They had me at “Enjoy a complimentary glass of wine on arrival” but I would have showed up for the author panel discussion at the Mudgeeraba Market Shopping Centre regardless of any alcoholic carrot dangling. As part of the Somerset Celebration of Literature, this annual event brings together four authors to discuss a particular writer’s dilemma or challenge, all with the background sounds of clacking Woolworth’s trolleys during a Thursday late night shopping night. If that wasn’t enough to hook me in, there was free cheese and Jatz bikkies too.
This year, the discussion revolved around writing flawed characters. The four author’s in question were Jack Heath (The Lab, The Cut Out), Megan Jacobson (ABC script editor for Dance Academy, Yellow), Gabrielle Tozer (The Intern, Faking It), and Nicole Hayes (The Whole of My World, One True Thing ).
In The Intern, Gabrielle says her main character Josie Browning “is a bumbling 17 year old who is really struggling to find her place in the world. What makes her relatable to people, and the reason they seem to warm to her, is because of that awkwardness that I feel so many of us relate to. When creating any character, what makes them interesting is their flaws.” Gabrielle describes herself as the “evil puppeteer” making her characters dance the way she wants them to dance.
Nicole’s character, Frankie, is a budding 16 year old musician, who is surrounded by people with flaws, including her mother, the first female premier of Victoria. She thinks if she can keep her head down, she can stay out of the politics.
“Almost every main character starts with some form of delusion or deceipt. Either they’re kidding themselves or they’re kidding other people. There is a lie at the beginning of every story, and with the best characters, that lie is the one they are telling themselves.”
“I think you can twist the circumstances in a way where someone overcomes their weakness”, says Jack.
“It can be a balance to strike in terms of making them likeable. The weaknesses they have tend to be what drives the story.” The main character’s flaw in The Cut Out is his political naivety. “without his flaw there would be no story.”
Megan’s protagonist, Kira, is a 14 year old girl who lives in a housing commission place with her alcoholic mother. She’s shy, anxious and gets bullied.
“The people around her are very flawed; I think it’s about an understanding, a uniting together.”
One of her characters is a ghost. “I think that very few flaws in people are their physicality. The ghost lives in a phone box so you never see him, but basically he is a parallel of Kira. She’s very lonely in a world amongst other people, and he’s stuck in this black space he can never leave. He tells her she doesn’t understand and she says that you can be lonely around other people as well. Their flaws are their connection.”
On hooking young readers using flawed characters, when there are so many electronic distractions, Jack says “It’s the challenge of being entertaining 100% of the time. I am aware that every young reader has Candy Crush in their pocket and I’m competing with that. There’s a scene in my book where the main character is driving an experimental, armored motorcycle across a minefield while being chased by police helicopters. Young readers do underestimate the importance of characters. In terms of flaws, I think anything is forgivable except selfishness. You can hook young readers in if the main character cares about other people.”
On stereotypes, Gabrielle, who has worked on numerous women’s magazines, says there is a big difference between her magazine life and her preferred author life. “Magazines have come under a lot of fire lately about lack of diversity and they’ve done their best to overcome that in terms of body image especially. In my author life, the characters just arrive and I decide who I will meet with. Then the story unfolds. I write what I know but exaggerate the hell out of it. My life is so boring!”
Nicole rejects stereotypes of girls in her books. “I have a 16 year old and a 12 year old daughter. I only ever see these strong, young women around me.”
Megan tries not to focus on physical aspects of stereotyping. “In my book, Kira has pale hazelnut, almost yellow coloured eyes that she is teased about. In the end, her eyes are one of the things that the boy character loves about her. I really wanted to dispel the stereotype about what’s traditionally good-looking.”
Jack steers away from writing about anything violent happening to female characters. “I don’t want to promote violence against women. On the other hand, you won’t find any female receptionists or nurses in my books because I don’t want to promote the stereotype of only females having those particular jobs.”
In defence of young audiences, Megan says “I don’t think young people today are given enough credit. I think that they are so literate. This is the first generation that has been raised where their primary method of communication is writing. They are on their phones, Twitter, Facebook. When they’re not at school, they are writing to each other. They want to be funny on the internet so they have learned how to quip and write things in an eloquent, humerous way. They have very high standards.”
All four authors were guests of the Somerset Celebration of Literature from March 9 to 11.