OK, I could pretty much say anything right now. I’m pretty sure the majority of you have already skipped ahead and… well, I don’t blame you because yes, I have Melina Marchetta here today, talking about how she writes her heroines.
It’s probably futile to say that I love Melina Marchetta’s books. If you’ve ever spoken to me about books then you will no doubt have been talked
at to about my love for these stories.
She’s the only author who has her own Category on my site. You could say she’s a Wear the Old Coat VIP. Actually, yes… let’s say that because it makes me sound fancy.
Every single one of her books has changed the way I think about YA. And I’m not just talking about reading it, but writing it too.
I could only really think of one person to interview about writing heroines for On Writing. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing writers who know how to write a YA heroine but when I sit down at my laptop, tearing out my hair when my heroine isn’t doing what I want her to do, I take a breath, go to my book shelf….
…. and flick through one of Double M’s books just to see if I can find any clues how to write heroines as vibrant, brilliant, strong and diverse as Taylor, Francesca, Georgie, Tara, Quintana, Isaboe and all the other women who walk through her stories and make their mark on every reader who meets them.
Seriously, I’m beginning to think I could give up my day job and live off money from selling bracelets to aspiring YA authors that say:
So, when it comes to writing heroines, what does Melina Marchetta do? Let’s see shall we?
Oh and you should probably keep your eyes peeled for more hints about that What’s-His-Name Book. You know the one.
Do you ever use your own experiences growing up as inspiration for your heroines?
Bits and pieces. Certainly with Alibrandi there was a lot about the world I grew up in – Tomato Day especially, as well as all the reporting back to my grandmother every time we were seen in places we shouldn’t be seen. Our favourite sentiment growing up was that phone companies would go broke if not for the Italian so that line made both the novel and film. With Francesca, I used my memories of being in Year 7 (first year of high school in NSW Australia). I was Francesca, galloping around the playground, not realizing that it was uncool or unladylike until it was very bluntly pointed out to me. High school made me self-conscious and shy and a bit invisible, which was partly Francesca’s experience in her previous school. I didn’t really shine there, but I did meet my best friend, so those life long relationships I write about are real. The depression in Francesca was real as well.
If you were on a packed bus or in a coffee shop and a group of girls were sitting near you, would you ever be tempted to whip out your notebook and jot down snippets of their conversation?
It doesn’t tend to happen often. I have a very strong focus on who I want my characters to be or say, and I try not to let much get in the way. I’ve also tried very hard to avoid language fads that may date a novel. Of course some of the characterisation is based on my observations of people. I remember some of the boys back when I was teaching. They’d speak to me in that rapping fashion of pointing their middle finger down and moving to some soundless groove. While they were asking me about homework, mind you. I used to threaten to put them on detention for it so a few of our exchanges went into Saving Francesca.
“Teenage girl” is such a broad term and, unfortunately for writers, real life girls never fit in the nice boxes of “sporty”, “musical”, “quiet”, “funny” etc etc. How difficult is it to avoid type casting your heroines and turning them into a cliché?
I find so much about constructing a character difficult. I’m doing it now and it’s the tone of someone’s point of view I can’t get right. Dialogue comes easy, but not character construction. Clichés and stereotypes are especially difficult because they come from some sort of reality and sometimes you can’t help but write them. My first rule to myself is that I don’t owe the world a totally realistic depiction of every girl out there. Some people want to know where the bitchy girls in my novels are because according to them, girls are bitchy. I’m not, and I never was at school and my friends aren’t. Granted we’re neurotic at times and competitive and emotional and a bit on the blunt side, but most of the girls and women I know don’t say catty things to each other. So I’d rather not reinforce that stereotype unless it’s part of the plot of course. Sometimes writing bitchy girls is a cheap way of creating instant conflict. Or it’s an even cheaper way of allowing the main character to shine by comparing them to the bitchy girls. I’d like my characters to work harder than that for the reader’s respect. Of course there are many many exceptions of bad girl behaviour done well, like what Courtney Summers did in the novel Some Girls Are.
