foresee this element when I decided to start the series, but it becomes a major part of Feyre’s journey. Tamlin and Feyre’s relationship made me uncomfortable for most of the first book, and the feeling only increased at the start of the second. Feyre risks her life and sacrifices her mental wellbeing in order to save Tamlin from the clutches of Amarantha. Meanwhile, Tamlin does nothing to assist her while Under the Mountain, although other characters do.
Before this, their relationship comes across as both distant and explosive, and after saving Tamlin and returning to the Spring Court, Feyre effectively becomes a prisoner as his bride. Not only does he both figuratively and literally lock her up, his own uncontrollable rage manifests in magic that physically harms her. These events drive Feyre into a pit of despair until Rhysand and Mor remove her to the Night Court.
The depiction of this abuse is difficult to read, but I admire A Court of Thorns and Roses because it shows this form of abuse and then emphasizes how wrong it is. On top of that, it follows Feyre’s journey to overcome Tamlin’s abuse, her own guilt, and her trauma from Under the Mountain.
“And he had the nerve once his powers were back to shove me into a cage. The nerve to say I was no longer useful; I was to be cloistered for his peace of mind. He’d given me everything I needed to become myself, to feel safe, and when he got what he wanted—when he got his power back, his lands back . . . he stopped trying. He was still good, still Tamlin, but he was just . . . wrong” -- Feyre, A Court of Mist and Fury
A particularly powerful scene is when Feyre confronts these events and her feelings while training with Cassian. Although she has known that Tamlin’s treatment of her was wrong and unacceptable, this scene marks the moment when she truly acknowledges that she loved him, but he completely abused her. It is also the first time she speaks out loud about the two people she killed to save Tamlin. Overall, this scene stands out as an important moment in her journey towards recovery.
This recovery does not happen quickly, or all at once. Feyre’s personality and happiness return once she joins Rhysand and his inner circle, but her own struggles still haunt her. I think it is important that Feyre does not heal because of her later relationship with Rhys. Her mental healing happens on its own, and that healing allows her to be more open to a new and healthier relationship.
“The sun was shining when I left you” -- Feyre, A Court of Wings and Ruin
Her recovery shows in her interactions with Tamlin at the end of A Court of Wings and Ruin. When the High Lords meet to discuss the war against Hybern, Feyre does not allow Tamlin to twist the tale against Rhys by claiming the High Lord of the Night Court stole Feyre away in the middle of the night. Feyre’s statement about the sun shining is so simple, but came across as incredibly powerful to me when reading. It highlights her own choice in the matter, and that it solely happened because of Tamlin’s treatment of her.
“So I wished him well—I truly did, and hoped that one day . . . One day, perhaps he would face those insidious fears, that destructive rage rotting away inside him" -- Feyre, A Court of Wings and Ruin
Feyre also proves her higher nature when she sends Tamlin a note wishing him well. Can she forgive him for how he treated her? I would say no, regardless of his help in saving Rhys. But despite everything he does, she hopes he can eventually heal and change his behavior towards others.
“My father wins, Eris wins, all the males like them win if I let it get to me. If I let it impact my joy, my life. My relationships with all of you” -- Mor, A Court of Wings and Ruin
It’s also worth mentioning that the series depicts several other incidents of abuse, and that this abuse affects both males and females. This includes Mor’s past with her family in the Court of Nightmares, Rhys’s experience with Amarantha Under the Mountain, and Ianthe’s treatment of both Lucien and Rhys. These depictions are powerful because—again—they show that abuse can happen to both men and women by both men and women, that this abuse leaves a heavy scar, and also that people can find ways to heal bit by bit.
Although the abusive relationships add a dark element to A Court of Thorns and Roses, the journeys of Feyre and the other characters affected make for a powerful story.
Beyond the abusive relationships, Maas writes many examples of positive relationships, both romantic and platonic.
