Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Epic Fails, by Kelly McCaughrain

An English teacher once described me as ‘a mild-mannered megalomaniac’. I am the least likely Bond villain ever but I could see his point. I sat meekly at the back of each class never opening my mouth but when exam time came around I was fully ready to slash and burn anyone who might get a higher grade than me. (This was only in English, thankfully. I’d have been pretty depressed if I’d given a toss about any other subject.)

I’ve always known that when it comes to something I care about, I’m a perfectionist overachiever, and when it’s something I don’t, I disengage completely. But it never occurred to me that this might be linked to my gender until I watched this TED talk. And now it's got me thinking about my characters.

It’s very interesting and you should give it a listen, but the basic summary is that we teach girls to be perfect, and boys to be brave. In studies, girls and boys of equal ability are given maths tests etc. When the work gets hard the girls give up way before the boys, because they think if they can’t ace it, there’s no point trying. 

Even when the girls are of higher ability than the boys, they get poorer results because they quit while the boys struggle on. They reckon this is because girls are consistently rewarded for getting things right and discouraged from doing anything risky or where they might fail or embarrass themselves, while boys are rewarded for having a go and taking risks. With the end result that boys achieve more. 

It’s not just school either, we all know that women won’t even apply for jobs unless they meet 100% of the criteria, while men will happily blag their way into interviews with only 60%. 

This totally resonates with me. I don’t like the idea of failure, to the extent that I never told anyone I was writing a book, in case it failed. I don’t tell people when I’m struggling. I like to present my successes as a fait accompli and hide my failures in a psychological bottom drawer filled with half-novels, poems, dead plants, aborted knitting and other things no one ever knew existed. My husband just designed and built the most beautiful wooden greenhouse, having absolutely no experience of building at all (he watched a lot of YouTube videos), while I am reluctant to buy a pot plant before researching its ideal soil conditions in case I kill it.

It's like this, only better

Possibly this is just me, but if it is a gender thing, then what are the implications for our female characters?

The feisty, kick-ass heroine is everywhere these days, which is great. We have princesses rescuing princes all over the place. We have girls taking down dictators and becoming royal assassins and refusing to get married (Side note: isn’t it interesting that when you Google 'Feisty female characters in YA' you get 90% fantasy titles? Like they have to have super/unlikely powers and live in a dystopia to be strong? Discuss.) 

And all that is fantastic. Love it.


OK, they take a lot of risks, but did we ever really think Katniss Everdene was going to fall on her ass? They all succeed in the end, because that’s what happens in a children’s book. And I don’t see any way round that really. But then what are we saying? You have to have mad skills with a bow before you even start? You have to be one of those kick-ass, intense, lone-wolf, independent types or there’s just no point? (and btw, the reason they’re all lone-wolfs is that they couldn’t possibly be seen to have friendships with fluffy normal girls, but you can’t have two kick-ass girls in one story (that would be feminism gone mad), and as for boys, they just hover around the edges being handsome while the girl glares at them like try to take my lone-wolf independence and I will cut you, until called upon for kissing duty at the end).

This is probably why I don’t read a lot of fantasy. (And I’m fully aware that I’m probably being unfair to fantasy because I don’t read a lot of it, and actually I did really like The Hunger Games.)

Sorry, but I like realism. I like fluffy, ditsy, scatter-brained people and I like comedy because it’s more realistic. Life is hilarious (as long as it's happening to someone else). Fantasy doesn’t really do comedy because fantasy isn’t realistic. Fantasy books are about the real world in that they tend to take on big issues like fascism and racism and feminism and other isms. But the characters aren’t real. They’re idealised versions of the people we’d like to think we'd be if fascism came knocking on our doors. Great, but what use is that when you literally cannot conceive of a life beyond failing your GCSEs?

Yeah, we can all relate to this

I’d just like to see more wipe outs, more fails, less following your dream and more hideous embarrassment along the way. You don’t really get hideous embarrassment in fantasy either. 

Something I liked about Nat Luurtsema’s Lou out of Water was that it shows what happens when your dream doesn’t come true. In the opening pages Lou’s dreams of being an Olympic swimmer are dashed. And I spent the next few chapters expecting that by the end she’d have found a way to get into that swimming school but guess what? She doesn’t. She finds some other fun stuff to do instead. Which I thought was a hugely healthy message and very refreshing.

