Monday, May 4, 2015

Overthinking out of the Stereotypes

If you scan over the past few Middle Grade Minded posts, you’ll probably notice our recently recurring theme of gender in middle grade literature. When the topic first came up, Tom T. pitched an idea about what it was like being a male writer and writing female characters. I had the same idea since that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few years, but he beat me to it by just a couple of comments in the discussion thread. Still, it was agreed that I could take on the same topic as long as I didn’t cover the same territory. After reading his post, I realized I saw things differently enough to allow me to write something of a counterpoint.

Summarizing, his main points about writing opposite gender characters were “Don’t overthink it. Ignore all the stereotypes and let the story determine who your characters are.” To clarify, I’m certainly not coming out in favor of perpetuating gender stereotypes in books being written for young and impressionable minds. However, I believe a lot of thought and planning needs to go into developing a character, and that can mean overthinking isn’t always such a bad thing.

Sure, there’s a point when planning ahead can be too much and I know I’ve been guilty of that before, but I’d rather go into a story knowing more about my characters than I really need to instead of leaving a lot of room for discovery. If you’re in the writing world you’ve probably heard of the terms “plotters” (the people who meticulously outline every detail of character development and plot and world-building ahead of time) and “pantsers” (the people who write by the seat of their pants and let things unfold along the way as they will). I am unquestionably a plotter. I suspect Tom T. might be more of a pantser. Neither of these methods is any better than the other since it all comes back to the individual writer and what works best for her or him. While a pantser would be more okay with discovering the story along the way and having that dictate how the character responds and grows, a plotter would map out their character to know exactly how they would react in any situation that came along before the drafting gets serious. Of course things are still going to evolve and fine-tune along the way, but rarely to a degree that would redefine who the character was meant to be at the start.

For me, this tendency is even more pronounced when I write female characters. I honestly prefer writing female characters to male. I find it all too easy to fall back on my own perceptions and experiences when writing boys, and I have to go out of my way to make those characters come across as distinct individuals instead of just slightly different facets of my own personality. With girls, I don’t have any of that personal perspective to borrow from. To have a complete and realistic character, I need to create everything about her from the ground up, which I feel is the best kind of challenge. In fact, since the story of my current manuscript was something very personal for me, the biggest reason I made my main character a girl and had her tell the story in the first person was to make it that much harder for me to relate to her. Thinking in lazy terms about what girls are like (and this is the part where I agree with Tom T.) can lead into generalizing stereotypes. My first job was to create a believable person, but then, to make sure she came across as believable, to also provide her with multidimensional characteristics. Part of that is her gender.

I think it’s fair to say my agent is pretty editorial (and, HOORAY for that, by the way). When we were brainstorming through different revision passes, I’d send her ideas I was considering and she’d occasionally caution me to make sure I didn’t fall into any kind of stereotype traps: “Just because they need to stop at a mall, make sure the scene doesn’t become about how girls like to shop” or something along those lines. She had faith that I knew better than to do that intentionally, but would still point out moments where it would have been too easy to just slip a little and rely on a stereotype instead of advancing the character and the story in meaningful and authentic ways. Since she knows a lot more about what it was like to be a thirteen-year-old girl than I ever will, I listened, and would tread very deliberately around those moments.

Because of that, I wound up with a character that I hope readers, both male and female, will relate to and see as someone who could be real. Whether it works better for a writer to plot or pants their way through the work, that should always be one of their biggest goals.

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