Modern heroines – kick ass or convincing?

When writing for adults I’ve been perfectly happy creating flawed, even unlikeable, main characters. I still like them! But it seems to me that in writing for children there’s a complex responsibility to writing heroes – and even more so heroines.

Ellen Page as Juno in the 2007 film Juno

Ellen Page as fast-talking quirky heroine Juno

Much as I love quick-thinking smart-mouthed lead characters, I think most people are only smart-mouthed in their heads. Me included. That witty put-down, that perfect quick-fire response? Half an hour too late. Always.

Katniss Everdeen heroine of The Hunger Games

Katniss, of course

Much as I love strong, skilful, intrepid heroines, I am not and never will be one of them. Me and most of us, I think. (I would love to write a thriller about someone who can’t drive and is useless at climbing over chain-link fences! But it may not even be possible…)

I have never like mimsy* good-girl heroines, particularly the needlessly self-sacrificing type, and I quickly tire of them being strikingly beautiful, too. I don’t think that’s a desirable role-model.

So, my choices about creating lead characters I, and I hope readers, can identify with – though not extensively and perfectly thought out – are going to be loaded with these thoughts, feelings, intuitions.

Currently my children’s repertoire is historical, slightly over-the-top, adventure stories. However exaggerated some of it may be, this world must have its own logic. The emotions, strengths and weaknesses of the main players have to be convincing. (Ok, for the sake of my argument I’m selectively forgetting a sprinkling of psychic powers.) When I began writing The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth I had the set-up, some of the twists and turns, and I knew that it needed to turn out well in the end. Somehow. And of course it was up to me to make that happen.

So, how do you solve a problem like Clemency? She’s small, unworldly, and isn’t used to speaking up for herself. She’s had a conventional childhood in colonial India: brought up by servants, educated by English governesses, and pretty much ignored by her parents. Privileged, yet neglected. And she has never kicked against this system, partly because before the start of the book she’s never known anything else. Then – due to the dastardly interventions of the author – she finds herself parentless, penniless, and far from home.

Clemency from The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth by Julia lee

Clemency, as depicted on the cover by Ross Collins

Writers are advised not to create passive heroes. They’re much harder to prise out of their difficulties, and readers find them unsympathetic if they’re too pathetic. But Clemency was already Clemency in my mind, and besides, just how kick-ass would a typical middle-class Victorian girl be? I couldn’t make her a superhero or give her a personality transplant. How could I turn her around without breaking the bounds of the story’s internal logic?

As events progress Clemency finds herself in deep and perplexing danger. She needs help. But I felt very strongly that I didn’t want a heroine who simply got rescued. However much I rallied the cavalry (almost literally) on her behalf I still wanted her in some way to rescue herself. She doesn’t start out with much in the way of resourcefulness, unlike some of the other young characters who have had to be self-reliant, persistent, and cunning, just to get by in life. Yet the working title of the book was originally The Wrigglesworth Rebellion, because I knew that eventually she rebelled against all that had kept her a quiet, polite, obedient Victorian child.

What could I do with her? When she was trapped, cold, lonely and hopeless, what could she do? What would I have done as an 11-year old? Cried, of course. Fallen in a miserable heap, probably, and never got up again. Not heroic at all. But falling apart at the seams wouldn’t be exciting or uplifting to read about, and I needed hope.

My lifeline came when I began to think about injustice. Clemency has been treated very unjustly, and I believe that all children feel very strongly about this. It might be personal injustice – remember how incredibly frustrating it was when your whole class was punished because of something one person did and wouldn’t own up to? Or it might be witnessing someone else being treated unfairly and feeling furious on their behalf. Children burn with a sense of injustice. And it’s helpful for girls and women to make use of their anger, even though they may be trained not to, rather than turn it inwards and feel depressed. Clemency gets angry – she can’t do anything yet but her burning rage stops her from dissolving into a waterfall of tears and actually physically warms her up when she most needs it.

From there I had my key to getting her up and active, finding her voice and answering back, running risks. And then discovering that, although it’s often scary, taking matters into your own hands is energizing and sort of fun. It’s certainly fun to write about.

There’s also a kind grown-up who Clemency meets early on, an expert on how children’s minds work and how adults often discount them. In the edits I was able to plant some more positive thinking into Clemency’s head from the encouraging words Mrs Potchard says to her about having ‘inner resources’. Not super powers, or some kind of unjustifiable ninja skills, just inner resources. A growing self-belief.

Throw in an increasing circle of friends and supporters, a happy coincidence or two, and a weapon I hadn’t even realised I’d placed there, all ready. Clemency had definitely become an active part in her story’s resolution.

 

*Mimsy is not in my dictionary or thesaurus. Who cares? It’s a good word.