On the final day of BookCon, a mix of five established and debut authors from HarperCollins assembled for a panel moderated by Miranda Spigener-Sapon, whose first scripted television series for Amazon Prime, Marisa Romanov, will be available later this year. The panel, called “Your Own Worst Enemy: Why Flawed Characters Make the Story Better – Or Worse,” focused on flawed characters in young adult literature. Panelists were Victoria Aveyard, author of the Red Queen series (HarperTeen); Maureen Johnson, author of the Truly Devious series (HarperCollins/Tegen); Tiffany Jackson, author of Let Me Hear a Rhyme (HarperCollins/Tegen); Swati Teerdhala, author of The Tiger at Midnight (HarperCollins/Tegen); and Katy Loutzenhiser, author of If You’re Out There (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray).
Spigener-Sapon first invited each panelist to speak about their series or most recent novel and their own flawed characters. Loutzenhiser noted that her main character’s biggest flaw is what makes her a superhero, too: “She cares too much. She’s very relentless and stubborn after her friend ghosts her.” Loutzenhiser’s debut novel, If You’re Out There, is about Zan, who, after her best friend Priya stops responding to her messages, becomes convinced that Priya has disappeared and that foul play is afoot.
Speaking of her books Truly Devious and The Vanishing Stair, both murder mysteries set at a boarding school, Johnson said that her main character, Stevie, is complicated and obsessed with true crime. “Flawed characters are just people. In the same way only good things don’t make a good story, a book would be boring without imperfect characters. You’d want to throw that book into the sun.”
Teerdhala next mentioned her debut The Tiger at Midnight, which chronicles a cat and mouse game between her characters Esha, a rebel and assassin, and Kunal, a king’s soldier. She shared that both of her characters are deeply flawed: “Esha is a rebel and wants only revenge and justice, while Kunal has blindly accepted orders and has stopped thinking for himself.”
Red Queen author Aveyard spoke in general about the topic. “Flawed characters are more real and way less boring, especially in an elevated setting. If I have an extraordinary setting, I need an extraordinary character.” Aveyard confided that wounded characters speak to her in a more truthful way because “no person is without flaws.” She also admitted that she enjoys having characters hurt each other and readers: “I like when readers distrust me.” She suggested putting as many obstacles in a character’s path as possible to ratchet up tension.
Sharing the inspiration for her new novel, Let Me Hear a Rhyme, Jackson said she delved into 1998 Brooklyn and hip-hop. “It was a different world. We had just lost Biggie and Tupac, it was the golden age of hip-hop, and the Clinton scandal was happening. Kids were being affected.” Jackson also mentioned that she pulled from her own experiences at age 15 for the novel.
Spigener-Sapon then raised the subject of books being adapted for the screen, asking panelists about their individual experiences. Aveyard and Jackson both have a background in television and screenwriting and spoke of its impact on their novels. Aveyard, whose Red Queen has been optioned by Universal, said that she sees a novel and a project for the screen as having the same structure. Referring to the possibility of Red Queen being adapted for screen, she says the process is “hurry up and wait,” but Universal has been “very inclusive” of her input. Though Jackson’s novels haven’t been optioned, she does have a master’s in media production and Let Me Hear a Rhyme was her graduation thesis script. Jackson sees screenwriting and novel writing differently, especially when considering the length and detail necessary to create a novel.
Loutzenhiser added that, while her book isn’t being made into a movie, she did study scripts and she sees a movie in her mind as she writes: “I start with the dialogue and flesh out the world from there.” Teerdhala used screenplay-writing books to recraft her writing and recommended Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat to the audience. Jackson chimed in to suggest the dramatic structure called the Syd Field Paradigm as a reference for plotting, which she uses when teaching writing workshops.
Johnson was the lone voice of dissent on the panel when discussing the overlap between novel and screenwriting. With a background in theater and a writing MFA, Johnson says she sees the individual structures very differently and writes “purely from a book standpoint.” If she is adapting a piece of writing for a different format, she takes the material apart and completely restructures it. She shared that, like Aveyard, she has one project coming to Netflix soon: Let It Snow, based on a collection of short stories written by herself, John Green, and Lauren Myracle.
The panelists then answered questions from audience members, including inquiries about favorite flawed characters, maintaining balance to create characters with failings that are still heroes, the blurred line between a hero and a villain, and whether they worry about how their [flawed] characters will be perceived.
Multiple panelists noted Game of Throne’s Cersei Lannister as their favorite flawed character, while Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender was named by Teerdhala, and Loutzenhiser gave a shout-out to Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope. Johnson said she’s drawn to flawed female characters like Cersei but expressed frustration because “men get away with a lot more.” Aveyard concurred, saying that Cersei “could have been a Sopranos-level villain” if she were a man.
Discussing finding balance between flaws and heroic qualities, Aveyard said there’s no formula. “I create the rats and the maze, but each rat runs it differently. You have to feel it.” The most important thing, Aveyard said, is to give characters a reason for their actions so that readers empathize. Loutzenhiser revealed that she uses humor to persuade the audience to forgive her main character Zan.
In answering how they bring themselves to put characters in difficult and painful situations, Johnson said it’s her “job” to “torture characters and make their lives miserable” so that readers can “experience catharsis.” Teerdhala only writes difficult scenes “on days when [she] feels happy” to ensure that she’s in the right headspace and has distance from the darkness of the writing. In comparison, Jackson said she has to go into that “very dark place,” but has found ways to pull herself back out. Aveyard cautioned the importance of being able to “separate where a character ends and you begin.”
[The panel concluded with a discussion about whether the authors are concerned about how readers will react to their imperfect characters. The authors turned their attention to the way women are perceived in the media. Johnson said that backlash often has to do with our perception of gender. “There’s a reason ‘nasty woman’ has resonance,” she added. Aveyard noted that every reader is different, so “you can’t please everyone,” while Jackson vehemently stated: “If you worry more about a girl’s attitude than the story, I don’t have much to say to you. Bye.”