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

Emma Haughton: Do we see out characters as role models?

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) in the Coen Brother’s remake of True Grit.

How often do you read a book and think to yourself, ‘Now, what I’d do in their situation is….’ One of the reasons fiction is so pleasurable is that it gives us a chance to live vicariously, to walk through the world in someone else’s shoes. As Lisa Cron explains in her creative writing guide Wired for Story, this urge to live through others is hard wired into our brains. “Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them,” she explains. They evolved “as a way to explore our own mind and the minds of others, as a sort of dress rehearsal for the future.”

Perhaps that’s why I so love writing in first person, present tense. You’re in your character’s head, living her life as it happens – exactly the way we all experience life (but with all the boring bits taken out).

Does this mean then, as writers, we should create characters who are good role models for our readers? No so much, and it’s not something I’ve ever consciously attempted in any of my books. Actually, I think all well-developed characters teach us something – if only what not to do in a particular situation. What better way to learn than from other people’s mistakes?

That said, I do think most authors tend to up the positive aspects of our main characters. We make them a little more gutsy, more kick-ass than most of us are in real life. We’re all of us – writers and readers – attracted to people with heroic, larger-than-life qualities, because they symbolise under-developed, potential aspects of ourselves. We like to see people behave in ways we hope we might – should we ever find ourselves in the kind of hot water my heroines seem to end up in. Of course, most of us don’t – life isn’t fiction, after all – but it’s all a mental practice run for the more run-of-the-mill problems we all face.
So I guess I do like to think my main characters are in a sense role models, showing us how people change and develop under pressure, how adversity can bring out the best in someone. I hope that joining them in their world reinforces a sense that we can all deal with things that seem impossibly difficult at first; that we can be the catalysts of positive change, even when everyone around us seems stuck or helpless.

Writing YA, with female heroines, that seems particularly important, and I’m glad to see that the next generation of women are being given powerful female role models across all kinds of media. For too many years girls and women were portrayed as weak and passive, merely occupying a supporting role or providing love interest for the masculine hero. How wonderful to encounter girls like Katniss Everdeen, Buffy, or Karou in Laini Taylor’s wonderful Daughter of Smoke and Bone –girls who show us that it’s okay to be every bit as tough, brave and outspoken as men.

Emma Haughton
Emma Haughton grew up in West Sussex and after a stint au pairing in Paris and a half-hearted attempt to backpack across Europe, did a degree in English and got a job as a journalist on a trade paper. Bored of writing about computers, she swapped to articles for national newspapers on everything from making compost to holidays in Sweden. Her first foray into fiction was a picture book called Rainy Day, but she also wrote books for schools about things like death, stress and drug abuse. Cheerful stuff! Now she writes contemporary thrillers for YA readers – her first, Now You See Me, will be published by Usborne next spring.


This entry was posted on October 23, 2013 by and tagged , , , .

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