Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gender Blender

Allow me to state the obvious: I am a woman.

Allow me to state the not-so-obvious: I write a lot of male protagonists.

By “protagonist” I mean, the primary focal character. In works with several “main” characters, the protagonist is the big hero, the point of view character, the “PC” in video-game terms. The one you could pick out and say, “Yes, this is his story,” if you really had to.

Three out of four stories on my Works page have a male protagonist. When you take in the WIP’s that I’d rather keep to myself for now, that ration rises to four out of six. Adding in ren’py games makes it five out of eight. There’s no particular reason for it, mind you – this is just how the stories come out in my mind.

Apparently, this is a problem.

See, I’ve had more than a few of fellow YA nuts – including a panel of agents at DFW Con – tell me that selling YA fiction with a male protagonist is hard, because most YA readers are young women. And that, well, baffles me.

Allow me to re-state the obvious: I am a woman. I am also young. I am also a huge YA fan. And I read lots of books with male protagonists.

Admittedly, this might be a little skewed. After all, I mostly read (and write) the sort of books that would fall under Barnes & Noble’s “YA Fantasy and Adventure” section. Plus, I really, really hate YA paranormal romance right now. Yes I know it’s the big seller. No I don’t care.

But when I look over the list of my favorite YA protagonists, I find a decent mix of heroes and heroines – from Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen to Quentin Jacobson and Margaret Simon.

So I don’t really get where this bit of advice is coming from.

I’ve heard people throw around the statistic that teenage boys don’t read. I’ve also heard the statistic the college kids don’t read, which is why you never see the high school-to-college transition and why there’s this huge gap between graduating college and becoming a “real person” that never gets addressed.

What I dislike about this is that I never actually see any data on the subject. It’s all based on implications and general sweeps of logic; i.e. “It’s hard for me to get my teenage boy to read, so teenage boys must not read.” You never get any hard data or pie graphs on the subject. And I need pie graphs if I’m going to take a study seriously.

In addition – as Justine Larbalestier points out in this excellent blog post – what people mean when they say “boys don’t read” is that boys don’t read novels. They read comics and non-fiction and sports guides and video game magazines and online news feeds. Which is equally baffling because, uh, it’s still reading, people.

Plus, who’s to say that if you write a novel that includes aspects that they like about those things – like a genuinely good superhero novel, which I’m sadly yet to find – that they won’t pick those up, too?

But of course, the real problem in some people’s minds is that I am (to state the obvious yet again) a woman writing books about boys. Which is apparently ridiculous because I don’t have the experience to understand what boys are really like, just like male authors can’t write about women.

Frankly: that’s bullshit. See: Harry Potter, again. Also the Animorphs series. Also the Uglies trilogy, the Midnighters, and all of Deryn’s scenes in Leviathan.

And you the best thing about all of those books? They’re not written “for boys” just because they have a male protagonist. Hunger Games wasn’t written “for girls” just because it had a female protagonist. Good books in general aren’t written “for” the gender of their lead character. They’re written to appeal to people who like reading good fiction.

That’s what’s really important, I think.


  1. I definitely agree. I read good YA regardless of the protagonist's gender. And I was that way in high school.

    If it's a good story, it's a good story. And your male leads are always so entertaining!


  2. Totally agree. I also am not a fan of YA paranormal romance, and typically not romance at all. I went to a publishing panel at a bookstore event where one agent said that YA historical fiction does not sell... until a really good one comes along and gets signed and promoted and all that. Her advice was to write the best book you can and don't write for what is expected to sell, even though it's got to be more difficult to sell something like that rather than another story about a girl who discovers latent magic and a cute boy.

    PS found your blog from What Not to Do as a Writer's blog.

  3. There was a time back in the 1960s when James H. Schmitz wrote the Telzey Amberdon stories, which were in a pulp magazine aimed at an overwhelming male audience. People were baffled at the choice of a female lead main character. There was even a letter that said "if you made the character male you wouldn't change anything about the story at all."

    I think they had trouble wrapping their head around the idea of a female heroine at all.

    In all fairness though I have found many female authors do write male characters very strangely so there is some truth to the stereotype (the reverse is also probably true but I'm less sensitive to it for obvious reasons). For instance, there are a lot of stories where some feature of a male character changes (hair color, scar) and the tension comes from anxiety about what their guy friends will think of it. Chicks with dicks indeed!

    Perhaps the lesson here is to be more conscious of that phenomenon.