The primary relationship is, of course, Feyre and Rhysand. I will not deny that Rhys does not treat Feyre admirably in the first book. The only reason my opinion of him changes completely is because following the events of the first book, Rhys alters his behavior and never returns to that role (whereas Tamlin promises to do better, and fails miserably). Rhys also acknowledges every aspect of his previously problematic behavior, and apologizes profusely. In A Court of Mist and Fury and A Court of Wings and Ruin, Rhys not only cares for Feyre’s mental and physical well-being, but he does not insist that this well-being comes from Feyre being with him.
Maas constantly emphasizes that Feyre’s relationship with Rhys is always about choice. Feyre’s repetition of this idea is certainly not subtle, but when so many novels depict incredibly problematic relationships, maybe it shouldn’t be. Rhys is not a better male; he’s not an idol in that sense. He represents how someone in a relationship should treat their significant other, no questions asked. Their relationship is about choice. Feyre chooses to be with Rhys and she chooses where she wants to take each step in her life thereafter.
“I’m grateful. To have you at my side. I don’t know if I ever told you that—how grateful I am to have you stand with me” -- Rhysand, A Court of Wings and Ruin
Feyre and Rhys also display a positive amount of faith in and support for each other. They trust each other, believe in each other, and express their gratitude for the other. Overall, I find Feyre and Rhys to not only be incredibly amusing at times but also endearing.
Beyond Feyre’s romantic relationship with Rhys, A Court of Thorns and Roses contains a myriad of positive platonic relationships. Feyre and Rhys have a strong support system with Cassian, Azriel, Mor, and Amren, and Feyre also has her friendship with Lucien and relationships with her sisters, Nesta and Elain.
These platonic relationships are so important. None of the characters rely on a romantic partner as the sole important person in their lives. Their friends and family members support them. It’s equally important that these relationships happen among males and females, and there’s never an underlying sense of jealousy. Feyre can fly in Cassian’s arms or display her affection for Lucien without it ever becoming about Rhys—because it never should be about that. Two men can be friends, and they can cry together, and no one sees this as an issue.
Lastly, Feyre forms a positive relationship with herself. After the events Under the Mountain, she loathes a part of her. But in A Court of Wings and Ruin, when she stares into the Ouroboros and sees every side of herself, good and bad, she chooses to embrace what she sees and love what she sees. As a role model for readers, this is so incredibly important.
More than anything—more than the wonderful plot and world-building—these relationships make A Court of Thorns and Roses meaningful.
Finally, I want to discuss a minor yet important element of Maas’s series, which is the depiction of LGBT characters and relationships.
This depiction does not play much of a role until A Court of Wings and Ruin, but then it becomes somewhat prevalent. LGBT characters mentioned include Nephelle and her wife, High Lord Thesan and his male lover, and finally Mor, who struggles to open up about her sexuality.
These characters are important for a number of reasons. Although it would be nice to see more LGBT protagonists in speculative fiction, it’s refreshing to at least have some side characters as representation. Furthermore, the depictions reflect the scale of experience as LGBT.
On one hand, when Rhys and Azriel tell Feyre about Nephelle and Thesan, there is zero indication that these relationships are strange or problematic. In fact, Rhys even implies that Thesan could form a mating bond with another male.
On the other, Mor’s struggle clearly arises from experiences of hatred and hypocrisy, which now haunt her despite being surrounded by a supportive circle of friends and family.
Overall, Maas’s inclusion of LGBT characters is an important step towards a goal of better representation in modern fiction.
A Court of Thorns and Roses definitely holds a strong place in my heart now, and I highly recommend it not only for the creative and enticing story and world, but also for the dynamic characters and relationships. Pick up the books from your local library or bookstore, find them online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and check out Sarah J. Maas’s website.
What are your thoughts? If you’ve read A Court of Thorns and Roses, feel free to share your own opinions, thoughts, etc. I am always open to chatting about books.
I write YA fantasy and contemporary fiction. This blog is dedicated to thoughts and advice on writing and publishing, as well as various interests related to the world of Young Adult.