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.
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.
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.