August 16, 2010

Boys and girls; readers and characters

Filed under: articles,how I write,things I read on the internet — Tags: , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 9:50 am

A friend of mine pointed me at a post by Tamora Pierce about her use of female protagonists. She was responding to a blog post by Hannah Moskowitz, an author of YA fiction, suggesting that there are not enough books for boys which real teenage boys can relate to: Boy Problem. Moskowitz’s theory is that boys have been stereotyped, sanitised and stripped of substance and she calls on authors to “write, publish, and promote books with real boys”.

In response Tamora Pierce wrote a post of her own on Why I write girl heroes for the most part arguing that “there are still more books for guys out there than there are for girls” in both classic children’s fiction and contemporary teenage novels, and listing various authors of books for boys.

The whole discussion is fairly amicable and shouldn’t be viewed as polarised sides of an argument. Both authors have acknowledged the validity of at least part of the other’s point. My own opinion is that I’ve not noticed a lack of YA fiction with male protagonists – but I think Moskowitz is right to say that boy heroes are stereotyped as much as female ones. It’s also interesting that they both agree that boys don’t buy books the way girls do:

The problem we’re talking about is fairly simple: boys don’t read YA. This isn’t an issue of “boys don’t read”–we’re not talking about these boys. We’re talking about avid readers, boys who ate up middle grade but go to adult fiction and non-fiction instead of passing through YA, and nobody really knows why. – Hannah Moskowitz

Why do publishers appear to publish so many books for girls? Because girls buy books. That’s it, clear and simple. Guys don’t. They take books out of the library, or they borrow books from girls, but they don’t buy. Not like girls do. – Tamora Pierce

Obviously there are comments to both blog posts from boys who read and from boys who read fiction with female protagonists. But those male commenters appear to be exceptions, in their own eyes as well as the apparent commenting demographic.

My own experience is heavily coloured by the fact my first trilogy was SF and published for YA while I was myself a young adult (19 when my first book was accepted). My protagonist and hero was female. My readers were male and female. The readers that joined my fan forums, wrote to me and messaged me didn’t demonstrate a gender bias. When I worked with school class groups I had no difficulty in interesting boys in my SF workshops – some girls seemed deliberately uninterested in SF and would need to be drawn in more subtly. But then SF is often viewed as a boy’s genre.

When I give my workshops for schools I ask the students to introduce themselves in turn my saying their name and the book they read most recently – or a book they’ve enjoyed. (I always lead off with “I am Rhiannon and I’ve recently read” and sometimes don’t choose the most recent book if the choice could carry unwanted connotations; I do try to pick something I’ve read in the last month.) My experience of the response, boys and girls is along these lines: Harry Potter, Discworld, Harry Potter, Jackie Wilson, Twilight, Goosebumps, Harry Potter, Twilight, Jane Austen, CHERUB, Asimov, Twilight, Discworld, Dickens, Jackie Wilson. I get girls who won’t admit to reading anything and whisper and giggle to their friends. I encourage them in by asking what they watch on TV and I also draw them in (literally!) in the stage when they have to draw their character, whatever their artistic skill the girls who dress to impress *care* about what their imagined character looks like. I get boys who won’t admit to reading anything and shout and want to have sword fights in the action sequence of the workshops. I ask them if they play computer games and what games they like. They can be attracted by drawing their character but respond better to dramatic tableaus and a call for ‘speakers’ to represent a group.

These boys and girls are obviously stereotypes. I encounter very few of either type. Perhaps three whispery giggly girls and three disruptive wriggling boys in a group of fifty students. The other participants may have their own challenges but these are the non-readers and the most difficult to engage. I think the fact these children view reading as uninteresting or unadmirable must come from parents and there is unfortunately a stereotype of the reading child as a teacher’s pet, elitist and unathletic, unattractive and unpopular.

As a writer I write for the reading child: the child I was and the reader I remain. But I want to speak to every child – and every child is a reader to some degree. Even the resolute non-readers experience narrative in TV programmes and/or computer games. (There are children with a damaged narrative sense for whom constructing a history is an established counselling technique.)

