In between some rants and caveman talk, “Divergent” trilogy author Veronica Roth explained Sunday how she came up with the female protagonist of her dystopian coming-of-age novel.
Roth, 25, spoke at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books with Leigh Bardugo, whose books include “Shadow and Bone” and “Siege and Storm.” Bardugo set the stage by explaining why young adult novels such as “Divergent” are such hits.
“That feeling never goes away of finding somewhere to belong,” she said.
Borrowing from the five groups of people in Roth’s books, here’s a look at what Roth shared about her process, characters and message to young adult readers.
Amity (the peaceful): Four, the male partner-in-crime for Tris, was purposely well-balanced with the heroine.
“I didn’t want one person’s strength to require the sacrifice of the other,” Roth said. “I think there can be two strong people but they have to be complicated people. I think it’s important to show he’s a human being, not just man candy.”
In that same vein, Four isn’t a typical male. He respects Tris, respects women, Roth said, toning herself in a caveman voice. “That’s appealing,” she said.
At the core of her series, Roth said, is a reversal of the typical character arcs of males and females. Traditionally, female characters keep things, such as family, together. Male characters go through a journey of becoming a fully formed adult. Instead, in “Divergent," Tris is becoming her “fully realized self.”
“To really embrace who she is, find her strength and see what she really believes in,” Roth continued. “Tris’ voice is hard, direct straightforward and repetitive -- like a man’s.”
Four, the male, speaks “poetic stream of consciousness, and he doesn’t hold things back,” Roth said. “It was like a playground for my mind.”
Dauntless (the brave): Roth considers herself fairly tall, but she wanted Tris to be the opposite. Getting that to work in the book required the help of editors. “I kept having to edit over parts where she probably couldn’t see over crowds,” she said. “I never have to really deal with that.”
In the recently released movie version of the first book, the contrast between actress Shailene Woodley and the actors made Woodley look appropriately small, Roth said.
“I was surprised to meet the male cast, because all the male actors were so huge,” she said. “They made the cast taller around Shailene, and that was important because her physicality is so important to her growth.”
Erudite (the intelligent): Roth said it’s not her role to tell people what the point of her books is. “The last thing you need is me to stand over you shaking my finger and telling you what to believe,” she said, noting she wrote the first book at the age of 21.
“Hopefully, books will guide you to ask questions,” Roth said. “But I don’t want to be the one telling you the definitive lesson.”
She also had harsh words for “intellectual elites” who bash young adult books, their authors and fans. “The last thing young adults need to hear is what they like is silly,” she said. “What were you doing as a child? Smoking a pipe and reading the ‘Illiad?’ ”
Abnegation (the selfless): How did Tris become such a generous yet fierce character? Roth started with a voice. Specifically, she wanted Tris to be able to deliver a line from the ancient play Agamemnon, “My will is mine. I will not make it soft for you.”
As a result, the story is truly about Tris -- not Four. “It didn’t work from Tobias’ environment,” she said, referring to Four’s given name. “It didn’t feel surprising. ‘Man leaves home and becomes more manly.’ That’s everywhere.”
And where does that one line from Agamemnon take Tris? “She makes this choice .. ultimately she’s saying this faction-before-blood stuff is messed up,” Roth said, referring to the guiding virtue of the dystopian Chicago’s leaders.
Candor (the honest): Dropping candidly into her own development, Roth said she grew out of playing make-believe in her Chicago backyard at the age of 11. The kids in the neighborhood were giving her those puzzled looks. But she hadn’t grown up playing make-believe. So she started putting her worlds on paper, writing everyday. Her first full piece was a rip-off of “Lord of the Rings,” she said.
“I was so emotionally involved, my heart would be beating really fast and my face would be flushed red,” she said. Her mom thought she was writing erotica.
Besides writing, Roth also spent much of the early 2000s reading “Harry Potter” just like other teens. Drawing laughs from the hundreds in the crowd, she insisted Hermione should be pronounced “Her-me-one.”
But she ended the morning on a serious note, saying that she’s humbled as a reader now knowing how tough it can be to put out a book. Roth just finished copy edits on her next book, “Four,” which features four short stories about the character Four. It’s scheduled for release July 8.