Adding To A Character

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.

Action Figures – What It’s About

Things are in a bit of a holding pattern while I wait for my sister-in-law to finish her final proofread and for my friend Tricia to start on the cover artwork, so I’m going to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about what my soon-to-be-self-published YA novel Action Figures is about (an what it’s not about).

This is the one-paragraph summary of the novel that led off many a query letter:

Carrie Hauser never expected her parents to get divorced. She never expected to get dragged halfway across the state to start life over in a new town. And she definitely never expected a dying extraterrestrial to give her superhuman powers.

(I hate writing these summaries. They make everything sound so meh.)

But, since I’m not writing a query here, I get to be less formal in describing the concept, so here it goes: Action Figures is a sci-fi edged superhero story focusing on a group of teenager superhero wannabes as they get dumped head-first into their first adventure. The story is told from the perspective of the aforementioned Carrie Hauser, a 15-year-old girl who, as the story opens, is still reeling from her parents’ sudden divorce and getting ready to start her new life in a strange town (“strange” having multiple meanings here).

I chose Carrie as the narrator because, first and foremost, she was by far the most likeable and sympathetic character (and a lot of fun to write), but I also liked the idea of a superhero story featuring a female protagonist.

Joss Whedon once remarked when asked “Why do you like to write strong female characters?”: “Because you’re still asking that question.” That’s especially true in the superhero genre, where male leads outnumber the female leads by a HUGE margin. Batman appears in five titles, Batgirl and Batwoman have one each, and that’s just one of many examples I could cite. The comics industry has gotten better about opening up to female readers, but they still have a long way to go (and, in my opinion, the industry is not doing itself any favors by producing clumsy ‘female-friendly’ fare like Marvel’s new line of teen-friendly romance novels).

One of my goals with Action Figures is to provide a superhero story that is accessible to female readers, especially younger readers, more through providing them with an interesting heroine rather than through some ham-fisted attempt to girly it up. I’m not toning down the action and/or punching up any romantic story elements, I’m just telling a fun superhero adventure story that just happens to star a girl.

I’m also not infusing the story with a heavy-handed morality tale. This is not — at the risk of showing my age — an ABC Afterschool Special. This is not a “very special episode” deal. Sure, it’s somewhat inevitable that the stories will touch on issues that are not unfamiliar to teens, but the adventure elements are not going to take a back seat to exploring the issues-du-jour through the characters. It’s awkward and obvious and detracts from the point of the book, which is to give readers something fun to read.

So, that’s a basic intro to the novel. Down the road I plan to post a couple of sample chapters so folks can get a taste of the story and, hopefully, find it so much to their liking that they want to read the whole thing.