I write predominantly female characters for several reasons. I attended an all girls school from age 11 to 18 and my family is predominantly female. I’ve grown up among girls and women more than boys and men. When Terri Apter wrote that the world of girls was one of “secrets and whispers and shifting affections” that resonated with me. I watched Heathers and Mean Girls and saw my own experience reflected.

I aim not to stereotype my characters and, as I said above, I think it helped that I entered writing as an SF author. But now, after over a decade as a professional writer, my consciousness of the economics of writing particular types of novels affects my casting of characters.

The accepted wisdom in publishing as I’ve experienced it is that girls and women are enthusiastic readers, regardless of the gender of the protagonist; boys and men are reluctant readers who are only willing to read books about boys and men having adventures. My own experience suggests that contempt for reading in teenagers is much more a construct of exaggerated gender roles in society than any gendered antipathy. Both women and men can fall into the trap of wanting to appear anti-intellectual.

I write both male and female characters and although many of my protagonists are female they’re not exclusively so. I write with both plot and character in mind and what type of person would feel and act in this way in this place in this time. I don’t intentionally write romances although some of my fiction could be mistaken for romantic because I try to express emotional contexts including love and obsession in my work. I don’t exactly write horror novels either although the psychological thriller landscape of my fiction can be described that way. I’ve attempted to write across genres; moving from SF to fantasy to ‘realist magicism’ to contemporary to thrillers.

I still write male characters more thoughtfully then women, I have to work harder with the characterisation for men. But I’m also not an aristocrat, a psychic, a computer hacker, a world traveller or a ghost. Another worldview is always a stretch. I hope that my male characters are believable to my male readers just as I hope all my characters are believable to all my readers.

The problem of gender in character roles is essentially an economic one. If you write fiction by the numbers then you’re probably better off writing about boys than girls. If girls read books about boys and not vice versa then the payoffs are inevitably better. However, very few authors can cope with writing formula fiction long term. Everyone wants to write their own story.

What transcends the economics is the artistry of creation; the writer’s story isn’t an autobiography. The character who best expresses the vision of the novel in the form of the protagonist may be an authorial alter-ego but gender is a very minor part of that authorial identification. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series had Lyra as its female hero protagonist. Joanne Rowling invented the male hero protagonist of Harry Potter. Pullman is to Lyra as Rowling is to Harry. When categorising a book for boys or for girls is it the gender of the author or the hero that matters? Or perhaps once you achieve a certain degree of success these questions stop mattering so much.


  1. Great post, Rhiannon, with much food for thought. And some books, the Twilight ones for example, construct heroes as girl-fodder – idealised boyfriends. I would guess real boys might well regard this with caution.

    Comment by Katherine Langrish — August 16, 2010 @ 10:38 am

  2. Thanks, Kath. I didn’t mention Twilight but I was thinking about it. The portrayal of both female and male characters is pretty stereotyped there. Is Bella an idealised girlfriend as much as Edward is a boyfriend?

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — August 16, 2010 @ 10:54 am

  3. I’ve also found an article today about a psychologist who thinks the only choices offered to boys are those of superhero or slacker:

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — August 16, 2010 @ 10:55 am

  4. contempt for reading in teenagers is much more a construct of exaggerated gender roles in society than any gendered antipathy

    I think this is spot on – important point. And may help indicate the way forward.

    Comment by Mo — August 16, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

  5. I find Hannah Moscowitz’s explanation of boys not reading YA far more convincing, if only for the obvious reason that it applied to me as a young adult. However, it’s strange to me that she would get that far with the answer and then be unable to explain the reason.

    It seems clear to me that the reason for reading adult fiction is because you can. Indeed, even now as an adult I regard YA fiction as a curious beast. Good YA books are, from my perspective, misshelved adult books. And similarly there is a subset of adult books I would not have enjoyed in my teens; it is no coincidence that in practice I do not read them now either.

    Comment by Dom Camus — August 16, 2010 @ 11:09 pm

  6. Plenty of thought-provoking ideas here. As you know, my fantasy readers tend to be 14-year-old girls but there are some older and some male.

    I do not consciously choose a male or female protagonist; the characters suggest themselves according to the nature of the story and I tend to go along with them.

