The Wounded Bird

This week I’m reading some thumbnail descriptions of novels by a group of aspiring writers. Those in the group have been asked not to reveal what others have written, so I’m not going to get into specifics. But I do want to take note of a trend, lest it slip my mind before I get around to writing about it.

Just about all of the protagonists suffer from serious wounds, physical or emotional (or both). There’s a lead character who is dyslexic, one who is bipolar, one who was horribly disfigured in a fire, one who was injured in a glider crash, one who is a criminal, one who is a corrupt police officer, one who has a split personality as a result of trauma, and one who is trying to live down her past ties to terrorists.

Also, twelve of the fourteen protagonists whose profiles we’re looking at are women, and most of them are young. The two male leads are both young, and both have been abused. In this sampling, which we can probably assume is random, of novel manuscripts by aspiring writers, we have no older protagonists and no strong, capable men. The closest we get to “strong and capable” is the corrupt police detective, and she has some serious trauma in her past.

I don’t know if “the wounded bird” qualifies as a Jungian archetype, but it certainly qualifies as a cultural meme, using that word in Richard Dawkins’s original sense, not in the debased form that refers to photos and cartoons on Facebook and Twitter. Somehow, the image of the wounded young woman has become a cultural icon.

This may possibly be a healthy trend. If we no longer believe in Superman and Mike Hammer, surely that’s a sign of cultural maturity. But the extent to which the young women are damaged troubles me.

My own heroine, I hasten to add, is not physically or emotionally wounded, although she is an orphan. Just about all of the female protagonists in the Young Adult genre are orphans, one way or another. Their parents are either dead, missing, evil, seriously ill, or flagrantly inattentive to the young person’s needs. This is a requirement of the plot: A good, wise, available parent would screw up the plot by giving the young protagonist good advice and rescuing her from whatever predicament she has stumbled into. We can’t have that.

Still, being an orphan is one of the key features of the wounded bird protagonist.

I think maybe in my next novel I’m going to have a protagonist who is an old man. I don’t know who he is or what his story is about, but I suspect plotted genre fiction could benefit from a counterbalance.

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