“I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books are supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of creating great stories that make you’re brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.”
– John Green
I haven’t posted anything about writing recently and there’s a reason for this little omission: I haven’t been doing any writing.
I even signed up to NaNoWriMo and had every intention of participating, but a number of things seem to have gotten in the way (namely holiday planning and panicking about getting my driving license before I leave for New Zealand) but I have now run out of reasonable excuses.
After a brief hiatus, I’m back working on the novel and, in particular, The Neverending First Draft.
But I’m struggling with my main character. I don’t think I like her. If I’m completely honest, she can come across as a bit of an entitled wimp. I mean, she does change during the course of the narrative and she does have her reasons – which I suppose is the whole point – but she’s very much an introverted character who exists in her own head, and she often forgets about other people.
And it got me thinking about all those books I’ve read where I wasn’t too sure about a character. Did it put me off? Did I enjoy reading about someone that I didn’t particularly like? Does it matter?
For me, it makes no difference as long as the character has substance, or there’s something about them. I like a flawed character because its more realistic, more true to life. No-one has a great time all the time. Sometimes we moan and grumble because its human nature.
“As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. I demand the right to be them, I demand the right to think them and I demand the right to tell the truth as I see they are.”
– Quentin Tarantino
We see flawed characters all the time in adult fiction (take American Psycho for example – uh hello, serial killer!!) but what about YA fiction?
Are teenagers drawn to negative characters? Or are they put off?
Well, I don’t think there is a definitive answer as its all about personal reading taste, but I don’t think it hinders the plot, success or reception of a novel.
Take the success of the fabulous Sallie Greene’s Half-Bad. We’re not sure if we’re supposed to like the main character (he is half-bad after all) and he spends quite a lot of the novel locked up and talking about how all the others around him have treated him badly (which, to be fair to the guy, we realise that they really have treated him appallingly). He is a brilliant character and this is one of the edgiest YA novels I have read this year.
And then there’s Eleanor in Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. She can be a bit of a mard (albeit for very real reasons) but she is a compelling character. I may not have liked her instantly but I was rooting for her in the end. That situation is happening to so may children right now and I love that she wasn’t nice or kind to the people that were trying to help. She was pissed off and that’s brilliant.
Do you constantly overthink your characters’ every thought, line, and movement? Do you think its important for a character to be ‘likeable’? Or is it more important that they are real? Do all main characters in YA fiction in particular have to be nice?
Check out my main character below!
Beth doesn’t even knock, just comes in and plonks herself down on the end of the bed. She’s wearing this really short skirt. It’s blue and sticks to her like cling film, and her thighs ripple where the hem digs in.
‘Hey.’ She’s looking at me strangely as though she’s surprised to find me in my own room. I don’t turn round to face her. I just carry on brushing my hair in front of the mirror.
Beth has her blonde hair down and she flicks it over her shoulder as she talks. ‘Where were you last night? I thought you were allowed online?’
‘I was for a bit,’ I say and then I think about Mum and Ryan and the incident with the telly, and I turn my body slightly so I’m facing Beth. ‘I tried to call your house phone.’
Beth flicks her hair theatrically over the other shoulder. ‘OMG.’
‘I thought we were BFF?’
I tell her we are.
‘Then can you talk about someone other than yourself for, like, five minutes.’ And then I’m confused because I’ve hardly said a word. ‘I’m having a serious life crisis.’
I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing. I turn away in case Beth catches me and goes off on one because she’s obviously in one of her moods, but she doesn’t even notice.
‘I really needed to talk to you.’ She twiddles a strand of hair around her index finger and flops herself back on my bed. ‘Michael text me.’ She’s got her phone in her hand, looking at it like she’s expecting it to ring.
I turn back to the mirror and pull the brush through my hair. It gets caught on a knot and I pull harder because I like how it tugs at my skull. I think of the tiny follicles buckling under the strain and wonder if it’s possible to pull all your hair out if you wrench the brush hard enough. I’d rather yank it all out with my bare hands than listen to Beth bang on about the time she let Michael Belcher touch her up behind the chippy.
‘Sorry,’ I say, even though I’m not.
‘But I don’t know what to say to him.’
‘I’d start with, “sorry but I’m not blind,” if I were you,’ I suggest.
‘Shut up!’ Beth squeaks excitedly because she thinks I’m teasing her. ‘He’s such a fitty.’
I give her “the eyes” but she’s not looking, she’s glaring at her phone again, moving it around in the air like you do when you’re trying to get signal. ‘I’m going to say yes. Tonight.’
I really hope Beth just leaves it at that because I have just had my tea and any mention of Michael shuffling around in Beth’s knickers is guaranteed to make me vom.
