Today’s blog is by one of our Young Writers Prize winners, Katie Coyle. You can follow Katie on Twitter or Tumblr. Look out for her prize-winning novel, VIVIAN VERSUS THE APOCALYPSE, which comes out in paperback on 5 September. To read an extract of her novel, click here.
The only thing I knew for sure when I started writing Vivian Versus the Apocalypse was that I wanted my heroine, Vivian Apple, to be a Girl Who Does Stuff. This my very professional literary term for my favorite kind of female character—the kind that goes out into the world, thinking and fighting and asserting herself, rather than the kind who sits primly at home being pretty, while her boyfriend does the adventuring.
There’s room in this world for both these kinds of girls, but it’s the Girl Who Does Stuff that has always sparked my imagination. This girl goes against the grain; she ignores the things society tells us girls should like and should do, in favor of becoming her own unique individual. Vivian Versus the Apocalypse is about many things—religion and parents and best friends and road trips and the end of the world—but for me, most of all, it’s about Vivian learning how to become her own person. I learned how to do this, in part, from the girls I read about in books. Here are five who played a part in my young adulthood, and who contribute in some degree to Vivian Apple’s literary DNA:
Harriet M. Welsch, from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. I was obsessed with Harriet as a young girl, to the point of briefly adopting tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches as my own culinary quirk (note: they are disgusting). The summer I read this book, I spent many afternoons traipsing through the backyards of neighbors, peering in their windows, and taking notes on what I saw there, all of which was very illegal. Harriet taught me the value of keeping my eyes open and writing things down to make sense of the world. But she also taught me what a brave thing it is to admit when you’re wrong, and accept the consequences.
Frankie Landau-Banks, from E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. Frankie, like Vivian, is a Girl Who Does Stuff-in-progress. At fifteen, she has the key things a girl is “supposed” to want—good looks and a nice, handsome boyfriend—but when she discovers the existence of a secret boys-only society at her boarding school, she comes up against the infuriating realities of being an outsider, and takes action. I love how Lockhart deals with Frankie’s messy emotions—her anger and frustration—to show her striving to become more than “someone’s little sister, someone’s girlfriend, some sophomore, some girl.”
Ella of Frell, from Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. Fairy tales can be one of the worst offenders in Girls Who Don’t Do Stuff genre. Many of the girls in these stories spend the majority of their time asleep, and when they wake up they marry some dude they’ve never met before and become princesses who probably spend most of their time sitting around, getting dressed by birds. I love this retelling of Cinderella specifically because Ella bucks that trend; she is feisty and determined, and her story is about her fight to act in the way she wants, rather than the way the people around her expect her to.
Katniss Everdeen, from Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Game trilogy. No list of Girls Doing Stuff would be complete without this flawless, stone-cold queen. It’s impossible to read Katniss’s story without wanting to get up and take action in some way, whether that action is volunteering to sacrifice your life for your family, running around the woods, openly defying your dystopian government, or seriously dominating at archery. Katniss is one of the toughest characters I’ve ever read, male or female, and if she’d been around when I was sixteen, I might have spent a lot less time worrying about whether my newest haircut was flattering (because it never was!), and a lot more time changing the world.
Hermione Granger, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I was twelve when I first met Hermione, and as a reader of books and a lover of telling people when they’re wrong, I related to her immediately. Over the course of the series, Hermione only got better: more brilliant, more stubborn, more compassionate. She is the brightest witch of her age, an outspoken advocate for the rights of house elves, a casual time-traveler, and—perhaps most importantly—the only person in the whole of the Harry Potter universe who has ever bothered to read Hogwarts: A History. I love how Hermione stands by Harry to the bitter end, risking her life for the people she loves and a cause she believes in. Even now, fourteen years after first making her acquaintance, when faced with a challenge of any caliber, I look to her. “What would Hermione do?” I ask myself, and then I try my best to do it.
In real life, it isn’t easy to be a Girl Who Does Stuff. She’s usually outspoken and kind of weird; she’s often more focused on achieving her goals or following her passions than she is on making herself attractive, sweet, and pleasant to be around. A lot of people are still threatened by girls or boys who don’t act the way girls and boys are always said to have acted. In Vivian Versus the Apocalypse, I tried to show how difficult the process of becoming a Girl Who Does Stuff can be; Vivian has to reject her beloved parents’ wishes, as well as the consuming cultural influence of the powerful Church of America, in order to tap into her truest self. Probably, it’s much less exhausting to let the world around you push and prod you into the person you “ought” to be. But for me, these five characters show—as I hope Vivian will, too—that the business of being human can be a lot bigger, a lot stranger, and a lot better than that.