Another of my least favourite stereotypes is “feisty’. I love a fierce character and Tara Finke has been my fiercest, but I try to make sure that fierceness isn’t just about big speeches and a guy saying, “you look so beautiful when you’re angry”. For me, I have to be prepared to have my characters be people who are quite unlikeable at times, and who look pretty awful when they’re angry.
Despite my aversion to feisty, Anne Shirley is feisty and I don’t want to live in a world where Anne of Green Gables doesn’t exist.
It seems that one of the main problems people have with young adult heroines is the dreaded subject of a Mary Sue. (When the heroine is so perfect, with a hair never out of place, with at least two brooding boys hopelessly in love with her) How do you feel about this? Are there ways you avoid stepping into the trap of making your heroine unrealistically perfect?
The Mary Sue character and the love triangle are my least favourite combinations and I try very hard to avoid writing them. Too many times the love triangle is used to create the major tension of a story. I’m not totally opposed to love triangles when there is so much more going on in their lives, but when there’s not enough story, I think two guys falling for the same girl is one of the greatest clichés. I suppose my issue is also that I don’t want to put forward to young girls today that the hardest choice they are going to make is choosing between the sensitive guy, and the “bad” guy (who is never even close to being bad most of the times).
Another of my issues with the Mary Sue persona is what the backlash produced; mainly the kick arse heroine. I don’t like the idea that the kick arse heroine is supposedly a feminist’s dream come true when all she is at times is a sexy girl with male traits and weaponry. Once again there are so many exceptions, Katsa and Katniss coming to mind. And I actually loved putting a spear in Quintana’s hands, so I don’t have a problem with female characters defending the world, but what I loved doing better was having her make that spear. It’s those differences I’m interested in. The other problem with the Mary Sue backlash is that the gentle quiet character came under attack. I remember reading a negative review of someone’s novel a couple of years ago and the comments supporting the review were truly vicious. I had read that novel and the female character was anything but a Mary Sue. She was quiet. She was in love. She didn’t save the world.
Whichever way you turn, female characterisation is a minefield. Male characters tend to get away with so much more. I loved writing Jonah Griggs (from Jellicoe) but Jonah killed his father, bashes up Ben and stomps on his fingers, shoves Taylor up against the wall in rage, yet I rarely read a negative comment about him as a character. Evanjalin in FotRock, on the other hand, has been criticised many a time and called manipulative and a liar. I think we are so much tougher on our female characters.
Focussing on your contemporary books here, with the exception of The Piper’s Son and The Gorgon in the Gully, your main characters are all female. Do you think that boys would be put off from reading a book where the narrator/main character is a girl? How do you try and appeal to both genders or, indeed, should you?
A lot of Australian boys were forced to read Alibrandi at school and mostly it’s gone unscathed and the reaction over the past twenty years has been good. What always surprised me is that guys didn’t necessarily relate to Jacob and John, but they did connect with Josie. I’ve noticed they were never in love with her (until Pia Miranda played her in the film) but they did identify with her. Connecting or identifying or whatever we want to call it, is important. The universal experience is not gender or culturally specific, so I try really hard to stick to that universality.
A friend who loved The Piper’s Son once told me that he wanted his brother (an adult) to read the novel because he thought he’d love it. His brother refused on the grounds that he didn’t want to read a male character written by a woman. It’s so hard to challenge someone’s mentality if they refuse to pick up a novel because of the writer’s gender. So I suppose the response is that I don’t try to appeal to both genders. I write the story that I set out to write.
And so do you think there is such thing as a ‘girls’ story or a ‘boys’ story? For example, if we switched Taylor and Jonah’s character around, how different do you think the story would have been?
Every point of view in FotRock is male, predominantly Finnikin’s, yet I’d say that the novel has more of a female audience because I’m a female writer and I’m known for YA. I’m not saying that’s how it should be, but most times, that’s the way things are. I think girls will read anything and boys are harder to convince.
Novels also become “girls stories and boys stories” because of marketing and covers and gatekeepers making decisions about what they think girls and boys should be reading. I need to believe that there are so many great librarians and booksellers and teachers out there who will make a recommendation to a teenager regardless of gender.
