Writing Alex Martin

I’ve talked a little bit about why I wrote the hero of Awake, Luke Reed, the way I did (in this guest post on “Good Guy Heroes” on the fabulous Nancy Kelley’s site), but I have yet to talk about the heroine Alexandra, and why she is the way she is.

The now infamous Bella Swan as played by Kristen Stewart

There is criticism, and some of it is rightly deserved, of Young Adult novels relying to heavily on the “smart and pretty girl who doesn’t realize she’s smart and pretty” trope.  Sometimes it’s called the “Bella Swan Model.”  It existed before Bella, and will probably continue to exist long after we are done with the Twilight phenomena.  The reason?  A lot of teenage girls are insecure.

I realize this is a ground-breaking revelation.


This is one of the more realistic depictions of Mara Jade I’ve seen. Though her arms would probably be a bit more muscular cause she kicks butt.

I love strong, confident, sexy heroines.  Seriously, if I could BE Mara Jade from the Timothy Zahn trilogy I would be the happiest little clam in the galaxy.  (Although, side note: honestly, for a strong, kick butt, sexy heroine she’s actually pretty insecure…cause you know, she’s human and stuff).  She’s also not a teenager.  For some reason we expect teen girl heroines to have the self-confidence of a successful thirty-five year old woman.  That’s just not realistic, no matter how strong said teenager is.

But let’s talk about Alex.  Does she fit the “smart and pretty but doesn’t know it” mold?  Eh, a bit.  Alex is smart.  Very smart.  And she actually knows this.  One doesn’t acquire an academic scholarship for a prestigious science program without having a clue that one is smart.  Alex is pretty.  She’s not super model material, but she’s attractive.  Does she realize this?  Not at all.  So I guess you could say she fits HALF the mold.

Why did I write a heroine who doesn’t realize she’s pretty?  Well, for one thing I thought it was realistic.  Especially because she’s smart.  But if she’s smart, wouldn’t she just objectively KNOW that she’s decent looking?

Um, no.  I’ve noticed this strange trend when talking to my friends.  Friends that I consider to be both gorgeous and kick ass smart.  Girls who were crazy smart as kids?  They mostly got complimented on their brains, not their looks.  To a person, they can hardly ever recall people (besides their mothers) telling them they were pretty.  It was always “you’re so smart,” or “you’re so good at math or reading or insert the academic subject here.”  And the thing is, they could hear other little girls getting complimented on physical features, but they never were.  Now you could argue that of course it’s better to get a compliment based on your brain than your face, but at 7 or 8, or even at 15, it can lead you to believe they’re complimenting your brain because you aren’t pretty.

I call it the “Smart Girl is Dumb About her Own Beauty” Syndrome.  It’s a thing.  As a mom I am totally aware of it.  I try to counteract it by always using a threefold compliment with my daughter…and I go in order of importance (in my personal opinion):  “You’re the kindest, the smartest, and the most pretty girl I know.”   I realize that I’m “just” mom, so I barely count in the compliment department, but it has to start somewhere.

It’s hard, really hard, to break out of this syndrome even as an adult, let alone as a teenager.  While talking through this subject with a close friend she told me, “Intellectually I know I’m beautiful, but I still don’t believe it.”

That’s totally heartbreaking.  But it’s also totally real.

In Alex’s case, she is even more clueless about her own physical worth because of her complete lack of strong male role models.  I tend to base little pieces of characters after people I know, so that each character is a mix of five or six different real life people.  Alex’s dad dying when she was very young was inspired by another close friend of mine.  I don’t spend a lot of time talking about it in the book, or having Alex think much about her loss.  I modeled that, again, on my friend.  She told me that because she had so few memories of her father, it seemed less weird to her as a teen that she didn’t have a dad and more surprising when her friends DID have a one.  That was just her reality.  For Alex, there’s no strong male presence in her life at all.  And the  boy she grew up idolizing betrayed her trust when she was relatively young.  These losses molded how she thinks about herself.