‘I don’t know. The first time is a big deal. Look at what happened to Tracey.’ Beth wrinkles her nose in disgust.
Tracey Smith was a girl in the year above who slept with this older guy and got knocked up. She left school when everyone found out and it sort of sparked these rumours about him being a perv and her having pictures out there on the internet somewhere. I don’t think this is true, you know, about the grooming and the internet, but it didn’t stop the lads in our year trawling the web for proof. I feel sad for Tracey and don’t like thinking about her. The man was pushing thirty-five and married with kids, and she’d only just turned fifteen. Sometimes I see her pushing her baby round the shopping centre at the weekend, it’s all red faced and wailing, and she looks weary. You can see it on some people –weariness – they wear it like a heavy necklace.
‘I mean being With Sprog would completely suck because I’m going to Florida next summer and want to look hot in my bikini. It took ages for Kim Kardashian to get her body back.’
I catch Beth’s eye in the mirror and shake my head.
‘What? I’m joking, obvs.’
But I just say, ‘Aren’t you really cold?’ because her skirt is really short and I can pretty much see her knickers. She shoots me a scornful look then stands up and takes off her coat. She’s wearing a white t-shirt and I can make out the outline of her bra beneath the gossamer cotton.
‘Well, it’s like a fucking sauna in here,’ she says, walking over to the window and opening it. ‘Why has your mum always got the heating on? It’s like she’s fucking ninety or something.’ Beth likes to experiment with swear words; “fucking” is still a relatively new addition to her vocabulary.
‘What do you want?’ I turn and watch as she leans out the window, putting all her weight on the ledge and lifting her feet off the floor. The wall is chalky where she’s stood; the paint peels white as if diseased.
‘Michael’s mate is having a party.’ She’s still staring down at the garden and I want to know what she’s looking at but she just says, ‘I thought we could go.’
I don’t know why she keeps on trying. I guess she thinks that I’ll suddenly be open to shimmying down the drainpipe or making a rope out of my bed sheets like they do in cartoons.
‘Come on, Andi.’ She’s looking at me now, all big blue eyes. She once told me that she can cry on cue, conjuring tears from nowhere like a magician. She wants to be an actress when she leaves school. That or a glamour model. ‘It’s Saturday.’
I set my brush down on the dresser. ‘You know I’m not allowed.’
‘How can you stand it?’ Beth says dramatically. ‘I’d go fucking mad.’
‘She’s not that bad,’ I say but Beth turns and shoots an are you kidding look in my direction.
‘She’s like a prison warden or something,’ Beth says, now inspecting her fingernails. She frowns, draws one finger to her mouth and starts chipping away the red paint with her teeth. ‘I’m sure you could sue her. It’s definitely child abuse.’ And then she’s giggling. It’s amazing, the sound of her laughter, as it cuts through the stagnant house, shaking the dust from the surfaces, the skirting boards, the walls. ‘Perhaps I should’ve baked you a cake and hidden a file inside. But I bet your Mum’s got metal detectors on the doors.’
I think I’m laughing at this but it doesn’t sound right. It comes out different than how I meant it to.
‘What’s up?’ Beth is sat up now, perching on the end of the bed with one leg tucked underneath her, and for a minute I catch a glimpse of my best friend hidden underneath all that make-up. I start to tell her I’m tired, that I’ve been having these dreams. But Beth isn’t listening. She’s got her arms crossed now. ‘Can’t you just ask your Mum?’
‘She won’t let me.’
‘It’s like you don’t even want to go.’ I tell her I do and the lie feels slippery in my mouth. She sighs. ‘FFS, my mum’s letting me go.’
I just shrug and she makes a huffy noise, throws her hands in the air.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Beth’s mum, Julie, was my mother. She’s an artist so she’s really laid back and lets Beth do pretty much whatever she likes. Julie has a studio at the bottom of their garden. It’s a shed really, but it’s big enough to hold a couple of canvases and an easel. Beth and I went in there once. It was cold and damp and I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to spend time in there alone. Cobwebs clung to the rafters and I shuddered at the thought of spiders crawling all around us. We were looking for paint, Beth said, but she stopped looking when she found a joint in a drawer. I wanted her to leave it there but she stuffed it in her pocket anyway and we fell out for three days because I refused to smoke it with her. When we eventually made up, she told me that it had tasted like mud and leaves and wet bark, and that her Dad had found her before she could even smoke half of it. She was in her bedroom, wedged between her bed and the wall, freaking out because she didn’t have any bones in her neck and she’d thrown up on her new leggings. He grounded her for two weeks but Julie forgot and let her out after a couple of days.