Last weekend I presented at my first literary festival (which was nerve-wracking, but really good fun). After my talk a member of the audience asked me if I wrote only female protagonists. In answer I said that the first three full-length novels I had written (including Angel’s Fury) had female protagonists, but the most recent two (both in early stages) have male leads. There was no real conscious decision making process there – a boy’s voice simply took over the book.
A man in the audience was surprised and asked if I thought I’d really be able to write from a boy’s viewpoint.
On one level we’re always told ‘write what you know’ and admittedly I have no experience being a teenage boy; but then are teenage boys really so alien that no female adult could put herself in their place?
As writers we are meant to use our imagination, our empathy and our own experiences to put ourselves inside our characters. We do it all the time when we create worlds that are not our own, when we write anything that doesn’t have ‘Diary’ on the title page.
I have experienced being different, I have experienced unrequited love (and requited love, thank goodness), I have been bullied. Haven’t boys experienced these things too?
Can’t I use my own memories of being bullied to write about a bullied boy? Would a victimised boy really feel differently to a girl in the same position? Or would the feelings of humiliation, powerlessness, frustration and rage all be the same?
I can imagine myself inside a boy – I believe it’s just like being inside a girl.
What I find harder to imagine is the physical side of being a boy, having those muscles - being bigger and stronger, having (whisper it) male … equipment. But that shouldn’t preclude me from writing a male lead. I don’t talk about female specific body parts when I write a female lead, so why should I need to focus on them when I write a boy?
Keren David’s Ty has a convincing voice, as does Gillian Philip’s Seth, Maggie Stiefvater’s James, Candy Gourlay’s Bernardo, Savita Kalhan’s Sam … the list could go on and on.
So I shall continue writing my male leads. I enjoy being in their heads and I don’t even think of them as boys. They are called Odie and Elliot and that’s how I see them. Maybe that’s the answer – I can write male leads because think of my characters as people, not generic examples of a gender.
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
So shouldn't we authors be allowed to imagine ourselves in the place of someone different? Whether it be a boy, a girl, an ethnic minority, a different religious background, or a different sexual persuasion … ?
And if readers can accept a book about a boy that was written by a woman, then perhaps that’s a step towards thinking that it’s okay to put themselves in someone else’s place too. The world could do with a bit more empathy … couldn’t it?