Another part of the “Bella Swan Model” is the klutziness, and you could totally accuse Alex of being a bit klutzy.  She does trip over her own feet twice (I think) in the book.  However, I don’t necessarily think of Alex as klutzy, but mostly as just really unsure of herself.  For example, she’s just not sure what to do with her hands when having a conversation with her super hot advisor.  She’s basically not confident in her use of the space around her.  If you were going to accuse me of writing Alex to be like myself, this is where you’d have your strongest shot.  Although I like to blame my spectacular lack of coordination on being overly tall and having gangly arms, while Alex is petite, I think the concept of not trusting yourself, or your body, to behave in a non-moron-like manner is the same.  Does it really matter what sandwich you order for lunch?  Is it worth spending five minutes agonizing over?  Objectively, no.  But when you have that seed of self-doubt planted in your head, it can take over in the weirdest of ways.

If you haven’t yet read Awake: A Fairytale you’re probably now thinking, “Omg, why do I want to read a book with a main character that’s smart but has zero self-confidence?  Boring.”  The answer is that Awake is Alex’s journey.  Yes, Lilia, the “Sleeping Beauty” princess, is awakened from her enchanted sleep, but the really exciting, and powerful, part of the story is Alex’s awakening.  In fact, that picture on the cover?  That’s not representing Lilia.  Alex learns not only about magic, and fairy tales, and what it means to be a part of a strong group of women, but about her own intrinsic value. I think it’s an awakening that we as women, no matter our age, need to experience, and it’s not necessarily one that happens in an instant.  We are all in different stages of that journey, and sometimes we let ourselves be lulled back into the sleep of self-doubt.  But I hope like Alex, we will continue to become “awake” to our own worth.


10 thoughts on “Writing Alex Martin

  1. I agree, when you’re a teenager, your confidence level is low. And it does get annoying sometimes reading about these girls but that’s because we’re looking at them from a different position, from that of a more confident adult. We must be realistic about these teenagers, even though teenagers are so annoying.

  2. It just occurred to me that this goes the other way too. I know beautiful girls who feel like they’re “only a pretty face,” because that’s the only compliment they ever heard. That balanced approach is so very important, isn’t it? Now if only we could convince teens to say nice things about each other, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

  3. I have to say, I never found myself annoyed with Alex and the ‘flaws’ you gave her. I didn’t find myself thinking, ‘here we go again.’ Now, Twilight and Bella? That’s another story. Bella irritates me to no end and Kristen Stewart’s portrayal only emphasizes the things I dislike. Bella’s insecurities and obsession seem unreal to me (at least I hope). Alex seems like a typical teen struggling to find her place as she graduates and moves further into the ‘real’ world.

    1. Yay! Thanks, Beth! That was the goal. I was really hoping to make all three girls feel like realistic teens (though they all have different levels of self-awareness).

  4. I think you created a really great and believable character in Alex. I liked her a lot, and I don’t think there are any similarities between her and Bella Swan (thank God, right?). 🙂

    1. Jaime, well I don’t hate Bella as much as some people. I do think she has strength that she doesn’t see. However, I didn’t realize when I wrote Alex that sometimes any insecurity in a character will get her automatically compared to Bella Swan!

      I’m so glad you liked Alex! I like her a lot too 😉 And yes, by this point they are all totally real in my head.

  5. It’s so true. I know I was definitely one of the girls who was always praised for brains/academic-ish talents. Even now, I – quite honestly – have a hard time accepting look-based compliments beyond “Ohmigosh, I love that dress!” or similarly-veined comments on dress/etc. A guy friend and I were talking once, and he asked some question about my looks, I don’t remember what, and I remember telling him: “I know I’m cute enough, in my own way, but I’m never going to be a bombshell. I’ll never be a model. I’ll never be That Girl. But I’ve got cool eyes, and healthy hair, and know how to dress.” He was rather astonished that I’d admitted something like that (and also annoyingly quick to agree, humph)… Where was I going with this? Oh yeah – it’s definitely a realistic character trait that should appear in books more. Esp in stories like Alex’s, where she grows and starts to realize there’s more to life than brains. Some of us take a lot longer to learn that 😉

    There’s also the interesting counter-characteristic too: the bombshell who IS smart, but is never given the incentive or opportunity to realize it, because she’s soooo pretty, and all the emphasis is on that.

    We, basically, live in a messed up world. And I, for one, blame Adam for not being more protective of Eve in the Garden 😉 But really! Think about it: Dude was off doing who knows what, and let that creeper of a serpent chat up his girl. And ever since, we’ve struggled with crap and creepers… Jerk.

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