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Is Your YA Protagonist a Sandwich, a Muffin, or a Cupcake?

These carb metaphors are excellent developmental tools to help you define the scope and purpose of your YA protagonist. Once you determine whether your YA protagonist is a sandwich, a muffin, or a cupake, you'll know how to create them to full effect!

by Rebecca Hales.

Carbo loading and novel writing definitely go together (probably much more than we’d like), but a sandwich, muffin, and cupcake are also great metaphoric tools for helping us identify the purpose, complexity, and personality of our YA protagonists.

By using these foods as a guide, you’ll have a solid archetype that defines your character’s personality, how they move in the world, and what their development will look like over the course of your YA novel.

sandwich wrapped in newspaper

YA Protagonist as a Sandwich

Sure, there’s your classic PB&J, but a really good adult-styles sandwich has a lot of stuff going on. Layers. Sauce. Complex flavors. Because it’s so filling, it leaves you feeling satisfied for hours. Your Middle Grade/YA/New Adult protagonist can also fulfill this delicious destiny: a character who tries and fails.

Someone who makes mistakes or changes their mind. Someone who grapples with problems they don’t fully understand and occasionally makes bad choices.

Most people would read the above and assume all their characters should be sandwiches! Turkey, swiss, arugula, roma tomato, wasabi mayo on olive ciabatta for everyone!

But not necessarily. It’s true that while sandwiches leave you open to more opinions, that may or may not be what your story needs.

For example, a complicated character means they may not be likeable. They may make unsavoury choices, could be problematic for those audiences who need their protagonist to head toward True North on their moral compass. These characters do things like fall in love with the villain or indulge choices that aren’t considered “good.”

Sandwich characters can therefore be divisive. They don’t always have the skills or the natural talent the plot calls for. Sometimes you worry they won’t succeed at defeating the big bad of the novel, and that can be disconcerting to the reader.

YA readers not only want but need to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they read. That reflection can be aspirational and help the reader feel bolstered to become their best self, or it can be complicated to show them that no one is perfect, and we all struggle with doing what’s right.

This is why it’s critical YA books accurately reflect a wide range of life experience to engender community, embrace the diversity of human being, and explore the power of the individual.

Readers need to see their beautiful diverse selves reflected in the pages.

chocolate cupcakes with icing

The YA Protagonist Cupcake

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the cupcake: pretty to look at and typically with a one-note flavour. Sweet and lotsa empty calories. Eat one, and you’re still hungry; eat too many and you’ll rot your teeth. The cupcake character is the same; so pretty but also pretty empty.

Typically, they’re given a simple or superficial moral dilemma, one that can be solved by a conversation with a good therapist. But they agonize over these problems anyway. That agony is often the most substantial thing about them. They brood. Or they’re artsy. Or unrelentingly cheerful. (Manic Pixie Dream Girls, for example, are all cupcakes. )

We never doubt cupcake characters in the moment. We believe they’ll triumph over their external problems because they’re presented as perfect and completely equipped to handle the dilemma of the novel.

The internal problems— the moral dilemma, the personality quirk, the outdated taste in romantic partners— these aren’t fully addressed and may never be.

Cupcake characters aren’t going on a journey that has a profound impact on their personality. If anything, the story conspires to keep them as they are and makes everything (and everyone) adapt around them.

muffin wrapped in paper

YA Protagonist Muffin: Blueberry or Morning Glory?

In the middle of the carb-as-character spectrum lies the muffin. With more substance than a cupcake— no to the icing, yes to the fruit or nuts— it’s still not as complex as a sandwich.

There’s a micro spectrum just for muffins: some are simple and sweet and others are more complex (depending on the baker’s appetite and/or your story).

If your plot needs something fairly straightforward, then a nice normal blueberry muffin will do. The blueberry muffin is a character who is fully equipped to deal with the bigger bad situations, but who also has to learn a lesson about themselves and change a little along the way.

If, however, your plot needs someone with more depth, or true character flaws or shortcomings, you’ll want to go for the power muffin with 5 kinds of nuts and dried fruit and maybe some cardamom.

Muffins are great for stories in which the protagonist has one big flaw that puts their ultimate success on the line, stories that try to convey the downside of this flaw or character trait to the audience.

These are often characters who are bound by a prophecy: characters who have a destiny foisted on them or who are thrust into an adventure they never would have sought on their own (Percy Jackson or Bilbo Baggins are perfect examples of muffins).

They may be reticent to have such a responsibility handed to them, but also like Percy and Bilbo, once you get them out the door, they rise to the occasion and do what’s needed … and there unfolds the wonderful “hero’s journey.”

So, before you get writing, ask yourself: does my story need a sandwich, muffin, or cupcake?

Learning insights like these by working with a writing coach and editor such as Rebecca or any of the incredible creative team at One Lit Place makes the writing fun, rewarding, and much more conscious. Personal hands-on support is the primary way successful authors maintain their confidence, motivation, and productivity.

We are here to support you. Please feel free to contact us any time to chat about your writing and how we can help you do it best!

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