When I was in the rewrite stage of Dangerous several years ago, a Smart Person read the first 50 pages and immediately let me know her concerns. She said, “Your main character is unrelatable. You made her a home schooled, science geeky, one-armed, half-Paraguayan.” Until this person said all that I had never thought it. I mean, of course I knew knew those things about her, but I’d never strung together all those adjectives in my mind, maybe because the decisions about her character came about piece-by-piece while writing the story, not all at once.
- Science geek - I know science geeks. I was writing science fiction. Allowing her to be into science seemed a good way to include cool science stuff. Because if I was going to write science fiction, I wanted to write SCIENCE fiction, really have fun and celebrate that part of it.
- home schooled - the story would be more interesting if she began it sheltered in some way and then released into a wider world. This idea always intrigues me (girl from a mountain village, girl locked in tower, etc) and homeschooling was one way to introduce this idea in a contemporary setting. Besides, I hadn’t read a lot of books with home schooled main characters, and it’s something that’s becoming more and more common. Seemed like an interesting idea.
- One-armed - Whenever I have babies, I spend a lot of time trying to do things with one hand (while holding a baby with the other) and that always gets me thinking about what it’d be like to have one hand permanently. I had a teacher once with one hand and my sister’s father-in-law has a lame arm. It’s something I think about and I thought it was worth exploring, especially in a superhero action genre. Again, I’d never read a book where the main character had one hand, and it seemed interesting.
- half-Paraguayan - I lived in Paraguay for a year and a half. I love Paraguay and Paraguayans. In the outline stage, there was reason to go to a foreign country and spend time there, and I’d always wanted to include Paraguay in some way in a book (I did, but ended up cutting those chapters). There were also story reasons for the character to be bilingual, and the story takes place in present day US (or just a few years into the future), so a US parent + Paraguayan parent made sense. And again, I thought this choice would make the story more interesting.
Always with any book, writers ask themselves, what choices will make this story more interesting? What will help raise the stakes? What kind of book would I want to read? What will help make this book unlike any book I’ve ever read before? These character choices just made sense to me.
But the Smart Person told me, “Teens will not relate to someone so unlike them. Maybe with middle grade you could get away with this, but not in YA.”
I was shocked. I’d been writing this book off-and-on for years already and never considered this. And then I got a little mad. People exist who are half-Paraguayan or half-anything, or one-handed, or home schooled, or science geeky, or girls, or all of the above. Why can’t someone like Maisie be worthy of a story too?
I’ve encountered similar opinions over the years and began to come to an uncomfortable understanding, one that others before me have also discovered.
In stories (all stories, be they novels, movies, television commercials…) we (in the US) easily accept a certain kind of character as Neutral. Neutral is white, male, able-bodied, straight, not too young (in children’s) and not too old (in adult), and not especially extraordinary in any way. For example, Maisie is called “half-Latina” (rather than “half-white,” which is also true) because the “white” part is Neutral, assumed, and the “Latina” part is Specific. Traditionally all readers/viewers who are not Neutral have learned to relate to Neutral. E.g.:
- Adults have learned to relate to younger characters (after all they were young one once) but not much older than themselves
- Teens have learned to read up in age—but not too far
- Girls have learned to relate to boys.
- People who have disabilities have learned to relate to people who don’t
- People of color have learned to relate to white characters
But often, apparently, the reverse is not true. Not boys to girls, not whole-bodied to disabled, not young to old, not straight to gay, etc. One result of this is that parts of our population are developing empathy for people different from them but others aren’t.
In stories, you can fairly smoothly take one step away from Neutral, maybe two, but more than this is risking turning off a wide audience. This theory was confirmed for me with one of my novels for adults, The Actor & the Housewife. I learned that there’s a reason most female main characters in fiction for adults are in their 20s. Many people don’t want to read about a woman much older than 30 or (heaven forbid!) in her 40s or 50s. In addition to being older, I made her a mother and a Mormon. I was 3 steps away from Neutral and it was too far for many readers to travel.
Now, with Dangerous, I went even further, taking at least 4 steps away from Neutral. She’s not “normal” enough. Too much defines her. Maisie is way too Specific.
Or this is the fear. I really, really hope they’re wrong. I really hope that despite not being Neutral, readers find other ways to relate to Maisie. I do think that this is partly what literature is for. If the main character is a lot like us, we learn more about ourselves, which is awesome, but when the main character is different than us, we gain more empathy for the Other, which is also awesome.
I wasn’t going to talk about this. I wanted the focus to be on the story and not on a list of adjectives about the main character. Talking about it might make it an Issue and I really don’t think this is an issue book. Besides, despite the Smart Person and others, I just didn’t think Maisie’s 4-steps-from-Neutral would be a big issue for most people. But then the reviews started to come in and I realized that those adjectives would be an issue, no matter what I do.
Here’s the beginning of one review: “Maisie Danger Brown (really), smart, home-schooled, one-handed half-Paraguayan daughter of scientists, has always dreamed of being an astronaut.” This reads to me like a list of what makes Maisie different from Neutral. My hope is that after reading the entire book a reader will find plenty of ways to relate to Maisie, regardless of her being such a Specific character: she’s interesting IMHO, loves her parents, gets excited and scared and overwhelmed, falls in love, is curious, is funny, makes big choices, makes mistakes, has a best friend. I don’t mind that reviews mention her one-handedness and girlness and geekiness and Latina-ness. They’re not secrets, after all, as we learn those things about her in the very first chapter. But in listing them like that all together at the top of a review, I feel like they put focus on her differences, spelling her out as unrelatable, freaky, perhaps not worth your time.
Maisie was worth my time. I really hope she ends up being worth your time too.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about Neutral and Specific characters. You could add to my blog comments if easier. Who do you relate to? Are there characters or kinds of characters so different from you that you can’t immerse yourself in the book? Has that changed at all with your age? Does reading about Specific characters make reading more challenging? A different experience? Or a non-issue for you? Teens, was the Smart Person right about you? Feel free to share anonymously, I really want to know your thoughts. Now that I’ve listed all those adjectives about Maisie, how does that affect your feelings about this book and your inclination to read it?
Dangerous is on bookshelves Tuesday, March 4. Come see me on tour!