After spotting a link on twitter (thanks, Ang!), I took a break from editing to read a fabulous blog post and am continuing that break to write this. Please, take a break from whatever you’re doing to read here.
In as much as this blog has a topic, that post, and this commentary, may seem like a deviation from it, but I don’t think it is. First of all, the writing is compelling, which is really all that matters to me regardless of subject, and also I think there’s relationship between that post and fiction writing. (Please note, I’m not for a second claiming to be the first to make a connection between those real-world concepts and character creation, it’s just something I want to write about here.)
Hanne Blank is absolutely right, in my opinion, and as I am knee-deep in edits and watching my characters on the page again, it got me thinking.
It is, I believe, a universal hope amongst writers that someone, anyone out there will connect with the people we create in our books and identify with them. We may be telling the stories of completely invented characters, but we want readers to invest in them and think, “Hey, that’s me!” to some degree. Not everyone will, and that’s fine, maybe even good, since as Ms. Blank says, women aren’t just one thing. People aren’t just one thing. Still, it means that we want to make our characters as “real” as we possibly can, and with that there is an inherent responsibility to make them diverse. That is to say, make them an accurate representation of the world not only that we’ve invented, but the one we’re sitting in while we write them down. For one thing, if we succeed (and learning how to is a process I’m sure I’ll be going through for the rest of my life) it makes for a more interesting book, but there’s another issue, too. I’m a YA writer, at least some of you who will read this post are YA or middle-grade writers, and I’d argue that it’s especially important for these age groups to read about as many different kinds of people as possible. Not in a hey-let-me-sit-you-down-and-teach-you-a-lesson kind of way, because every kid and young adult I know can spot that faster than I can spot a twix bar, but in a way that reminds us people aren’t just one thing. It is, after all, depiction in various forms of media that has led to the necessity for posts exactly like the one linked above, and books absolutely have their place there. I’m sure actual people have said things like this, often, but for the simple fact that I can remember it off the top of my head, I’m going to quote an episode of The West Wing, in which Toby says this:
There is a connection between progress of a society and progress in the Arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo Da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was the age of Shakespeare.
The next line is another character saying “these people aren’t Da Vinci or Shakespeare” and I’m not saying we are. Not at all. I have theories as to why I think we’ll never see giants like that again, though that’s another post. We’re writers, trying to get by and maybe see our books on shelves along the way, but I don’t think that nullifies the point. Pretty much everything is “normal” and if it takes depictions in books and TV shows and magazines and everything else to subtly guide us towards having that view of the world, then hey, at least we get there in the end.
As a personal example, there is something about the protagonist of my current MS that could be considered a little “different” – or not, depending on who you are, but it could be. I didn’t choose to put it in there, or set out with a plan to create him with that particular aspect, but he was one of those characters that popped into my head fully formed, including this one thing, and there is a reason I didn’t take it out. I was recently asked whether I would if that would make the difference between being published or not, and my honest answer is I don’t know, but if I ever did it would be a wrench. It makes him more real to me, and if my book does make it to shelves and someone out there identifies with that aspect of him, then that’s a bonus. It’s not why I wrote him that way, and at no step of the journey was it ever intended to be some kind of lesson or an attempt to force my own beliefs on anyone, but if it resonates with someone, just once, I’ll be glad I didn’t listen to the naysaying voice inside my head at the beginning. (I just think he’s a cool character, it’s an interesting story, and I had an amazing time writing it.)
As of this morning, the twitterverse was re-alight with the debate over darkness in YA fiction, thanks to another article in the WSJ by the author of the original, who argued that darkness in YA is unhealthy. Millions of opinions proliferate, and here’s mine: the exploding YA market and its corresponding wealth of all kinds of subjects, tones, and genres brings with it an incredible number of rich, diverse, layered characters just waiting for people to read about them, put the book down, and (hopefully) think. What could be healthier than that?