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Why Are My Main Characters Women?

I’ve known forever that I wanted to write a thriller. This genre has been my favorite since a neighbor gave me all the James Bond books when I was ten. I tore through (without completely understanding them) and then started grabbing whatever was on my dad’s night stand. My dad’s tastes ran to spy novels about the cold war and WWII--I loved Ken Follett’s early work--and detectives, like Edward X Delany from Lawrence Sanders’ Deadly sin series, Robert B Parker’s Spenser, or Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole. Then there was some general preventing the end of the world action stuff from authors like Jon Land and of course Tom Clancy. The Hunt For Red October is still one of my favorites. I don’t think I actually bought a book myself until I graduated college. 

But along the way there were not many female protagonists. Except for books written by Hellen MacInnes who wrote 21 espionage thrillers, most set during WWII. Her books featured mostly normal people, and unusually, more than a few women, who got caught up in spy stuff and had to rely on their own smarts to figure things out and stay ahead of the bad guys. I’m also a sucker for a romantic story, and there was often some kind of love story subplot going on in many of her books. What made all of these stories so great to me was that I could actually imagine myself in the protagonist’s place, taking on the Nazis or the Russians and coming out on top. The main characters were more or less normal people. That’s what I wanted to do with my own thriller. Take a regular person, put her in a situation she wasn’t trained to deal with and make her figure it out. I say ‘her’ because, from my first short story about a woman who gets attacked on a dark street and prevails, to Jessica Banks, the awesome protagonist of Origin, the main characters always seem to be women. That’s just how they come out of my head. Maybe it was growing up with a strong mother who was an OR nurse with a thick skin, a pragmatic attitude toward problem solving and a somewhat cynical sense of humor--which I seem to have inherited. She’s probably the reason I chose a wife with similar qualities who can literally do anything she puts her mind to. There’s a lot of both of them in my female characters.

But writing outside your gender isn’t easy. I think a lot of what people think of when they see a man writing women characters is cliché. And admittedly, there’s a lot of that happening. The women are neat and always put the toilet seat down or they focus on the wrong things. If you want to laugh, check out the Twitter hashtag #menwritingwomen.  I was scolded about my character Jenna in What You Wish For because “a teenage girl would never get into a car with a stranger” and then advised to read some Joyce Carrol Oats to improve my woman's perspective. So I did. I bought Where Are You Going Where Have You Been, a collection of short stories about women. The title story is about a teenage girl who gets in a car with a stranger! In fact, the female characters did nothing but make the kind of bad decisions I was being critiqued for. I spent a lot of time agonizing over this and wondering if it would make it impossible for people to take me or my characters seriously because I was writing from a perspective I hadn’t experienced. There were a lot of conversations at the time, in my classes and in the press, about cultural appropriation. What the whole argument comes down to is an artificial view of what someone is “qualified” to write based on their gender identity or their personal experience, or whatever. But that’s what writers do. They imagine what it would be like to do what the characters would do in a certain situation. Whether those characters are Hobbits, Dragons, Criminals, or teenaged girls. 

It would be pretty boring to write only from your own narrow cultural perspective. Imagine a novel filled with late fifties men whose distinguishing characteristics are banging away at a keyboard, drinking coffee, and trying not to be a couch potato. I don’t want to read that story and neither do you. And since I couldn’t imagine a male character as cool or as badass as Jessica Banks, I had to let her live, and I had to find out how to make that happen in a realistic way.

So I did a lot of reading--more JCO, NK Jemison, and many others--and I discovered two things. First, it doesn’t matter if a character is male or female, they have to be crafted and the writer has to understand them so it’s believable when they get in that car, or beat the crap out of a guy, or open a door you know they shouldn’t. Ultimately, writing is about creating characters that do things they shouldn't because that’s what their character would do. They don’t have a choice. Then the reader will go along with it.

The other thing I learned is that men and women are people, not their gender, and they respond to pressure and adversity based on their personalities. If their choices suck, it’s because they don’t know any other way to live. So that’s what I try to do. Hopefully, it works.

Funny enough, in the story where I was so badly critiqued for my character gender choice, I changed the pov from third to first person, and readers told me “If I didn’t know you were a man, I would have thought this was written by a young woman.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

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