This Boston Globe piece about a controversial T-shirt got me to thinking a bit about my YA manuscript and how it caused a somewhat similar controversy. Go read the story then come on back.
Twice while reviewing my manuscript for typos, my sister-in-law implored me to abandon a rather small and mostly insignificant character trait for Carrie, the main character in Action Figures: her weak math skills. It’s a stereotype, she said.
Well, perhaps. I did some quick research, and it looks like there is no crystal-clear final word on the common belief that girls do worse in math than boys. A lot of stories and studies I found maintain that is indeed the case, many dispute it, others say it’s conditional on any number of factors (including, no kidding, whether the society in which the girl is raised is “sexist”).
I decided to keep it for two reasons, even though it may raise some hackles.
Carrie is presented as attractive, funny, personable, and, most importantly, intelligent, but a perfect heroine is neither easy to relate to nor much fun to read about (or write, for that matter). She has to have recognizable flaws to be interesting, relatable, and realistic, and her lackluster aptitude at math is one of them — and I dare say that because she is highly skilled at English, is computer literate, and generally a nimble thinker, sucking at math in this context will be more palatable than implying girls suck at math but, as the T-shirt suggests, rock the house when it comes to shopping and dancing.
Reason number two I’ll explain in a more roundabout way.
When Joss Whedon was working on The Avengers, he had the Hulk redesigned. In The Incredible Hulk, the Hulk himself was ripped like a serious bodybuilder, but in The Avengers, he was softer, less defined. Joss explained that by setting the Hulk’s physique at a perpetual 10 as in The Incredible Hulk, he had nowhere to go when he got angry; his physicality was static, whereas in The Avengers, when the Hulk got pissed, his massive muscles became suddenly more sharply defined, a visual cue that his anger (and, if you know the comics at all, his strength) was rising to dangerous levels.
It’s conventional narrative wisdom that a character in a story must undergo a transformation, end the experience different than how he or she began it, or what’s the point of telling the story? If Carrie was good at everything in school, she has one available direction: down. That would have been a legitimate option, but it’s also a legitimate option that she could be less than adept at something and improve, and I just happened to choose math as the subject (but — not to spoil anything — she does in fact boost her grades a little by the end of the book thanks to some knuckling down and studying hard. Stay in school, kids!).
And, really, there are other things going on with Carrie that are more significant, important, and interesting to read (and write) about than how she’s doing in her classes. It’s one small part of a larger whole, and I’m hoping readers don’t get so hung up on Carrie’s math skills that they miss the rest of the story.
4 thoughts on “Adding To A Character”
You make some great points about characters having flaws and chances to grow, but I stand by my request. I would have loved it if Carrie was a math whiz and broke what I still believe to be a problematic stereotype, especially since you wrote a YA book (also: you actually acknowledge this is a stereotype in chapter six!). But Carrie’s struggles would have bugged me less if either Sara or Missy had been good at math. Did you edit to make one of them a future math major? Hope springs eternal.
Short answer: no. No changes.
Longer answer: I am all for defying stereotypes and cliches, but I like to think that whenever I do so, it is for a reason, that I’m not going against the grain for the mere sake of it. Making any of the female characters math geniuses just because it is an anti-stereotype is not good enough; I have no story- or character-based reason to do it, therefore I won’t.
PS: I never actually said Sara or Missy were bad at math, I just said they hated it. I hated math too, with a passion, but I did quite well in the subject.
I’ll leave it alone after this comment, because it’s your book and obviously your choice, and with so many things about the book that I loved, I don’t want to harp on my one quibble. That said: I didn’t ask for female characters to be math geniuses, just not terrible at it. I think that giving your YA female readers a subtle cue that it’s possible for them to excel at or even just like math is a compelling reason. As you note, you have no reason to make them good at math, but you have no compelling reason to make them all bad at it/hate it, either. To use an age-old tripe as an example: would you have every Polish character be dumb as a default and only give them smarts if the plot calls for it? I doubt it. (And, for what it’s worth, in chapter six you have Missy say she barely made it through Algebra, suggesting she is bad at it; I conceded that Sara’s disinclination toward math is more ambiguous.)
As someone who regularly defies the “Polish folks are dumb” stereotype, I’m not outraged by it when someone employs it in print. It’s enough for me that it’s widely recognized as a stereotype.
Mike faces a greater danger of creating a Mary Sue than a weak female character. Everyone has flaws – some support stereotypes, some defy them.
I feel readers need to be more vigilant about stereotypes than authors do. Novels aren’t Bibles.
Now, if all of Mike’s female characters hate and/or are terrible at math, we’ve got a problem.