Take a girl writing to a criminal on death row, add a Love Triangle between two brothers, a murder that the girl alleges to have committed, and then chuck in a father who’s lost his job, a sister who’s being bullied, another sister who is deaf, a mother who seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown….it was soap opera, pure and simple, and the contrivances started getting on my nerves very early on.
Add to that the fact that the plot hinged on a Love Triangle, and I was having serious problems. Love Triangles are never interesting (the day I read one where I honestly can’t work out who the main character is going to pick will be an EXCELLENT DAY.), and they are almost impossible to write without the reader disliking one or more of the characters. Can’t pick one? Try NOT snogging both of them. Want both? Tough luck, sweetheart, you can’t have both – unless they’re happy to have a threesome.
When a book is losing me this fast, only one thing can pull it back: a great main character. I don’t even need to LIKE the protagonist – I just need to care enough about them to keep on reading. Maybe you could call it ‘respect’. I need a character to give me a reason to carry on with them. I need to respect them.
The main trouble I had with Ketchup Clouds was our narrator, Zoe. Partly, I blame my upbringing - I was raised on Jane Eyre, Lizzie Bennett, and that icon of standing up for yourself and not taking shit from anybody: Scarlett O’Hara. My blood flows pure red. Once you’ve read Scarlett, you never go back.
This means that when faced with difficult life choices, I ask myself one key question: What would Scarlett do? The same applies to female characters in books. If a protagonist is weak, or stupid, I can cope. It’s when they lack plain ol’ survival instinct that I cease caring. And Zoe really needed to take some life lessons from my guru.
|Scarlett O'Hara is not impressed|
You get hot and heavy at a party with a boy. The next day, you find out that he has sent a topless photo of you to his friends.
What would Scarlett O’Hara do? Smile politely to his face, never speak to him again, and do her best to get her own back if the opportunity presented itself.
What did Zoe do? Forgive him almost instantly, and give the hot and heavy thing another go.
I lost respect for her in that moment, and after that I was gone – and she did nothing to change my mind. She clearly didn’t respect herself, so why should we? I wouldn’t want to spend half an hour with this girl, let alone a whole narrative. I read books for enjoyment, and I stopped enjoying Zoe’s character….so I stopped enjoying the book.
My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece was Annabel Pitcher’s first novel, and it is utterly brilliant. Ketchup Clouds sadly doesn’t measure up – I know that Pitcher can do better than this, and I think that’s why this book irritated me so much. Stop making it about selfish, stupid teenage girls, and give me more nine-year-old boys with real problems.
And make sure your protagonist can pass the Scarlett O’Hara test.
What do you think?