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A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Do Our Characters Need to be Role Models?

Should children’s book characters be role models? My mother certainly thought so. When I was seven, one of my favourite books was about a teacher who scammed a group of school inspectors into believing that his sons and daughters weren’t the only children attending the school he taught at. My mother hated it, but I was fascinated by it, because it was asking the kind of questions that I thought about all the time. Could you do a bad thing for a good reason? If you did, would it actually be a good thing? Or would it make you a bad person? Actually, was there even such a thing as a bad person?

Unfortunately for my mother and her attempts to instil good morals into me, there’s a strong tradition of anti-role models in children’s literature. After all, adults don’t like the characters in the books they read to be too good, so why should children be any different? Some of the world’s most successful series have a bad kid at their heart. From Just William to Horrid Henry, kids keep on proving that they love to read about children who act out, mess up, lie, cheat and steal. It’s almost one of the unspoken commandments of writing a children’s book: you need to orphan your main characters in some way, and then you need to make them do something bad.

I definitely didn’t set out to make the two main characters in Murder Most Unladylike role models. I wanted them to be basically nice humans, and I hope they are, but they’re definitely not always good. In fact, sometimes they behave pretty badly.  I wanted to make them as much like actual children as possible, and I’m pretty sure that even the best of real kids behave really badly sometimes.

But there’s another reason why my main characters aren’t supposed to be role models, and that’s because of the kind of story I’m telling. Daisy and Hazel aren’t just kids, they’re detectives.

Hold on! you say. Detectives are the good guys! Well, that’s technically true. The point of a fictional detective is to straighten out tangles, right wrongs and to take the evildoer away from the book’s other, better characters, so they can go on living their lives in safety. But there’s a reason why so many of the world’s most famous fictional sleuths are either amateurs or the kind of cop who Goes It Alone With No Regard for the Rules: in any successful detective story, the Detective can’t be the same as the Law.

The Law, in a detective story, means all those judges and magistrates and PC Plods who follow the rules to the letter and use boring stuff like evidence to convict criminals. But the Detective isn’t like that at all. Detectives work on hunches, suspicions, and brilliant flashes of intuition, and when they don’t have enough evidence to collar a suspect, they just go and get the evidence by whatever means necessary – even if that means breaking the law.

Think about Sherlock Holmes. Arguably the most famous and well-loved detective ever to emerge from the pages of a book, the man is a heroin addict who is constantly rude to his clients and once broke into a suspect’s home, in the dead of night, with a deadly weapon (if you don’t believe me, just read ‘The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton’).

And then there’s Hercule Poirot. Have you ever noticed how many of the murderers he catches just sort of happen to conveniently die at the end of the book? He never actually kills anyone (because, even to someone with Agatha Christie’s weird morals, that would be beyond wrong), but what he does do is behave like a one-man judge, jury and executioner. If he knows that a case can never be proven through the normal legal channels – well, there are still ways of making the murderer pay.

The detective has to be someone who is above the law, and beyond it – they’ve got ultimate power, and that’s why readers love them. We all know from the boring real world that the law makes mistakes, and falls short, but we still trust detectives to make the world safe.

My point is that a detective can only be good by doing bad things, and, true to form, my own girl detectives only solve the crime in Murder Most Unladylike because they break the rules. They sneak around after dark, they disobey their teachers, they eavesdrop and lie and play tricks – basically, everything that adults are always telling children off for doing (and everything that adults do too, when they think that children aren’t looking). Daisy and Hazel are bad role models, and that’s why they’re good detectives.

They’re also the kind of kids that I’d like to have been friends with when I was 13. I was always attracted to people who weren’t perfect, and I think that’s a pretty common feeling. So I made Daisy and Hazel flawed, and naughty, and a bit weird, and often wrong. And that, I think, is much more interesting to read about than characters who are always right.

Robin Stevens Author Photo

Robin Stevens
Blog|Goodreads|Twitter
Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived. She has been making up stories all her life.‬
‪When she was twelve, her father handed her a copy of ‬The Murder of Roger Ackroyd‪ and she realised that she wanted to be either Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie when she grew up. When it occurred to her that she was never going to be able to grow her own spectacular walrus moustache, she decided that Agatha Christie was the more achieveable option.‬
‪She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she’d get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn’t). She then went to university, where she studied crime fiction, and now she works at a children’s publisher, which is pretty much the best day job she can imagine. ‬
‪Robin now lives near London with her boyfriend and her pet bearded dragon, Watson.‬

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This entry was posted on October 21, 2013 by and tagged , , , .

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