As writers we regularly need to shape-shift into our characters in an attempt to make our creations more real and believable. Matching feelings and reactions, albeit overlaid with our own personal prejudices, are relatively easy to do and imagining our own take on the behaviour of orcs and barghests in fantasy is subject to a lot of creative license. But what happens when a 40-year-old male writer attempts to write a book in which the protagonist is a 20-year-old female and while fantastical in nature, the novel is set in the here and now? How the hell would you go about it?
A few months back I was caught up in an idea for a novel that seemed to flow uncontrollably from my fingertips onto the pages of my Moleskine. I felt possessed. I don’t recall the exact catalyst but by the time the creative juices slowed (and doubt crept in), I was knee-deep in what is probably sufficient outline for an entire book, maybe two. Eagle eye view: It’s about a young woman on a scholarship to an inner-city university who stumbles on an old coin on the beach and her curiosity about its origin triggers a whirlwind journey running from strangers with supernatural powers into the arms of a group of mysterious and magical people who know the truth of what she has found… and lots more. It’s an odd mix of Hunger Games, Da Vinci Code (just a little – thankfully) and American Gods with a serving of Heroes (TV) on the side.
At the time I was amazed at how quickly I scribbled together something entirely different from what I like to read and write: heroic fantasy. Sure, I can quickly match up similarities to movies I have seen and books I have read, but it is so unlike what I like that I was quite confused at what my subconscious mind was regurgitating. And at a pace far too fast for my mind to drop anchor on. Beyond the immediate issue of setting the story in the real world, I made the protagonist a woman, a young woman – what do I know about writing from the perspective of a young woman in 2013? I chose to set the action in the here and now and in cities I have never been and touching on cultures of which I have zero experience. Very odd.
At the time I was more interested in my fantasy world and a novel I started at Nano so I did not give the it much more thought… Re-reading the outline now and post my realisation that my fantasy effort has turned into a confusing mess, I actually still like it. For all the mammoth ‘technical’ issues and potentially cliché mash of ideas I still think I may be onto something and even if it turns out to be some YA fiction (doubtful as I have a feeling that I am too dark for YA). I think I should give it a chance.
So how to proceed? Assuming I should dive into the deep end with something diametrically opposed to what I like reading, how do I address the problems I think I am going to have with this. Besides being entirely out of touch with the age group, I am pretty much a guys kinda guy. I may not want to spend each weekend drowning my eyeballs in lager at the local sports pub with the stereotypical male yobbo, but I am definitely not know for having a feminine side – so how am I going to make this work? Is my heroine going to have to be a manly Lara Croft? Yeurgh!
Challenge 1: The easier one – Today and in the real world
Unlike a fantasy world where I can just make it all up as I go (yes yes I know it’s not that easy), basing a story in the real world and in the present time is quite daunting and I have never attempted it on anything longer than a short story before. That said, I think I can work my way around this lack of practical travel experience without becoming a frequent flyer god…. I can easily while away days researching a particular place or technology or course list at a university – more than enough to make it believable part of a novel. It’s sometimes true that Google is your friend and not some modern day deity that requires hours of daily electronic worship (hmmm… wonder if Gaiman thought of that when he wrote American Gods). As to being there… With a little creative license I think I can make it work… Spirit walking via Google is now possible: Especially with Views now going indoors into spaces that I doubt I will ever have the chance to see and all the 360° photosphere images of some amazing places for inspiration. It will take time, research and practise but I think I can get by this first challenge – especially if I can make the assumption that most readers would not have been to all the places I may want to take my story and should (if I do it right) suspend their disbelief just long enough not to care. I don’t think the next challenge is going to be as simple though…
Challenge 2: The sex change operation
Just thinking of it is pretty scary. Before I started researching this problem I had no idea where to start nor did I have a reference point to work from. To be honest I am still a little apprehensive about it. I really have no idea what a 20-something woman would be thinking or how she would react to something that my twisted mind may throw at her. Where do I start?
