Making a difference with character – or a character with a difference

By Ltljltlj (talk · contribs) - Own work, made to the specifications of the 2004 edition of Standard Highway Signs (sign D9-6)., Public Domain,
By Ltljltlj (talk · contribs) – Own work, made to the specifications of the 2004 edition of Standard Highway Signs (sign D9-6)., Public Domain,

One of my messages in school is that each of us is a unique individual, and that’s both true and important, but so is the end of the joke: “like everybody else.” Young readers need firstly to believe in the characters in stories and secondly to identify with them to some degree, but I try to create individuals who feel brand new and different as well as recognizably familiar. I’m not a plot-driven novelist. My characters are always the heart of the story and as an author in school I often prove to children that once they have two of them, that story begins to unfold in their imagination. It’s a wonderful thing! I let mine lead and some mean a little more to me than the others, probably for personal reasons I may or may not understand. None of them are stolen from my own real world and reconstituted on the page because that’s far too dangerous. But of course the seed or spark that grows into a Sue Hampton character may be the sliver of a memory of someone real, or an experience or emotion I’ve known myself. As D.H. Lawrence said, writers adapt from life. Daisy Waterhouse in my alopecia novel isn’t me: she’s younger, braver and funnier, a strong and passionate eccentric. I remember being taken aback when a literary agent referred to my alopecia as a ‘disability’. Even though I was guarding my secret under a wig at that point it felt misjudged, inappropriate – and emotionally just a little bit disabling!

I see my hair loss as a difficulty (now happily managed) and we all have those: our insecurities that challenge our sense of belonging and can limit and isolate us. But we also know people who show extraordinary strength, dignity and courage to overcome enormous difficulties, whether physical or emotional or both. In another of life’s contradictions the rest of us are moved and inspired, often feeling both pity and admiration (and yes, I know no one wants the first; the second may do us no good). That’s Michael Morpurgo’s achievement in The Ghost of Grania O’Malley, when he gives us Jessie who has Cerebral Palsy. Considering my top five characters in children’s fiction, I found she sprang to mind at once, having won my heart on page one with the fierceness of her determination and compassion. Jessie has spirit,  the subject of my little speech as Ambassador at last year’s Alopecia UK Big Weekend and perhaps the most essential quality in any character. Together with my other Morpurgo favourite, the Birdman in Why the Whales Came, she triggered the three heroes in my fantasy adventure THE DREAMER – all of whom live with a difficulty we might call a disability but together overcome the force of evil. I’m especially fond of Lark, whose creative imagination powers her even when she’s not shaping the Flower Bird from clay; she’s the girl with no voice who makes the village listen.

During my years as a teacher I met plenty of children who, with or without a label or diagnosis, found school – and/or social interaction – more challenging than the rest. They fed into Jeth from THE JUDAS DEER, who loves animals and the natural world but can’t connect with people because they’ve betrayed him – and his ‘left-field’ observations make for imagery that’s strikingly skewed by emotion. Children I taught also gave rise to Nathan in THE TROGLIN:

Nathan had fiddly fingers. It didn’t matter much at home because his mum, Hope, understood (unless she was very tired). But at school it was different.

Nathan’s fingers didn’t always behave. While he tried to listen to the teacher, they tapped tunes on his knees until the patterns filled his head. Sometimes his fingers played very lightly on shoulders that didn’t belong to him and didn’t want his tunes. Then the shoulders shook him off and the heads above them turned, with mouths that pulled out of shape around “Weirdo!” or “Yeurghoff!”

In between, Nathan’s fingers reached for things to stroke or hold. Nathan made them special things, even though they were only pellets of paper or curls of shaved pencil. In his fingers they had life and movement. They were on his team.

And once in a while those fingers lifted to wave and shake in the air as if he was a conductor on a stage, with an orchestra making music from his magic spells.

Does Nathan have a disability or condition? I’m not an educational psychologist but I do know he has a vividly creative inner life of his own that makes him vulnerable and gifted too. His only difficulty is in conforming to behaviour patterns he doesn’t know how to adopt – in other words, in surrendering his own particular individuality – and I love him for it!

Other favourites include Rory from the year 2064 in SHUTDOWN, who needs anger management support rather than tranquillising, because he hates everyone and everything but especially himself. Rather like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden he lacks love. I’m equally devoted to Kim and Fizzy in THINNER THAN WATER, uprooted suddenly from the lives they know as their worlds reshape in ways over which they have little control. What’s challenged for both girls is their identity – as it is for my Native American found frightened and hurt in Hertfordshire, with skills Victorian boys might envy and values beyond the comprehension of an alien society (VOICE OF THE ASPEN).

Of course a character can be richly real and compelling without any kind of disadvantage or extreme circumstances but we all have needs and longings, and the great thing about children’s fiction is that there they can be met. So Robbie gets to be an angel (ALIENS AND ANGELS) the gorilla and ‘big girl’ Akello both find a dancing partner (GORILLA DREAMS) and opposites Miles and Thomas (HUE AND CRY) are reconnected with the twin who completes them. And sometimes a magical friend can help a boy who has lost his grandma and gained a baby brother (THE LINCOLN IMP) to adjust and recover himself… which sounds oddly familiar.

So I’m back, via identity and adjustment, to alopecia. Because difficult experience doesn’t only enrich characters but also develop empathy in flesh and blood people. Like stories!




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