Flawed Characters (And Author) by Janet Gurtler

People who meet me these days think I’m sweet. (Or at least that’s what they TELL me.)  Truthfully it kind of cracks me up. Not that I consider myself evil or immoral, not really, but sweet isn’t a term I’d ever use to describe to myself.  I do consider myself thoughtful. Empathetic perhaps. But sweet. Hmm. I’d prefer quirky. Unique. But mostly I get nice. Sweet.
For one thing, I don’t drink.  Most of the people who are in my life now have never ever seen me drunk. They don’t know how lucky there are.  I make fun of it, but honestly when I did drink I became a different person. It was the dark side of my soul. I’m one of those people who has a personality make-over under the influence. And so not a good one.
But the thing about moving (and leaving some of the ghosts behind) is that most people I know now,  don’t know that about me. They assume that I don’t drink because I’m a) a prude b) deeply religious c) no fun at all.
It doesn’t bother me anymore. Well that’s not true. It bothers me when everyone around me is drinking and I’m the only one who realizes that the conversation isn’t really that funny. ;) When I’m the one not drinking now, people often assume I’m boring or conservative and probably a little bit lame.  But I get over it. And I really like waking up without hangovers. 
But I digress. I think I find the need to explain that I am in fact, not sweet, and one way is to come clean about the drinking thing.  I think it’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to contemporary teen fiction. My troubles with drinking started in my teen years. Actually you can read about it over at DearTeenMe, if you are so inclined.J
I am the type of writer (and parent) who believes that teens know dark sides. They see them or learn about them every day on the bus or in the schoolyard.   I don’t believe that not talking about issues will make them go away. I want my son to be aware of some of the things he will be facing as he hits middle and high schools. Drinking. Drugs. Sex. I believe knowledge can lead to better choices.  I know that there are going to be adults, parents, even teens who don’t like that these issues are in my books.  Diseases. Abuse. Addiction.  But I have a hard time writing any teen stories without some of the characters dealing with these issues. All the kids I knew growing up had skeletons.
The thing is, kids screw up. Not all of them do, but it happens. I’m not trying to judge and certainly not glamorize bad choices.  But here’s what I believe.  Teens are surrounded by harsh reality. But all teens that drink AREN’T going to end up alcoholics. The ones who have sex aren’t all going to end up pregnant or corrupt.  But bad things happen to good people. And good things happen to bad people. And people usually learn to deal.
Actually one of the things I LOVE about Tess, the main character in I’M NOT HER, is that she doesn’t drink, nor does she feel she has to. She doesn’t like to lose control and I totally admire that about her. I actually like writing characters like Tess, characters who are struggling or insecure but learn to deal without abusing food or alcohol or drugs or sex. They learn to sift through and make it on their own.  They find out who they are and what their strengths are over the storyline.  
I love hope and the books I write usually leave most of the characters with a chance to make it, no matter what they’ve done. I like to believe even the most flawed characters have a chance to one day become boring and old and maybe even to be considered sweet by the people who meet them.


  1. I ordered this book on Friday, looking forward to reading about Tess and how she does cope. Thanks for sharing :-)

  2. But bad things happen to good people. And good things happen to bad people. And people usually learn to deal.

    There's a lot of "life wisdom" packed into those three little sentences. Love this post.

  3. I love your post. And I completely agree. My daughter just told me that a few of her friends have been cutting themselves. Cutting!! And she's 13. I couldn't believe it, not because I didn't think my daughter would know girls who do that, but that I consider all of her friends sweet, kind, lovely girls. They go to a small private school where the teachers are hands-on, all have great, caring parents, and here they are finding a reason to cut themselves. The weird thing? I kept thinking, "Eating disorder I could understand, but this?"

    It totally blew me away. She wouldn't tell me who, but said that she and another friend told their advisor. I told her that she didn't have to come to me with this stuff if she didn't feel comfortable, but if she really loves her friends she'll tell some adult who can help. So I'm glad she did that.

    So, yes, flawed characters are my favorite as well. Because, they're like real people. They make good and bad choices and it doesn't need to define the whole person they are. It makes characters interesting, even if, in real life, it's not always pretty.

  4. Wow Rachel, thanks for ordering I'm Not Her! And yes, Lydia there is alot of truth in those three sentences. It's a hard lesson (that I still struggle with sometimes)

    Jenny...that is so sad about those girls. There's som much pressure on teens and it just seems to be getting harder. I hope they make it through okay. I think it's wonderful your daughter talked to you about it. I hope my son keeps talking to me as he gets older. I really do.

  5. You're right. Mistakes are how we learn and grow and discover who we are. Admitting our mistakes is the hardest part. :)

  6. Janet, I loved this post! This is exactly why I write contemporary fiction with flawed characters too. I faced a lot as a teen and coped in some unhealthy ways myself including drinking, drugs and cutting (Jenny, if you want any resources for that or someone to talk to about it, just drop me a line. I started cutting around 13 myself. My parents didn't find out until I was 16 and I can only imagine the shock.) I searched desperately as a teen for stories of real life survival. That's still what I love to read. Glad I'm Not Her is out there for teens!

  7. At my teen's high school, there's not a ton of drinking, but it seems like a huge number of kids smoke pot. Maybe I'm wrong, but I fear that less. We were talking the other day about how different high schools have different personalities. There's one very affluent high school nearby that has had a lot of problems with cocaine.

  8. Cocaine in high school makes me afraid.

  9. Great post Janet!

    Teens deal with real issues today. As they did yesterday and years and years ago. Sweeping it under the rug and pretending like it isn't there helps no one. Teens included. I think today's teens deal with even more though. I wasn't oblivious to drugs and drinking in high school, but I wasn't exactly wrapped up in it either. My younger brothers are both in high school now and I worry about them. I worry that they'll get caught up and lose who they are because they don't even know who they are.

    The older one is comfortable and willing to talk about anything with my mom, but the younger one isn't. And he's already starting down a path that I hope we can get him off of. It's hard, but it's real.

    Contemporary YA is probably my favorite genre to read because it tackles life. Good, bad, and ultimately hopeful. I can relate to that.

  10. I don't drink either, Janet. Not for the same reason...just never got started somehow. I was kinda "slow" in high school -- not in school stuff, but social stuff. I wouldn't have known how to get anything to drink. Or smoke, for that matter. I was into stuff like telescopes and basketball and spelunking. Brave post!

  11. See I'm amazed by people like you. Telescopes and basketball are much better, but what the heck is spelunking.

  12. Thank you for this post, and for being so open about your "dark side" - I think you're right, for teens the dark side is often quite apparent. It's an ongoing struggle every day. Adults are better at hiding their darkness (perhaps a bit too good, in some cases). Flaws and weakness are what make characters interesting - and what makes us all human.


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