And if Jonah’s point of view was used I think the story would have been about a territory war between three factions used as a backdrop to explore a young man coming to terms with the fact that he killed his father. I would have ended up exploring all different sorts of violence. And yes, I think it would have been more appealing to males. That wasn’t the story I wanted to write and I never once questioned whose point of view Jellicoe belonged to. It was always Taylor’s story, but I tried never to make it a story about gender. The male animosity and friendships in that novel are as strong as the female ones, so for me, it’s as much a novel for guys as girls.
As a writer of young adult fiction, the word ‘role model’ is always going to be thrown about when describing your characters. Does this add pressure when you’re thinking of their stories? Do you believe that every heroine be a role model to someone?
I don’t believe that writing for and about young people is a public service. The problem about role models is that some people may believe a good female role model is someone who doesn’t have sex as a teenager at school. Other people may believe that a good role model is someone who challenges the establishment. Or someone who works hard and gets into university. Or someone who doesn’t have to go to university or college to succeed. I don’t think of role models or teaching lessons when I’m creating character. If I did have a secret wish of what I’d like to come out of my writing, it’s that someone feels less lonely. Or someone feels more connected. Or someone questions the status quo.
Is it important for a heroine to always be likeable? How do you avoid crossing the line from fascinating and edgy to annoying and insufferable when writing a character like, let’s say, Quintana who might not be everyone’s cup of tea?
It shouldn’t be a pre-requisite, but I do want my characters to be likeable although I have a different definition of likeable than others. The way I avoid crossing the line (I hope) is I hint at a redeeming quality. Francesca can be an annoying whinger, but she loves her brother. Same with Tom Mackee. He’s awful for the first couple of chapters but the reader finds out his email address is annabelsbrother. We know there’s hope for him yet. I have a character in my head for an adult novel that has reached the age of 21 with very few friends. I really get her because I know her journey. But readers and other characters won’t at first, and because the story will be told from the perspective of four characters I’ve decided to give her Chapter One. Because if I don’t, Rosie will be introduced through one of the other characters’ eyes and it’ll be detrimental to the connection I want the reader to have with her.
You’ve written some of the strongest and most fascinating heroines in both contemporary and fantasy settings. How does writing a heroine such as Tesadora, Quintana and Phaedra differ from when you wrote Taylor, Josie or Francesca’s story?
I think the setting and time period and circumstances of a novel determines quite a lot when it comes to character behaviour. I mentioned before about Evanjalin being described as a manipulative liar. Of course she manipulates and lies. If she didn’t, her kingdom would still be split in two and Finnikin would be an old man travelling the land, despairing that he never rescued his father. Necessity is the mother of manipulation and lying in this novel for Evanjalin. But if I had to place her in a modern day high school, her behaviour would be less acceptable. In a contemporary world, most readers wouldn’t connect with someone who behaves the way she does.
Taylor and Francesca in their novels spend so much time being reactive rather than proactive, so they would have really been failures in the fantasy novels. But the emotions they feel are similar to that of Evanjalin and Quintana and Phaedra. I sort of stole a line from Francesca and placed it in QofC when a certain character is pretending that she’s okay about one of the men not seeking her out, but that night all she does is pray to the gods he will. Francesca does the same thing when it comes to praying that Will breaks up with his girlfriend. Because at the core of things, there’s no big emotional difference between contemporary and historical hearts, or people in general. Someone once told me about a writer who visited one of the refugee detention centres here in Sydney. Despite all the turmoil and sadness and uncertainty in their lives, they’d still ask her if so-and-so over there liked them or had mentioned them. I love that. It’s what makes us human and hopeful.
As I mentioned earlier, you have written books told from the perspective of boys. Being a bit more specific here, how was writing Francesca’s story different to writing Tom’s? Is how you approach a story or character different?
