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Caela Carter: On (Un)Likable Characters (ADHD)

Do you remember that kid in your elementary school who couldn't stand to lose in gym class, so he chucked the kickball into the woods and spoiled the game for everyone?

Do you remember the one in middle school who was always talking back to the teachers, even the one who responded by adding more homework for you and everyone else?

Do you remember the kid at recess who ran away when you were supposed to come inside, making you and the rest of the class stand in line in the freezing cold while the teachers chased her down?

Do you remember the kid who screamed? Or who hit? Who threw a desk? Or broke things on purpose?

You probably didn't like that kid, huh?

Yeah, I don't blame you. That's understandable.

But I dare you to.

I'm serious. Do it. Close your eyes and look back. Remember that kickball game, or that classroom, or that long recess line. See if you can find a way to like that kid, now.

But, you say, that kid was totally unlikable.

Man, I hate that word.

Why? Well, let's pull it apart: (un) (like) (able).

Like + able = able to be liked,

as in, one may find themself capable of enjoying the company of the subject.

Add the "un" and,

un + likeable = unable to be liked,

as in, impossible to be liked,

as in, no one could ever be capable of enjoying this person's company.

I'm sorry, but as a teacher, as a parent, as a human being, I just can’t accept that unlikable is never an accurate description for anyone. (Especially a kid.)

In discussing my upcoming middle grade novel, FIFTY-FOUR THINGS WRONG WITH GWENDOLYN ROGERS, I've focused a lot on the many ways that Gwendolyn is similar to me. I also grew up with an undiagnosed disorder (in my case, ADHD; in Gwen's, well, we still don't know.) Like Gwen, my brain's atypical functioning impacted broad areas of my life from school to friendships to chores to self-esteem. And unlike many other fictional characters with similar issues, Gwen and I were never desperate to "blend in" or to be considered "normal." Instead, I was desperate to be recognized, to be seen, to have my needs met.

But Gwendolyn is also a "behavior problem." I was not. I was able to please the adults around me by being quiet when necessary, being polite most of the time, and following directions even if I didn't quite understand them. As a child, I remember realizing how much harder my life in school would be if I was unable to do those things. When I was six, the first educational psychologist I saw called me a 'conundrum.' I've always deeply identified with that label. As I grew, I began to realize that the kids teachers and other adults called behavior problems were actually just conundrums, like me.

When I started talking about this idea with my editor and agent, the very first concern I heard was that the character would be unlikable. Ugh! That word!

I didn't want to make Gwendolyn more likable, in the traditional sense. I didn't want to tone down her behaviors. I didn't want to soften her edges. Instead, I aimed to make her more understandable.

I tried, humbly, to let the reader slip all the way into her brain. I aimed to write a character that could win over the reader while at the same time frustrating the pants off of the other characters in her story. I tried to let you so far into her brain that you have no choice but to like her, even as she's throwing her counselor's laptop across the cafeteria.

So, if you accept my challenge, you'll see Gwendolyn do a lot of things that you may have hated real kids for in the past. You'll see her talk back to teachers. You'll see her isolate her best friends. You'll see her behave in ways that have consequences for all the peers around her. You'll see her run away and yell and scream and break things. You'll even see her be violent.

But, I think, you may end up seeing how even a kid who does those things can be likable–even lovable–to somebody.

You may even end up liking her yourself.

In fact, I dare you to.


Caela Carter is an author who writes contemporary, realistic fiction for teens and middle grade readers. Her first book, ME, HIM, THEM AND IT, was published by Bloomsbury in 2013. She is also the author of MY BEST FRIEND, MAYBE (Bloomsbury, 2014), MY LIFE WITH THE LIARS (Harper 2016), TUMBLING (Viking 2016), FOREVER OR A LONG, LONG TIME (Harper 2017), ONE SPECK OF TRUTH (Harper, 2019) and HOW TO BE A GIRL IN THE WORLD (Harper 2020). FOREVER OR A LONG, LONG TIME was an ALA Notable Book, a Charlotte Huck Honor Book, a Kirkus and NYPL Top Ten of 2017 and it and TUMBLING were Junior Library Guild selections.

As a girl, Caela was, at times, a runner, a swimmer, a writer, a failure, a succeeder, an actress, a singer, but she was always, always a reader. She grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and Basking Ridge, New Jersey and read almost everything the Basking Ridge Public Library had to offer in her middle school years. She graduated from Ridge High School.

At the University of Notre Dame, Caela took creative writing classes every semester, fell in love with flag football, and graduated in 2004 with a double major in English and Philosophy. She then earned a Masters in Education in 2006, also at Notre Dame. Caela spent six years teaching, four years of them at Chicago Jesuit Academy, where she fell in love with teens and with fiction for teens.

In 2010, Caela moved to New York to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a writer. She attended the MFA Program in Writer for Children at The New School. She graduated in 2012 and her first book came out nine months later! Currently, Caela and her family live in Brooklyn where she reads, writes, has adventures and is very, very happy.


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