YA Literary Trope: The Repressed Protagonist

Welcome back readers, to another exploration of literary tropes in Young Adult fiction.  We have covered a lot of ground in our examination of common recurring themes including; The Old Clunker I Drive, The I Already Know you Introduction, The I Have to Take Care of my Parent(s), The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (and Boy), the A-Hole Friends, and the Awesome Outfit.  Now let’s have some fun with some repressed protagonists.  Here are some main characters that do not know how to have fun, are too afraid to try anything new, or need to come out of their shells.

YA Literary Tropes: The Repressed Protagonists | YALSA's The Hub

  • Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2002 Best Books forYoung Adults, 2002 Top Ten Books for Young Adults, 2009 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, Teen’s Top Ten: 2003 & 2005) by Ann Brashares: Lena.  Brashares does a suburb job of fully developing all four of the girls who wear the magic pants.  No girl is an afterthought, no girl is a clone, and no girl is without her issues.  Lena’s deal is that she is repressed.  All of her friends describe Lena as beautiful but withdrawn.  Lena’s reluctance to go anywhere new is first challenged when she is forced to spend the summer in Greece with her grandparents.  One repressed protagonist plus a cute Greek guy plus a pair of magic jeans equals… lots of personal growth for Lena!


  • Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson: Emily.  Introverted Emily’s best friend Sloane disappears mysteriously at the start of summer.  Without Sloane’s fun-machine personality, Emily does not know what to do with herself.  Luckily, Sloane leaves Emily a to-do list for the summer.  And following the list, Emily embarks on her own journey to open up and stop being a shadow of the more vibrant girl.  Repression: overcome.


  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: Cather.  Cather has always done everything with her more outgoing twin Wren.  But when the twins embark on freshman year of college, Wren announces she does not want to room together.   Awkward Cather is left to fend for herself and the raunchy party culture of the freshman dorms leave her stymied.  Living with a stranger?  Dining in a hall full of people?  Strange boys in her room?  No thanks.  Cather would rather stay home and pen her popular fan fiction book “Carry On, Simon.”  But eventually, Cather’s roommate, a cute boy, and number of funny situations help the repressed girl open up.


  • All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven: Violet.  At the start of this tender tale, Violet is not over the death of her sister the year before and is contemplating suicide.  But on top of a bell tower, thinking of jumping, Violet bumps into fellow suicidal classmate Finch. The two become friends and embark on a timely school project to “discover” their state.  This opens Violet up to a world beyond her grief and to a friend who, though he dances with death, is full of life for her.


  • And We Stay (2015 Printz Honor Award Winner) by Jennifer Hubbard: Emily.  After her boyfriend shoots himself in front of her, Emily leaves for boarding school to try to move on.  But the poor girl is so damaged by what happened she finds herself fixating on Emily Dickinson; the famous poet who lived in the town where her new school is located.  Our modern Emily feels a strong connection to Dickinson. Instead of hanging out with potential new friends at her school she sneaks out and visits the childhood home of the poet.   It is through new friends, supportive teachers, and lot of writing that Emily is able to come back to life.


  • Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King: Glory.  When Glory was only four years old, her mother committed suicide.  Now a teenager, Glory has but one friend (a self-centered girl whom she hangs out with mostly for convenience), her reclusive morbidly obese father, and her camera.  High School graduation is approaching and Glory does not care.  The girl has no plans, but the future comes crashing her way anyway.  In this unique tale told across time, Glory wakes up to a life she is letting pass her by.  Opportunities, love, and some very weird situations help Glory grow and learn to have fun while still being true to herself.

Well, we sure hope these characters continue to be brave and live a little.  Do you know of any more wallflowers in YA literature who might fit this trope characterization?  And check out next week’s literary trope du jour: the Goofy Best Friend!

— Tara Kehoe, currently reading Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

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