I’m a bit of a rambler and my closest guy friends aren’t. They are minimalists with their words. When a friend was dying a couple of years ago, one of the guys and I would visit him in hospital. My way of coping was talking all the way home. My friend’s way of coping was not to speak, and sometimes it would make feel foolish. But I discovered that he did want my noise in his ear rather than silence. So it’s the way I wrote the Tom and Georgie and Dom’s scenes in that house they shared. I learnt to trust that the silence was not worthless and that emotional rambling was a salve.
On a technical note, I took away some of Tom’s personal pronouns so his dialogue sounds abrupt. With Francesca, I took away some of the punctuation so it sounds a never-ending stream of consciousness.
This next question is something that will probably always make me wake up in cold sweats about… but let’s talk about love interests. I know we’re here to talk about the girls but the majority of young adult heroines will have a love interest. YA love interests are, and probably will always be, such a minefield with readers. There’s always criticism of girls acting stupidly around boys and losing their personality and mind over a broody chap with a lopsided grin. So, as the Queen of YA Relationships, how do you master the art of giving your heroine a love interest without her becoming the type of character who is defined by them?
Being Queen of YA relationships is too funny and ironic.
For me dramatic tension is everything in a story. So if someone loses her personality too early over a broody chap with a lopsided grin (I love a lopsided grin) then there goes the dramatic tension. Novels don’t use real time, so you’re allowed to drag those relationships out. And while that’s happening, I give a character time to define herself before someone else does it for her. An important line for me in Quintana is when she tells Froi she can live without him. Because she actually can. Hasn’t she proven that over and over again? But the fact is that she doesn’t want to live without him. So when I write a character, I think of both their needs and their wants. That makes them more human. Francesca may want Will to save her, but she needs to do it on her own.
There’s a lot of formula stuff out there that sells really well. I don’t think it’s crap. But it’s formula. It’s why some songs make number 1. We know the beat. We feel comfortable with it. We don’t have to put any effort into enjoying it. I think you have to determine what type of writer you want to be and once you make that decision, be comfortable with it. If I wanted The Piper’s Son to have been more of a commercial success or taught in schools like Francesca is, I would have made Tom 18 years old, I would have taken out Georgie’s point of view and I would have toned down the content. But that wasn’t the novel I wanted to write so I have to live with that decision.
And, finally, what are your Top Tips on how to write YA heroines?
Write her a backstory. Know her inside out. Your reader may not need to know everything about her, but you do.
Don’t be afraid to make her fail (and try not to make that revolve around failing to get a guy’s attention). I think the rewards for when a character finally gets things right is more powerful because of the failure.
Don’t take the safe option. Write the character you want to write rather than the one you think people want to read.
I know. I know.
An absolutely huge thank you to Melina for answering these questions so brilliantly. I mean, where do I even start with these fantastic answers? I’ve been sat on this interview for a good couple of weeks now and these answers and advice has already proved invaluable. I’ve been using it as a “How To” guide…
I kind of just want to write “Discuss” and leave it at that. But I won’t because I’m professional and what not.
So are you writing from a girl’s perspective? Do you find it easy? Do you, like Melina, think the setting and era changes how you portray girls? Do you ever find yourself veering into clichéd waters? And, if so, how do you find your way out? And how about love interests? How do you work them into the story while keeping the heroine with both her feet on the ground? What inspires you about writing girls? Do you know your girl inside and out?
And how excited are you to meet Rosie? On a scale of one to ten…?
Get involved in the comments…!
Also, quickly quickly, while I’ve got you here… OK, so this is my last On Writing post of 2012 and, actually, my last WtOC post too. I’ve been unofficially winding down from about November, so I thought it would be best to take the rest of December off to read, review, write and, of course, plan more posts for you. I just wanted to take this opportunity to be all mushy and say a huge thank you to every single one of you who’s visited this year, whether you’ve commented or watched from the sidelines. WtOC may not be the biggest or most viewed site on the internet, but this year it’s become the blog I wanted it to be when I started and I couldn’t have done it without you lot and your support. So have a wonderful Christmas, break, reading/ eating/ drinking/ napping/ writing-fest or whatever you’re calling it and I’ll see you in the New Year for lots more fun!