Friday, 30 September 2011

Writing what you know ... writing what you don't. By Bryony Pearce

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.

Shakespeare’s Shylock said it best:
“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?


  1. Absolutely. Great post, Bryony. Whenever an author writes a book (unless it's an autobiography)they have to put themselves in the shoes of a character who's not them, whether they're the same age, gender, race, religion, sexuality etc or not. Some of the greatest literary characters were written by authors of a different sex - Adrian Mole, Tess, Lyra, Madame Bovary, Becky Sharp, Rhett Butler, Moll Flanders Harry Potter... and some authors even go so far as to write from the point of view of different species - Black Beauty, Watership Down, Animal Farm and Charlotte's Web for example. How limited we would be if we could only write about what we personally have experienced - and fiction would be all the poorer for it.

  2. I agree 100%, Bryony! And ditto to what Katie said. I don't submit to the 'write what you know' mentality. I believe in writing what obsesses you, what you feel compelled to write and what challenges you.

  3. I think you do have to think of them as boys though...and focus a little bit on the male parts, even if you don't explain in graphic detail what's going on in the trouser department.

  4. One of my favourite books is THIS IS ALL, which is almost exclusively from the point of view of a 19-year-old girl who wants to write about her life for her unborn daughter. It's mindblowingly brilliant. And it's written by a man (Aidan Chambers). Enough said!

  5. And I was shocked when I found out that Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a man.

  6. For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing is getting inside the heads of all the different characters. It's great to spend your time jumping from the headspace of a middle aged white man to a rebellious teenage girl, a woman on the verge of a breakdown to a young Ethiopian boy - whether it's done convincingly is up to each reader to decide but I certainly have a good time doing it.