Monthly Archives: September 2011

Why are my protagonists usually female?

People often ask me “Are you gay?”, “Do you secretly want to be a woman?” In case you’re wondering, the answers to those questions are No and No. Before I answer the real question, how common is it for authors to write protagonists of the opposite sex?

Since my current genre is YA fantasy, let’s skip over the classic examples, such as Tolstoy’s incredible portrayal of Anna Karenina, and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley. History is full of such magnificent examples (and I’m sure many failed ones too).

  • Harry Potter is the first series to come to mind. J K Rowling has a cast of both sexes, but I think it’s fair to say she predominantly had male protagonists in the form of Harry, of course, and Ron. Did she portray these boys better than Hermione? I would argue equally as well.
  • Lyra, in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, is an excellent and highly believable character. She has much of the spunk, wits and sense of adventure that I have in my current heroine, Lissa.
  • Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series is a classic and a must for every fantasy-lover’s bookshelf. Ged was a superb character to root for, a strong character that advanced the plot nicely, but I could always tell that he had been written by a woman.
  • C S Lewis’ Narnia chronicles had a multi-sex set of heroes. He did a reasonable job with the girls but they came out less rounded than the boys, obviously written by a male author. I think it’s fair to put this down to the social values at the time he wrote.
  • In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins captured Katniss perfectly, as one would expect. She is a surprisingly deep and aware character for one so young. Peeta was a great sidekick, but lacked strength of personality somehow, a little weak.
  •  In my opinion, one of the best opposite-gender protagonist in YA fantasy has to be Branwen in Frewin Jones’ Destiny’s Path series. I wouldn’t have guessed that the author was male.

In summary, it is possible to write an opposite sex protagonist but it’s very hard to pull off well. I want to believe that male authors write female characters better than vice versa, but women are assuredly laughing at me right now, telling me that I have it backwards! I’ve read many poor attempts by women writing men, giving them flowery dialog, a lack of machismo, being overly romantic, or showing too much feminine emotion. Men, especially boys, are usually more direct and hate small talk.

So, is it easy for me to write a female heroine? Definitely not. Often, my teenage Lissa comes across as a tomboy, when I desire her to be more feminine. The women at my writing group (bless them!) often remind me that Lissa’s fight scenes are too masculine. “No, not punches! Slapping. Hair pulling.” I have faith in how she has turned out in this final draft, however, and hope that my readers find her as endearing as I now do. I learned much from reading about well-realized heroines in The Golden Compass, Warrior Princess, The Hunger Games, etc.

That only leaves the why of it. No, it’s not because I believe the world needs stronger, independent female characters; that movement was victorious a long time ago. There is a germ of that in my writing though; having grown up reading nothing but boy’s fiction.

Primarily, it’s because writing is my escape, my journey into worlds and plots of the imagination, my chance to embrace new experiences. No, I don’t want to be a woman, but I do enjoy empathizing how they would deal with my imaginary adventures, and trying to capture the essence of their outlook on the world around them. Will I always write about women? No, but for now I’m having a whale of a time, and that’s all that matters, right?

Todd McCaffrey interview about writing

OK, so this is a few years old, but a) I’m a huge fan of Anne and Todd McCaffrey, and b) I like to see kids talking about writing with authors. I support anything that inspires youngsters to write for themselves.


First planet detected in binary star system

Using data from NASA’s Kepler orbiting telescope, scientists have just seen the first direct evidence of a
planet orbiting a binary star system, which they are dubbing Tatooine after the classic desert planet in Star Wars. This is a fascinating new development in our continual charting of extrasolar planets, of which several hundred have been found to date.

This is particularly topical for me, since my current manuscript is set on a world orbiting two suns, a bright yellow/orange star called Eldrar and a smaller, blue/white star named Indar. Alas, Kepler-16’s star system doesn’t resemble my own.

Choosing a binary star system was part of the careful design of my world. We have all read SF or fantasy where the world is so alien that much of the terminology, descriptions, creatures, technology, etc. means nothing to us as a reader. The author’s intent is to reproduce an incomprehensible, alien world. We spend the first chapter(s) feeling like a stranger in a strange land, fighting to get to grips with it all. More talented authors lessen this culture shock, by using terminology in a way that allows us to grasp the real-world equivalent, or take the jargon at face value and go with the flow.

At the other extreme, some fantasy worlds are so similar to medieval Earth, often feudal Europe or Japan, that nothing needs explaining. Easy to read, but they lack the flavour, the spice of experiencing an exciting, far-off planet. I chose to take the popular middle ground, interspersing terminology and concepts, bizarre places and creatures, with more familiar terms like broom or bucket. I hope this allows me to keep the reader immersed in my world, without the constant jarring of unfamiliar words.

Hence, my two suns allow me to remind the reader often that “we aren’t in Kansas”, by a simple reference to a twin suns-set, or the image of two stars hanging above the horizon, just like those classic pictures of Tatooine. A simple, effective device, but one that becomes more important to the plot of later books.


Is my book Young Adult or Middle Grade?

One of the constant dilemmas during the writing of my current book has been: Is it Young Adult (YA) or Middle Grade (MG)?

At first, I had intended it to be YA, pitching its readability and adventurous plot complexity along the lines of the SF & Fantasy that I had read as a kid. Not  a problem I thought. Then, as my research into the market got deeper, I began to worry that I had blundered into the MG category instead. Still not a problem, except was my language too adult? Was my page count too large? At 90-100K, I was well above the 60-80K recommended for MG.

So that’s when I decided to find out once and for all where I stood. It’s not a cut-and-dry distinction (nothing ever is), but a clear picture formed from my research:

Ruthanne Reid explains it succinctly: It’s all about the perspective of the protagonist: In MG, the protagonist is more inwardly focussed, concerned with how the events of the novel relate to her, and less about the big picture or future implications. In YA, the protagonist is more worldly, capable of assessing the impact upon those around her, and the world itself. She is more likely to become pro-actively involved in events, influencing their outcome with a perspective wider than herself.

In MG, the protagonist probably becomes a hero through chance and self-preservation. In YA, heroism comes more from helping or saving others.

Babette Reeves has a similar commentary.

YA Highway discusses this and other criteria, such as romance, age and more adult material.

The romantic tone of my book doesn’t concern me at this time; I have nothing more than some subtle hints. But I expect to deal with these issues more in the 2nd and 3rd books of this trilogy.

The final criteria that I cared about was age. Typically, the hero should be a few years older than the reader. I think I’m breaking the rules here, since my heroine is 12 and yet my audience is probably 10-14. I’m not sure how editors and publishers are going to react to this yet, but two of my readers are 12 and 14, and both are enjoying the characters and plot, so hopefully I’m not horribly off track.