An author recently said in an interview that the reason his books don’t have many females, much less female protagonists, is that he grew up in a home with only brothers and doesn’t know much about women. There was a fire storm that followed that interview. I think, as firestorms go, it was somewhat justified. The purpose of this post isn’t to talk about that, but it certainly springboards off of it.
As a writer, I consciously chose many of the things about my stories, but you’d be surprised about the unconscious choices. I’m a heterosexual, cis-gendered, white guy in my middle years. As such, it’s something of a default mode to make my point of view characters a lot like me. That choice is rarely a conscious one. I’ve put a lot of thought into it over the last couple of years though and I’ve started taking more and more risks. I’ve changed my defaults, and I hope it’s making me a better writer.
Ginnie Dare is a female teen with dark skin and kinky hair. I don’t make a big deal of her race, as it’s set in a future where my hope is that we’ve just found other things to kill each other over. Still, I’m writing from the perspective of a teenage girl, and that’s risky. I could easily make a mistake and alienate a chunk of my audience. I have a daughter, but there’s a difference in having one and being one.
Esho St. Claire is a black man in nineteenth-century Manhattan. Not only that, he’s also a first generation immigrant. In a world where slavery is still a very fresh memory, I won’t be able to avoid dealing with the issue of race as it stands in that time. And I don’t want to. Because I made the choice, I had to put some time into researching what life was like for minorities over a hundred years ago. Most of Esho’s clientele will either be coming to him because they are themselves members of a minority group or because they literally have no other choice. There’s a lot of potential for conflict there. There’s also the chance that I’ll make a whole slew of mistakes.
Melody Lakewood is the protagonist in a story I’m working on currently. Not only is she a teenage girl, she’s also got cerebral palsy. She walks with the aid of crutches and has a large family. I don’t know anything about any of that, other than what I read. I’m sweating bullets to get the story and characterization right. Given that she’s the only living character in the story, if I get her wrong there’s not much left to get right.
Changing the “defaults”, whether they’re your own writing habits or those tropes that your genre holds dear, is risky. But without risk, there’s no reward. If you follow the crowd or stick to writing what you know, it will make it harder for you to stand out and you might stagnate as a creator. Admitting to ignorance is fine, and it’s something I have to do nearly every day. Being willing to stay in that state, unwilling to push yourself or your readers outside of the comfort zones we all have, is to me unacceptable.
What safety net are you using as a creator? What are your default settings and how are you changing them?
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