Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Poor, Parentless Protagonists: by Victoria Eveleigh

Many thanks to Victoria Eveleigh, who stepped in at very late notice to do this guest post. Enjoy!

“Joe really has things far too easy. He has good parents and no money worries.”

This comment was made by Claire who runs the Pony Mad Book Lovers website http://www.ponymadbooklovers.co.uk. She was talking about the first book in my latest trilogy, which is about a boy called Joe who moves from Birmingham to a smallholding in the countryside because his dad, who’s a teacher, gets a new job. Joe hates the change to begin with, but then he digs up a horseshoe and his life starts to take a different course.

It’s true his problems (a new home that seems to be in the middle of nowhere, an annoying little sister and being cut off from his friends, with no phone or internet connection) aren’t monumental, but I felt they were realistic and that most teenagers faced with such things would be grumpy.

Some readers agree. They say moving house is a big deal, especially when you don’t want to, and Joe is refreshingly believable compared with some of the impossibly nice protagonists in children’s books.

A few say he’s a brat who doesn’t know how lucky he is.


A quick glance at Facebook this morning (okay, not that quick, but it was research!) turned up various grumbles, from having to light the fire because it was getting colder to the dog being sick on a new carpet. One friend said she was dreading winter because she’d be back to the routine of looking after her horse in the dark before and after work. Yes, in the big scheme of things these people are lucky to have a fire, a new carpet and a dog to be sick on it, a horse and a job, but we usually don’t see the bigger picture, do we? Little problems get to us, even if we know they shouldn’t.

It’s incredibly tempting to heap adversity onto the hero or heroine of a story. It guarantees instant sympathy from the reader, which is always useful, but the bar of misfortune seems to be getting higher and higher. Poverty, bullying and the death of at least one parent seem to be the norm nowadays. I know there are children who experience these things, and they should feature in stories, but there are others living in all sorts of different circumstances. Shouldn’t they be represented too?

There’s been a lot of talk about diversity in children’s literature recently (hurray for Malorie Blackman). The focus seems to have been on ethnic diversity and the inclusion of more characters with disabilities to reflect the society we live in. I agree with this, of course. I also feel we should be careful to avoid classic stereotypes that mirror our prejudices in different ways, like the poor-but-noble protagonist, the rich bitch and the fat bully.

Life is filled with complex characters from a variety of backgrounds who can’t be defined by how much money they have or what they look like. People are full of surprises.
By Thelwell

One day I’d like to be brave enough to create a fat, rich, heroic protagonist with a large, happy family. Well, publishers are always looking for originality, aren’t they?


Pippa Goodhart said...

If any of you want to read an, I think, brilliant story that does exactly what Victoria is saying - I.e. Daring to depict an ordinary character - read K.M Ballard's 'Harry; By Himself'. It's an adult read. Absolutely wonderful and very moving exactly because it defies story expectations by daring to be ordinary.

Sue Purkiss said...

Will look out for that - I'm very keen on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, Victoria, but starting your character off with everything going right for them means you have to work harder to get a story anyone will find interesting. :-) MUCH harder.

There are a lot of cliches out there, of course. I remember giggling over a line in a YA fantasy novel where the school cheerleader type says, "I'm shallow, not stupid." She then goes on to help the heroine. In another, the heroine asks the young werewolf boy how long he's been seventeen, obviously mistaking him for a vampire, and is surprised when he says, "Since I was sixteen."

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, Victoria. Recently I heard an avid young reader sigh and say "Oh, I've read a book a bit like this before" when faced with yet another orphan.

Nick Green said...

Very good points. In a way it's too easy to heap slings and arrows on our protagonists (it's not as if we have to suffer them ourselves in the writing!). Surely it's a far tougher test of a writer's raw skill to create a dramatic story out of situations that are not life-and-death, not sackcloth-and-ashes, not my-parents-have-been-killed-in-a-terrible-fire tragic.

One of my favourite books EVER is 'The Fortnight In September' by R C Sherriff, which is literally about a family holiday. The worst thing that happens is that someone has a tantrum about a toy yacht. And it is an unputdownable page-turner. How he did that, I have no idea. But I wish I had the courage to attempt a story about so little, or the skill to make it so good.

Emma Barnes said...

Agree with you 100%! And I remember reading an interview with Jacqueline Wilson that said something similar: that while a lot of her books were about issues that adults thought were important (divorce, bereavement etc) some of them were about things that didn't seem that important to adults but were actually very important to children (e.g. a best friend moving away).

The point about writing for children is to try and take a child's perspective about what's important, not to impose a very adult perspective that they are "making a fuss about nothing".

Val said...

You made me smile, thank you!

I do think you have a point it takes more skill to write about ordinary... thinking about good reads ..it does seem to be useful to get rid of parents (at least for a while) in stories but I don't think you have to make it a PC meaningful absence. My children love Jenning's stories ..not because they relate to boarding schools but because the children are free to be children :0) They are avid and omnivorous readers but still love Milly Molly Mandy and My Naughty Little Sister books which are I think delightfully ordinary. They are fine detectors of "contrived Meaningful" books included in school reading lists and their opinions are quite scathing if they do not pass the Good read test..which often they do not. It must be hard to be an author who writes a good book that is not PC enough.
Well back to earnest study of serious subjects (or could that be time wasting browsing...err)

Becca McCallum said...

That's very true! I saw a cartoon once that was a wizard knocking on a door and asking for the little girl to come and help them on their quest...and her mum says 'not until she's had her broccoli' or something.

Angela Misri said...

Lol; that's what we need - a fat, rich protagonist - like whatisname -- Nero Wolfe.

Nick Green said...

That's another good point: orphaning a child in a story is not necessarily a device to make them more pitiable or the story more 'gritty'. It can be just an easy way of getting the parents off the scene, so that the adventures can begin.

God, the logical hoops I've had to leap through in order to keep fictional parents from interfering. The only reason I didn't kill them was that everyone would think I was copying J K Rowling.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for all your comments. I'll definitely seek out 'Harry, By Himself'. My router was zapped by lightning a couple of days ago, which is why I haven't been able to reply sooner. Any suggestions of surge protectors that work against lightning strike also gratefully received!

Victoria Eveleigh said...

Accidentally posted that last comment from Anonymous, but it was from me!