    Obviously with the next historical, the David character had to be male and since I chose to write it in the first person, I had to put myself into the mindset of an eighteen-year-old man. But that’s not harder for me than the mindset of a 16th century friar or a 13th century Troubadour.

    I suppose this matters much more with contemporary realistic fiction. But then you get a hateful book like Doing It, which Keren David over on her blog admires for its authenticity.

    Well, I don’t think that if boys really think like that – which I am not convinced by – they should be given any Kudos for it by being portrayed in a book by an award-winning author, who appears to share their viewpoint (and he dedicates the book to his own member for Chrissake!)

    Comment by Mary Hoffman — August 18, 2010 @ 10:25 am

  7. @Dom The ‘because I can’ reason is true of me and YA fiction as an adult. I think the difference between an YA book and an adult book is more about the concerns and perspectives of the characters.

    Are good YA books misshelved adult books? I don’t think so. Good YA can be read and enjoyed by adults but I don’t think that makes it adult fiction. Not unless adult is a synonym for quality.

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — August 18, 2010 @ 11:57 am

  8. ‘I think the difference between an YA book and an adult book is more about the concerns and perspectives of the characters.’ I agree.

    I find it easier to write in a teenage male voice but perhaps is it because I couldn’t face writing about giggly, whispering girls – although I know lots of YA authors whose girls are far from that stereotype so maybe I just don’t want to revisit my teenage years quite so closely as I would if I was living with the character for the length of the book.

    ‘Are good YA books misshelved adult books? I don’t think so. Good YA can be read and enjoyed by adults but I don’t think that makes it adult fiction. Not unless adult is a synonym for quality.’
    I totally agree with you there. Why should it be classed as adult fiction or be considered any less important because it is written for young adults? They are the most critical audience and bother to read a book if they don’t like it, perhaps boys even more than girls. They often feel they have much better things to do!

    There are plenty of good books for both girls and boys and for different kinds of readers and different personalities who want to see themselves reflected in the characters. I personally don’t see where the problem is.
    When Keith Gray said he thought there were enough books for girls I think he was reacting to the question about whether he felt more ‘comfortable’ writing male characters.

    But there are lots of books for girls, not all of them pink and girly, even those whose covers suggest they might be, but blame that on the publishers, not the authors!

    Comment by Linda Strachan — August 19, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

  9. [...] I posted about boys and girls as readers and characters I got some very interesting responses. One comment in particular stuck with me though; this one [...]

    Pingback by What makes a book YA fiction? « Rhiannon Lassiter — August 20, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

  10. All I know is, I’ve read neither author, but I had a Tamora Pierce novel sitting yet-to-be-read on my shelf.

    It offended me immensely – as a feminist- the way she twisted and spun Ms. Moskowitz’s argument into an anti-feminist argument. And the way she led a pile-on of fangirls against this younger, less-established author on her blog. Ms. Moskowitz’s argument wasn’t an attack on feminism or against female MCs, but Ms. Pierce portrayed it that way– and there were a couple of opportunists in the comments who eagerly sucked up to a better established author to steer traffic towards their blogs.

    I’ve tried to read that Tamora Pierce book since, but I get a sour taste in my mouth whenever I open it up. I think I’d rather throw it away. Not donate it to a library, -throw it away- because I don’t feel right spreading the work of such a demagogue.

    Comment by Groosemoose — August 23, 2010 @ 12:29 am

  11. Groosemoose, I really don’t think that was Tamora Pierce’s intention. If you read her thread she says several times she’s not trying to debate on us/them terms. She did disagree with Moskowitz about the amount of fiction for boys but otherwise engaged courteously and only took the discussion to her own blog because she found the comment system on Moskowitz’s blog difficult. It would only be leading a pile-on if she was inciting readers to argue with Moskowitz. I didn’t see any of that in Pierce’s post. She even said: “I’m not trying to start a fight with [Moskowitz] because I do respect what she wrote. I just figure I owe it to her to explain where I come from as a main proponent of the issues she discussed.”

    But even if I agreed with you about her blog post I don’t agree that the writer = the work. I deplore the politics and beliefs of Orson Scott Card and yet I continue to read his fiction. As a feminist I’d have to discard 99% of all fiction if I refused to read anyone whose opinion didn’t accord with my own!

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — August 23, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

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