Do I follow Jack Nicholson’s advice in As Good As It Gets : “How do you write women so well?’ and he responds, ‘I think of a man and I take away the reason and the accountability.’ ? Amusing but I can already feel my wife’s evil eyed stare boring a hole through my computer screen. No, lets try not to go that way.
I have read a few on-line articles about the ability of a writer of one gender to effectively portray a main character of another and I have yet to decide on my own opinion of this issue. I think this is because I have not read many books with female protagonists written by males – in fact, I am struggling to think of one such combination in the fantasy genre. Do I really need to worry about this side of the issue? I have no wish to write 120k words about the adventures of a young woman only to fail dismally – not because of the plot, but because I have created a stereotypically simple and depth-less heroine. I am not really interested in creating a literary praise worthy depiction of the quintessential young woman but I at least want to portray someone that the average female reader will not want to spew hate mail about and the average male will have the appropriate reaction to – get your mind out of the gutter. What are young woman like? Take something like Dunhams Girls – is this really how young women behave these days? I see how my younger brother carries on and can compare that to what I got up to in my youth but the few episodes of Girls that I watched shocked me more than the Red Wedding (spoiler alert) ever could. I attribute this to the fact that I, in my male centric naivety, never really expected that was how women really behaved – in fact, I am somewhat on the fence as to the validity of the depictions in the series. Perhaps there is a hint of truth to the characters but it seems to me a little hyperbolic – purely for TV ratings.
Am I going to, like some writers suggest, fall back into creating characters that draw parallels with woman / girls that I know? If so then I have a problem – I do not really KNOW any women of the appropriate age from which to draw meaningful reference and I cannot remember much of the woman I knew when I was that age (wifes fault). I sure as hell am not going to start hanging with people half my age for ‘research’ purposes – I may be nearing mid-life crisis stage but I think I will skip the dirty old man routine if you don’t mind. I have three nieces that I will probably ‘steal’ some idiosyncrasies from (you know which ones girls) but beyond that I do not know them well enough to extract enough for a main female character. My own daughter is far too young for any input and simply confirms the fact that I really am still learning about her. I did meet my wife when I was 20 and she was 23, and I expect that I may think back to those times for inspiration and detail but I am not sure it will be enough or be relevant to today’s world (sorry love).
Flipping the coin on the various on-line opinions, I also read an interesting comment by some unknown troll that sparked something: I may not need to dwell too much on the gender vs. building a character using the same principles that you would for any protagonist irrespective of gender, race or religious persuasion. Sure, there may be some default gender traits, like sitting down to take a pee, that I will obviously need to think about but is there really a difference between a proud, strong and wholly psychotic male or female character beyond the physical? Does there need to be?
On a less philosophical and perhaps more practical “how-to” approach to the problem I did find a few pointers on Writers Digest that seem relatively logical to me – unconfirmed but logical. I’ll paraphrase here.
- On average, women speak more than men. I can agree with that one. Daunting thought that I have to add more dialogue than I am used to.
- Men tend to see more, while women might experience things in different ways/different emotions. Again, I can agree with that – I am visual person. How this translates to actual prose will be an interesting exercise.
- Men and woman tend to concentrate on different types and levels of detail. Sounds true…. not exactly sure how to interpret this – some men want a high level description of the baroque-style frame around the picture of the naked lady while others just look at the boobs. Is this really a gender difference or just a character trait shared by either sex that is just as believable?
- Emotion is handled differently… Hell yes, no question there. Other than simple feminine interactions and behaviour, this is probably the most important thing I am worried about. I am not entirely sure that I will be able to put myself in the appropriate high heels or tennis shoes when the time comes for my character to act out accordingly.
- Sex. Duh. Sleep vs Cuddle… we all know this one.
… I am sure that there are many more pointers… I am still looking… who knows, perhaps I will experience the same demonic possession and the words will flow uncontrollably onto the page and I will step back and see that what I have created is good. (sorry, could not resist)