EWF: Characters Behaving Badly

What’s the value of having characters who behave badly? What techniques can you use in creating badly behaved characters? And can you go too far writing badly behaved characters in YA (Young Adult) fiction?

EWF_1These were some of the questions considered at last week’s Emerging Writers Festival Lunchtime Lit: Characters Behaving Badly, featuring YA authors Gabrielle (Gab) Williams (The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex), Nicole Hayes (One True Thing) and Amie Kaufman (Illuminae).

Apart from the general consensus that badly behaved characters are the most fun to write, Amie suggested, ‘It’s not a good story if nothing bad happens.’ She said stories need to be ‘seasoned’ with bad behaviour, poor decision making and bad judgment calls. Similarly, Nicole suggested that ‘all interesting characters start with deliberate or unconscious deception’. Drama comes from the reader seeing what the character cannot.

One of the most interesting part of the panel discussion for me concerned the how bad behaviour functions specifically in YA literature. Amie said ‘stories are a place we can go to rehearse our fears’, to experience intense grief or danger, for example, as ‘practice for real life’. This is particularly relevant for younger, less experienced readers. Amie referred to reading a good book as ‘downloading life experience’. Nicole added that literature can help readers ‘test a few propositions’, while Gab said for young people, books help ‘develop their gut instincts.’

From a technical point of view, how do writers avoid creating characters who are, to use the cyberslang, TSTL (too stupid to live)? Gab said she loves her characters, which makes readers care for them. She likes to throw in an ‘opposite something’ – an unexpected act of kindness, for example – to show they are ‘not all bad’. Nicole, citing her screenwriting experience, added that badly behaved characters need ‘moments of humanity that we can connect with’, often revealed through their relationships. For Amie, the escalation of bad behaviour can be used to expose the failure of those who should be looking after the kids in her stories.

On the question of whether it’s possible to take bad behaviour too far in YA fiction, Nicole suggested that young readers process information on the level that they’re capable of. She illustrated this with a very funny anecdote about childish love for Oz rock band Skyhooks and their song You Just Like Me ‘Cause I’m Good In Bed, which she thought was about kids who went to bed on time and fell asleep without making a fuss! At the same time, the panelists felt a responsibility not to avoid certain issues so much as to contextualise them, especially in terms of addressing the fall out of bad behaviour.

‘Stories are always more interesting if there are consequences,’ Nicole said, adding that it takes craft to avoid alienating readers by preaching. As Gab noted, writers need to keep the story firmly focused on the characters’ perspectives.

During the audience Q&A, a question came up about why it is that parents are often dead or absent in YA fiction. Amie noted that having the parents physically or emotionally absent requires the kids to step up in terms of agency. It can also be a way of scaling up bad behaviour. ‘Poor decisions come from lack of life experience,’ she said. ‘If parents are supportive [of their children], this is another way kids can download life experience.’ But if the parents are absent, there’s no safety net.

The icing on the cake of a terrific panel was for me hearing the panelists recommend great books by other local YA writers, as well as other great books about characters behaving badly in general. The three tweeted their recommendations after the session, which can be found here.

Kudos to Amie Kaufman for excelling at the tricky balance moderating and participating, and thanks to all three speakers for a thoroughly enjoyable discussion. Looking forward to this week’s Lunchtime Lit: What Right Do I Have?


About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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2 Responses to EWF: Characters Behaving Badly

  1. What an interesting topic for a panel, Angela! I have to agree, too, that it’s not as engaging a story if characters do everything right. I think, too, that ‘behaving badly’ can take several forms. It can be malice, human frailty, or desperation. All of those can lead…anywhere.


    • What I found particularly interesting about the panel discussion, Margot, is that ‘behaving badly’ is qualitatively different in young people because they lack life experience. Gab Williams cited research that said young people consistently overestimate risk, but lack the capacity or maturity to extrapolate consequences. All rich fodder for novelists.

      Liked by 1 person

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