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Boys and Girls

Learn from your characters. Learn from the people you know.

Learn from your characters. Learn from the people you know.

I wrote a novel in high school that was all about me and my girlfriend and all the kids in my youth group…. Yeah, it was awful.

Then I went to college, and took four years of amazing creative writing courses, and met a lot of really serious writers, and before the end of my first semester I was writing my second novel, Taming Fire. It was incredible. It was so much better — more engaging, more professional, more mature.

I spent a year and a half writing it, and the whole time I was learning about writing in drafts and revising, so when I got done I dove right back in, and rewrote the whole thing. It got better, it got cleaner, sharper, realer. By the time I was done, it was a work of art. It was my masterpiece. I printed off several copies, shared them with my best friends, and begged for feedback.

Julie read the whole thing, and told me the female character was flat. Five hundred pages of adventure, magic, politics, armies at war and dragons in the air, and all she wanted to talk about was the love interest. The girl barely had two dozen pages! She barely had a backstory! But that’s all Julie wanted to talk about. I rolled my eyes at my “feminist friend,” but her comments bugged me.

I wanted to be a great writer, and it’s hard to become a great writer if you start out by cutting your audience in half. I knew I needed to write a good chick story. I was in a Drama as Literature class that semester, and the final project was to write a one-act play, so I decided to make that my redemption.

I adapted a love story I’d had kicking around in my head for a while, about a faithful servant who’s in love with his master’s wife (and his master is kind of a conceited jerk). Instead of making moves on the wife, the servant ends up teaching his master how to appreciate his woman. It was all emotional and romantic, and the whole point of the play was the woman, right? The whole point was the master learning to value her as a person instead of just a prize.

I turned that play in to a professor who’d had a thing or two to say about the role of women in classic literature, and she gave it back with good marks on the writing, but a sad face at the end and a comment, “I feel sorry for the wife. She went from being ignored to adored, but never actually got to be a person.”

Those two complaints have stuck with me for years. They haunt me as a writer. I’ve grown up a lot since college — and it’s more a matter of tasting real life and surviving marriage than anything that can be taught in a creative writing course. I can look back on both of those works now and understand exactly what was wrong with them. And in the last couple years I’ve even been writing a series with a female protagonist that has gotten some pretty solid reviews from my women readers — Julie high among them.

Respect Your Ignorance

Like so many things in life, the first step to doing it right is learning to worry that you’re doing it wrong. I grew up on the high fantasy of the eighties and early nineties, and that was a hugely male-dominated market. As a result, I didn’t have a ton of great examples to draw from, and I was still so clueless when it came to the women in my life, I never stood a chance.

The problem I ran into was that I didn’t know how bad I was. Two of the greatest tools of fiction writers are the zoom lens and the pruning shears. By that, I mean that writers get to choose which story to tell. I spent ten years writing fantasy instead of mainstream fiction primarily because I didn’t know anything about the real world.

When I finally did dive into mainstream fiction, I ran into countless problems trying to follow one of my characters on a road trip down the east coast, because I didn’t know anything about the east coast. In the end, I faked my way through it using Google Maps and clever guesses, but mostly I avoided the details that would give me away. I didn’t name the little towns he drove through, I kept the time frames vague, and I got him from point to point as evasively as I could.

When it comes right down to it, that’s the same problem I had with Isabelle’s character in Taming Fire. I didn’t know anything about girls, so I faked my way through it. The difference, though, is that I didn’t respect my ignorance. I named names, I gave details, I even explained why she felt the way she felt, why she did the things she did. It would be like saying, off the cuff, that Josh headed south out of Richmond on I-77 and didn’t pass a single town before pulling into Boston two hours later.

Flat wrong, to anyone who has a clue what I’m talking about. And when what I’m talking about is “being a girl,” that’s a pretty significant portion of my audience!

By the time I got started on the play, I knew about my ignorance, thanks to Julie, but I still didn’t respect it. I decided to fix it, even though I didn’t have any of the tools to do so. The result was, honestly, pretty pathetic. That’s what college is for, though — to learn those sort of lessons.

After Faithful Jake, I toned it down. I pushed all my female characters out to arm’s length, and only described them to the extent I felt qualified. I told all my stories from the limited POVs of guys just as clueless as I was, and that bought me some time. That’s a good way to avoid getting yelled at, but it doesn’t do a lot to double your readership.

Make them Real

Ultimately, the only way to write solid characters of either gender, is to write real characters. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to write a good girl character, but that obsession was precisely the problem. If I’m trying to make a girl character, I’ve already missed the boat. The trick is to make a character, who just happens to be a girl.

One of my favorite ways of saying it is that male writers have a bad habit when it comes to writing female characters — the poor girl is destined to be either a damsel in distress…or a dude in a dress. There’s no in between.

The first happens by default when we’re running off the lessons learned from eighties high fantasy. The second happens when we’re trying to prove a point, to appease the feminists, to make a “strong female lead.” It’s all too easy to get reactionary, and to go absurd, and that’s not an answer.

The answer is to understand people. It’s really easy for me to say, “I’ll never understand women,” but if I’m willing to settle for that, I’m going to have to let my characterizations settle, too. I’m going to have to settle for soft focus and arm’s length ingenues. If I want to get any better than that, I’m going to have to get better as a person.

Is that a little melodramatic? Maybe. Then again, I’ve said all along that writing makes people better people. I believe it, and strong characterization is one of the main reasons. The feminists have been telling us for years that this stark, obvious dividing line between “boy things” and “girl things” was wrong, and it took writing to make me realize how right they were.

I had to grow up, to become a better writer. I had to get over some childish notions, and some lovely romantic notions, and start seeing some of the women in my life as real people. The more energy I’ve put into that, the better all of my characters have become.

And don’t for a moment think that I’m claiming to be done with it. I’ll be working on it for the rest of my life, paying attention to the people I know — to the quiet girls and the brassy ones and the strong ones and the sensitive ones and the dramatic ones — trying to see the world through their eyes. That’s my job as a storyteller, every bit as much as hitting 50k in November is.

So what’s my advice to you? Make friends of all types. Pay attention. See people as people. And, at the very least, respect your ignorance.

3 Responses to “Boys and Girls”

  1. Trish Pogue says:

    Man, I loved that novel. And still do, it reminds me of simpler times. This post is right on. What better way to learn to write from a different perspective than to use a person from real life! When I journal for scrapbooks I imagine I’m the one I’m writing about. It’s fun and makes the journalling more interesting.

  2. Carlos Velez says:

    I meant to leave you a comment on this before, and now it’s 1:19am and I’m tired, so it might suck, but this post was amazing.

    I thrilled at it. It drives a vital point home very effectively and tells a great story in the process. I love this post. My favorite.

  3. Aaron Pogue says:

    Thanks, Trish! I was just digging back through that novel looking for a character’s name a couple weeks ago, and ended up spending a whole night reading it. It’s fun, and it’s a good enough story that it deserves more attention. That’s one of my goals for this year.

    And thanks, Carlos! That’s high praise. It was really important to me to get this one right, and I’m pretty proud where it ended up.