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  • John Hearne

Creating cliché-free Bullies

Bullies. A standard feature of childhood, and so a standard feature of children’s fiction. I’m still amazed by the numbers of clichéd bullies in middle grade stories. The bruiser with bad breath who exists as nothing more than a foil for the hero is alive and well in all kinds of otherwise well written books.

It’s as if the writer is so contemptuous of the bully character that they refuse to breathe life into them, or give them a reason to be the way they are.

The best bullies, if you know what I mean, are like the best characters. They’re real.

I really admire the way the bully is handled in Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. Thus far in Virgil’s life, Chet ‘The Bull’ Bullens hasn’t beaten him up or thrown him down, but it’s the threat of these things that provides the tension and the menace. There’s also the name-calling, and the way in which the bully lives in Virgil’s head long after Virgil has escaped his clutches. This is something that’s often forgotten. The bully tends to do the most damage in the mind.

This is a multiple-viewpoint story, with Virgil, Valencia and Kaori as the joint leads. But we get a couple of chapters from Chet’s point of view too, and these are great because they give us something more than the standard bully, there to typify stupidity and brute force.

We see his fear of difference. Valencia is deaf, and Chet says: ‘She was evil, clearly. There was something strange about a girl who couldn’t hear.’

And we get his other fears too, specifically that he might not make the basketball team, no matter how he practiced. ‘He had already failed at Little League – never hit the ball, not even once.’

I love too that while the writer allows Chet to be human, he is not redeemed. He doesn’t become likeable. Virgil stands up to him and like all bullies who are stood up to, he is reduced and withdraws.

The thing is, because Chet is no cliché, you never quite know how the story is going to turn out. That’s what keeps you reading. You know you’re in the hands of someone who’s doing something new and interesting, someone who is not going to fall back on paint-by-numbers characters.

There’s also loads for a writer to love in Chris Grabenstein’s Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. For one thing, it proves that you don’t need high stakes to create a great story. The worst that can happen the hero is that he might not win a competition. In lesser hands, the victory would give the hero the funds for life-saving surgery for his little sister, or prevent the house from being repossessed. Not here. Grabenstein shows us we can make a brilliant story without contrived sentimentality or a sword of Damocles dangling over everything…But that’s a whole other blog.

I want to talk about Grabenstein’s bully, Charles. First off, in defiance of the usual norms, Charles Chiltingdon is impeccably dressed. He’s no outsized freak with snot perpetually dripping from his nose. When we meet him, the bully is with the college student his family has hired to help him ‘polish up his extra-credit essay.’

‘“Knowledge is power,” said Charles. “It’s one of our fundamental family philosophies.” Another was. We eat losers for breakfast.’

He’s a manipulative weasel and a sycophant, presenting as one way with adults and another with the kids.

I love the way Haley fools him into believing he is successfully manipulating her, and everyone will love the way the tables are turned and he gets what he deserves in the end, at which point the mask falls and he is revealed even to the adults as a noxious brat.

In The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud, Peaches – like Charles – presents one face to grown-ups and another to children.

The adults have no idea that lurking beneath those lustrous blond curls is a brain full of evil plans and nasty surprises. Only the kids know that Peaches will stop at nothing to get her way.

I wanted to give Peaches a reason to be evil. The central drama pivots on the eternal rivalry between brother and sister. Peaches is the first born. She is the apple of her mother’s eye and her father’s golden princess. Then a little brother arrives. Indigo: small, pink, wrinkled and smelly. We all know how jealous the eldest can become at the arrival of a new sibling.

‘As Peaches watched her parents lavish attention on her hateful little brother, something small and dark blossomed in her heart.’

In time, she will grow to be an arch-manipulator, able to bend all of her sisters to her will. And woe betide anyone who stands up to her...

You’re not always going to have the time and space to give the bully a back story, but at least allow them to be human.

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