Today Robert Jackson Bennett returns to Inkpunks with another great post, this time about taking chances with your characters. Enjoy!
Most of my writing decisions – or the big ones, at least – are more or less the equivalent of someone standing at the top of a tall gap, and saying, “I bet I can make that jump.”
Seriously. I write for a lot of reasons, but one of the primary ones is to challenge myself. As Bradbury put it, I like to throw myself off cliffs and build my wings on the way down. This way I not only see if I can pull things off, artistically or aesthetically, but I also force myself to learn, to find out things I wouldn’t normally find out if I kept going back to the stuff I’d done before, and to discover what I think about things I don’t normally think about.
So when I started dreaming up my fourth novel, I went back and considered my last three main characters:
They were, in essence: a strongman, a fop, and a teenage prodigy.
Moreso, they were all male.
This was something I’d been thinking about for a long time. Well, not quite thinking about: I’d been growing bored with it. I had written men three times. I had done, I felt, a pretty good job of writing them. I’d done what I wanted to there: I wanted to try something new.
So while I’d like to say that my choice to write a female protagonist was completely and utterly selfless, a conscientious effort to represent the half of humanity that is wildly underrepresented in SFF… While that was part of it, it wasn’t the whole. (But, really, I feel like the same reasoning should apply to the audience: don’t you get bored of reading the same thing over and over again? Don’t you want to read about other life experiences outside of your own? Don’t we at least partially read to challenge, surprise, and startle ourselves? Isn’t boredom sometimes a moral choice?! If it is, and if I keep getting the chance to write, my intention is to eventually write about everybody, even people I hate. Boredom, when it comes right down to it, forces us to be inclusive.)
So the decision had been made without my ever having actually made it: I would write a female protagonist. But that really doesn’t describe a damn thing, of course: it doesn’t describe the story, what sort of person she would be, or what I wanted to examine with her – because I think of my characters as lenses, devices through which I can study something bigger.
Now, deep in the heart of most fantasy authors, I think, there is a desire to rewrite Alice in Wonderland: to journey through a flighty, fanciful, beautifully ornate world, as seen through the ideas of a young, naïve girl, who would encounter many surprises and, and…
But before my brain could even get started going down this direction, a voice immediately began saying, NO NO NO NO NO.
I had to actually stop and think about why I felt so much resistance to this idea. And I realized that this wasn’t terribly original at all – I mean, it had been done so many times. Just look at the recent slew of Alice-like movies.
And even if I could put an original spin on this idea, I realized that the default for female protagonists in SFF was someone extremely young, girls or adolescents or early-twenties at best. There are outliers, I’m sure, but for the most part when someone says, “Female protagonist of a modern SFF story,” for some reason the collective subconsciousness seems to revert to a feisty, spirited 15-year-old (or so), the most recent example being Merida from Brave. When it’s a male protagonist of a SFF story, their ages can be all over the place – my own writing being exemplary of this – but when it comes to female protagonists, we tend to slide toward the can’t-vote-can’t-drink ages.
(And I wonder – why is this? Do we, as a society, just assume that the Window of Adventure closes the closer a woman approaches marriageable age? Does “Settling Down” and “Growing Up,” for women, mean a complete and utter termination of exciting activity? Or do writers never write these things because they never read about them?)
So I decided that I would not do this with my fourth novel. I didn’t want this to have a YA slight to it at all – because, I do think, YA is much more open to female protagonists than some of the older SFF markets. I wanted to take the path of most resistance.
I wanted something mature – both in writing, and in the main character. Because it seemed kind of ridiculous to me that, the more I paged through titles, I didn’t see terribly many 40ish female protagonists in SFF, middle aged or even upper-middle aged. (Though it’s completely possible I just wasn’t looking in the right places.)
And that was who I decided I would write. I wanted a woman – not a girl. I wanted a woman who had reached middle age and was wondering what more she could expect out of life, after this point. I wanted someone who had really lived, who had gotten beaten up and had her scars and had, in essence, Dealt With Shit. I wanted a woman who had held a position of authority at some point in her life, someone who’d been good at her job, someone who knew how to deal with people, and someone who had chosen – or been forced – to walk away from that life.
And that was how Mona Bright of American Elsewhere was born.
Mona Bright is divorced, nearing forty, and impoverished. An ex-cop, she’s been drifting for the past few years of her life, roaming from town to town, working small jobs, and drinking a lot. She has not been living during this time; she’s been surviving – because surviving is what Mona does best. Her mother committed suicide when she was a girl, and Mona was raised by her roughneck father, a bitter, silent man who littered her childhood with guns and cheap beer and bad decisions. And though Mona feels life has disappointed her so far, when her father dies and leaves her a house she never knew he had – a house her mother owned, in the life she lived before Mona and her father – Mona starts to believe she’s getting a second chance.
Because the house turns out to be in Wink, New Mexico: a place every map and every authority insists does not exist. Yet Mona, mostly through her sheer bloodymindedness, manages to find it. And she finds that Wink is a very special place: not only is it built around a now-defunct Los Alamos-style laboratory, it’s also queerly perfect, the sort of place you dream you’d like to live in.
Wink is a place that has a lot of secrets – almost as many as Mona. And the longer she lives there, the more she feels it’s the home she never had.
Now, this isn’t to say Mona sprang into my head, Athena-like, fully conceived. My main characters are always pretty weak on my first drafts, because I won’t know they feel about the book – and how the book feels about them – until I’ve figured out how I feel about the book. This takes time, and revisions, and work. In this case, I wound up having to scratch the whole ending and rewrite about twenty or thirty thousand words.
But I do think it was worth it. Mona is one of my favorite characters out of all the ones I’ve written so far. It was so easy to write in her voice, it was almost like an addiction. And she was such a strong character that I had to change half the book for her: she just wouldn’t accept what I’d planned out for her.
American Elsewhere is set to come out in February of 2013. I’m curious to see what people will think of the book: it’s my biggest departure from my previous stuff, not just in the main character, but in setting, style, tone, ambition… There is very little that I didn’t try to do differently.
I’m tremendously pleased with it, personally. It’s big, it’s sprawling… and I think Mona is just the person to lead us through it all.
Robert Jackson Bennett‘s 2010 debut Mr. Shivers won the Shirley Jackson award as well as the Sydney J Bounds Newcomer Award. His second novel, The Company Man, won a Special Citation of Excellence for the Philip K Dick Award, as well as an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. His third novel, The Troupe, is out now to wide acclaim.
He lives in Austin with his wife and son. He can be found on Twitter at @robertjbennett.