There’s this sort of avoidance undercurrent running through the email pile lately; a topic that’s hinted at, questioned obliquely, discarded with a winky emoticon. At times, it’s brought to just beneath the conversational surface, then allowed to descend once again into the koi pond of topics, an increasingly blurry shimmering bolt of motion. In some, the subject is phrased in the form of a question; in others, a backhanded compliment (or an outright compliment). A few (thankfully) are confrontational; most are somewhere between vaguely supportive and nervously curious.
The question is a simple one, so allow me to boil down a hundred-odd variants of it into a single portmanteau question combining parts of all: What made you feel as if you would be comfortable writing a teenage girl protagonist – and how is it that you pulled it off?
(Disclaimer: not everyone added any variant of that second part, but I’ll be forthcoming in telling you that the positives are running 50:1 to the negatives on that front – in other words, there’s an order of magnitude more of you that find Sabine eminently believable than do not. So I’ll include the declarative in that portmanteau.)
I suppose my first response is to level-set expectations: no one can possibly inhabit the body of another and know, for certain, what another’s feelings and emotions might be. As a fortysomething suburban father, I can’t really claim to know what a high-school freshman girl is thinking or experiencing. I also can’t tell you anything about what an Afghanistan war veteran is thinking or experiencing. Or an unemployed financial advisor. Or a single mom. Or a five-year-old kid, or a grandmother, or an alien, or a robot, or a duck-billed platypus. No idea what’s going on in there. None.
But my job, as an author, is to make characters believable and organic to you, the reader. So every aspect of motivation, environment, and behavior has to go under the microscope from the first time the character appears on the page. That has to be true of any character I write that isn’t a fortysomething suburban father, candidly. There’s exactly one of those, really, in either book so far, and Tom Britten gets about six seconds of screen time before he’s ushered off. That was my writing comfort zone: six seconds. Beyond that, I’m writing a widow; another, scarred, teenaged girl; a middle-school-aged girl; two high-school guys; and numerous bears, horses wolves, and lupine humanoids. Oh, and a nineteenth-century French soldier interpreted by an Egyptian god as a fictional character.
(Read that last one again. I’m actually surprised more people haven’t asked, what made you think you could write a nineteenth-century French soldier interpreted by an Egyptian god as a fictional character? There’s a challenge.)
Below the question, though, is another, pricklier, more…cultural question. J.K. Rowling went about ten thousand pages writing a male protagonist, along with a male sidekick; Hermione’s her only comfort-zone character, and Rowling was decidedly not a young girl when she began the series, so even that’s at a distance. No one’s ever questioned her qualifications to write Harry and Ron. In fact, look down the roster of most YA fiction and you’ll see a long list of female authors tackling male protagonists (or significant male characters). Yet that’s never questioned. If female authors can write male characters without so much as a sideways glance, can’t male authors write female characters? (Careful, here; to elevate the complexity of one over the other is reductionist and, frankly, sexist, so forgive me if I don’t buy the ‘you couldn’t possibly understand’ argument.)
I suppose, at the basis of this issue, is the concept of whether anyone can write any character not ‘themselves.’ Last I checked, there’s very few actual lycanthropes writing shifter-fic, and a real dearth of undead penning vampire paeans. There’s not a sci-fi writer alone who’s ever been in near-earth orbit, let alone space (fine, some fanboy/fangirl correct me on this with a piece of obscura). No one writing historical fiction was alive in their chosen period in history. Not one of us is an authentic narrator; we are all dopplegangers, shapeshifters, mimics in stolen shoes. We succeed, or fail, based on your personal judgment; we draw courage from your praise, inspiration from your criticism, and both become strengthin the end. If you believe Sabine, if you believe Taryn, if you believe Guillaume in his new and insanity-inducing skin, then I’ve done what I set out to do.