Possibly as escapism from my own fear of failure, I’ve always liked characters who aren’t naturally talented or super skilled but who succeed in their own weird way. Anne of Green Gables is probably the archetype of this character in kids lit and I loved those books as a child. I wonder if she was so popular because it was unusual to see a girl make such a mess of everything. It was fine for Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to go around getting into scrapes but a girl?

This I can relate to

Having strong female characters is all very well, but if all they are is strong, then they’re not realistic. I think a better reaction against the truly awful, helpless Mary Sues of the past is not ‘strong’ female characters, but realistic female characters. If they’re not as flawed as the men then they’re not really helping. Even in the grittiest realism for adults, with strong female leads, they’re less likely to have messy backgrounds, drinking problems, crap parenting skills, a weight issue, a bad attitude etc. They’re more likely to be moral compasses and they’re too busy fighting the patriarchy to have flaws. They’re very strong, yes, but they’re not very real. I didn’t watch The Bridge but people seemed to think it was ground breaking to have a female lead who was rude to people and had no social or relationship skills. Like um… nearly every hardboiled male detective ever.

I think the proof of this is in our most beloved female characters. Those Mary Sues don’t survive but we all still love the selfish, conniving Scarlet O’Hara, the judgemental and snarky Lizzie Bennet, the impetuous and hopeless Jo March, the downright mean Little My. The ones who make a mess of everything.

The original Mean Girl

I guess I’m thinking about all this because my current WIP features yet another hopeless case. But she’s a girl this time and I’m thinking a lot about the implications of her failing. Is it OK for her to fail? Is it OK for her to give up? Is it OK for her male friend to bail her out? These questions seem much more loaded than they would be if she was a boy. It feels like a betrayal of women to have your female character fail, give her a pat on the head and say, ‘at least you tried.’ But if girls are actively avoiding trying things they might fail at, maybe that’s a more important message than we realise.

And actually, what I love about her is the fact that she does try, when lesser mortals might baulk. She’s like walking Samuel Beckett merchandise. And you can’t get more literary than that.

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 



Susan Price said...

Really enjoyed the blog but -- fantasy doesn't do comedy? Er... Terry Pratchett? Tom Holt? -- And Pratchett, especially, is full of girls and women who make a mess of things but pick themselves up and start again.

Rowena House said...

Great post. Sadly, I have a feeling that kids publishing (like commercial adult fiction) is too timid, and too deeply invested in the Western, male-orientated Hero's Journey model, to buy into realistic young female characters anytime soon. The current debates about diversity that I read rarely challenge the swathes of cultural assumptions that lie behind the archetypal lone wolf saving the tribe, which I totally agree can become both implausible when said wolf swaps gender, and also a damaging role model. As you say, we're basically telling girls they've got to be like boys to succeed. Your swimming example gives me hope: don't call it failure, just redefine success. Or maybe that's a male thing too:'you might think I failed, I say that's what I meant to do all along'. Which gives me an idea for the WIP: a female character who's great at BS - even if I probably won't have the balls to make her the lead.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

I am totally with you on that Susan Price! I LOVE Pratchett and Douglas Adams, they've always been my exception to the SF/Fantasy rule and I think that's because they DO do comedy. I was going to put that in the post but frankly I'm long-winded enough!

Lynne Benton said...

Fascinating post! Loved the clip and the points the speaker made. Many thanks!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thought-provoking post - thank you! There's something about making characters as real as you can, isn't there, so that by definition, they have faults and they're not perfect. But there's also something about wanting to be, just for a while, in a world where people are impossibly heroic/beautiful/charismatic. Perhaps you need both kinds of books, depending on your needs at the time. I remember once - many years ago, when I was teaching - asking a class if they liked to read about characters going through the same kinds of difficulties they were. And one girl said that if she was miserable, she wanted to read something that would take her somewhere else, take her out of her situation. But not everybody felt/feels like that, of course.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

I'm sure that's true, Sue. Reading has always been escapism for me so I can see the appeal of characters who are totally different from me. Most of my reading is about teenagers these days - that's definitely escapism, LOL!