JWAM reader request no 23: Are you old enough?

Jenn S. says:

In one of your recent posts, you said, “There are many characters in my work that I could not have written twenty years ago.” I was wondering if you could expand on that briefly.

I’ve got a protagonist who I really like, but I keep wondering if I can write her realistically because I have less life experience than she does. I’m 24; she’s 38. I’m single; she’s been married and has kids. I’d freak at the sight of a zombie; she, an experienced mercenary, would immediately hack it to bits—etc. I would love to write her story, but how do I know whether to try it now or to wait a few years until I have more life experience?

You may not have enough life experience, but you should write her anyway.

One of the things I like best about writing is being able to create characters who are nothing like me. I’m long past high school age; but many of my characters are teenagers.1 I have no magical powers or fairies; Reason, Tom, Jay-Tee (MorM trilogy) and Charlie and many others (HTDYF) are and do. I’m not USian, but Jay-Tee, Danny, and Jason Blake in the trilogy are. I’m white; Reason, Jay-Tee, and Danny in the trilogy aren’t, nor is Charlie or any of the other characters in Fairy. They’re better at many things than I am: maths (Reason—actually, given that I’m innumerate, I suspect all the characters I’ve created are better at maths than me), sport (Charlie), making clothes (Tom) and so on and so forth.

There are readers who weren’t convinced by these characters, who don’t think I got it right. That will happen to you, too. All you can do is your very best and remember that even your best is not going to work for everyone. It won’t always be good enough.

Read memoirs and letters and journals of soldiers who are also mothers. Maybe some googling will find you communities of same. If you approach them respectfully they might even answer some questions for you. Ask women who are older than you and have children to comment on your work. Ideally ask older soldiers who are mums to comment.

Listen to their advice.

But also remember that even people of the same class and race and sex and sexual orientation and religion and profession from the same region can be very different. This is why it’s impossible to get it right for every reader. People are not all the same. Not even zombie-killing mercenary mums.

The more I write and the older I get, the more I know and the better I get at listening, and the more convincing my characters become.2 But you don’t gain writing experience by putting off writing a character you’re not sure you have the skills or knowledge to write. The way you get the skill set is by writing the character.

Your zombie-killing mercenary may be completely unconvincing when you’ve finished the first draft. Ask people what didn’t convince them. Then fix it. Might be that you won’t be able to get it right for many years. Some books take ages to write. Some never work.

In the comment that you quote above I meant to say not only that I couldn’t have written those characters then—didn’t have the writing chops—but also that I wouldn’t have thought of writing them. If that makes any sense. The kind of characters that I wrote as a teen were heavily influenced by what I was reading. They were V. C. Andrews or Raymond Chandler or Tanith Lee or Angela Carter or Isak Dinesen pastiches. Only, you know, MUCH WORSE than you’re imagining. I borrowed my characters from elsewhere, or I modelled them on myself,3 without realising it. I have a bigger range now. At least I hope I do.

Go forth and write your mercenary. What you lack in life experience you can make up with research.

Good luck!4

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. But, you know, I once was a teenager . . . []
  2. At least that’s the theory. []
  3. YAWN! []
  4. I know I’m getting repetitive but, honestly, where would we be without luck? []


  1. Malcolm Tredinnick on #

    Justine, you kind of tangentially touch on something I suspect is of some importance here. It’s not solely about how well you’ve lived your characters’ experiences or even know them at an internal level. You have to be able to convey the characters to the readers. Enough to make them interesting, not enough to bore us to tears with pages of descriptions.

    Having to actually work out what makes a clothes-designing, Australian teenage boy individual and interesting might well help the process of writing about him. You are just as much an observer of the character as your readers, with more time invested in the process. If you were writing about — to pick a random topic — a female YA author who travels between the US and Australia, it’s possibly harder to get down the pertinent bits that make that character interesting to an external reader. Hopefully that’s where early readers and editors help out.

    I found the various teenagers in MorM semi-believable and interesting not because I had much in common (although, a maths-wielding protag is always a favourite with me), but because I’ve taught teenagers with those attitudes and actions and I know other people like them.

    Hopefully I’m not over-rating this. I do now that there are a lot of novel characters I enjoy reading about that have absolutely nothing in common with my experiences, but are described in language I can understand. I don’t particularly care if they’re 100% realistic, providing they’re not completely unrealistic. The idea is to be entertained and fiction always slightly idealises things (you’ve mentioned speech patterns in the past, for example).

  2. Justine on #

    Malcolm: Definitely. You make a similar point to something Samuel R. Delany writes in the last appendix of About Writing:

      Probably you’ve never been in an all-out sword fight on the deck of a pirate ship in the Caribbean at dawn. But if you need to write such a scene, you can start by mining your own experiences for the microexperiences that can contribute to it. Have you ever been on the deck of any boat at dawn? . . . As a child did you ever have a stick fight with a friend? Do you remember how, when your friend really hit your stick hard with his, it jarred you to the shoulder and made you clamp your teeth? Did you ever take a fencing class? What are the moves and positions you can remember from it? Have you ever been in a confused crowd? . . . A moment or two lifted from such experiences and carefully observed can make your imaginary Caribbean sword fight more believable. Has your foot ever slipped on a board floor where a can of paint has been overturned? Your foot slipping on spilled blood is not going to feel very different.

    He then goes on to talk about the nonfiction research you need to do as well.

    I strongly recommend About Writing. It’s my favourite book on the subject. It lives beside my bed.

  3. Jenn S. on #

    Justine, thanks for answering my question. I think I’ve been focusing too hard on getting everything right the first time. I’ll do some research on “soldier mums” as you suggested, but in the meantime I’ll keep writing. I won’t get anywhere if I don’t try.

  4. Q on #

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you! I find myself in a similar boat to the questioner. That was so reassuring. I know the character but I was worried about whether it would be right for me to write from her perspective when she’s older than me.

    But now I kind of think that as long as I know her character, age doesn’t matter as much as it might seem to.

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