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Through Whose Eyes?

Whether the cosmos is gripped by war, a new world is being settled, or Champions are shifting the balance of politics in 1940, the way a story is written depends entirely on the characters you choose to follow. I know that’s probably the most obvious observation I could make, but I think it’s important for authors to reflect on how their experience and expertise influences the eyes through which readers are shown a plot.

I was pondering this yesterday after learning that blogger Becky Chambers, who writes for The Mary Sue, has just wrapped up work on her first manuscript. Though I haven’t read The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, the book’s creative brief makes it clear she’s put a lot of thought into who carries the story. Based on her own experiences, Becky has set out to reveal her universe through the eyes of ordinary people working normal (to them) jobs in the midst of a spectacular sci-fi universe. Not fleet commanders, or heirs, or superheroes… just regular people crewing a ship that seeds wormholes across the cosmos.

To quote Becky herself, “I’m a big fan of the larger than life heroes and villains you see in space opera… but what I’m really interested in is what it’s like for an ordinary person to live in one of those fantastic futures.”

Honestly, I’m a bit envious. Whenever I’m working up a series, I can never make things stick unless a grand political or military event is anchoring the plot… and my protagonists have to be in the thick of it. Writing rich characters who are regular, sensible people –– raising families and saving for retirement –– is not my strength. Instead, the crazies I pal around with tend to chase into danger, no matter how daunting things seem.

Take the Earthers. You’ll never find a more enlightened or unassuming bunch of wolves, cats and bears… but from Setter Caine on down, they’re properly selfless and (frustratingly) perfect heroes. Even the humans they save from certain death find it tough to accept their greatness (muttering about the Earther Fleet being “too good to be true”). Defense Command’s Belt Squadron is hardly any different (Ken Barron is forever reminding us that his people are the best), and Smith and the b’ys of the Newfoundland Regiment may be humble and irreverent, but they’re also too damned good at what they do.

And don’t even get me started on Alex, Stephanie and Strong.

So with the exception of the odd character pretending to be an antihero (I don’t know, maybe Andrea Kiley… or Jax Furgus, since he’s the picture for this note) most of the characters I’ve spent the past decade with have been the sort of larger-than-life people Becky mentions. Up until now, at least, those are the sorts of characters I know how to write.

And that’s why I write them.

Indeed, I think that’s the metric every author should use when crafting characters: based on your life experience, your expertise, and your comfort, what sort of people can you convincingly follow for the length of an entire book, or an entire series? Because if you don’t understand your characters, or you don’t enjoy spending time with them, readers probably won’t connect with them either.

Again, that might be obvious advice, but I fear there’s a great temptation to write only supposedly-marketable archetypes –– to force whatever works for you into a certain mold. I think this is folly… though perhaps I just resist the idea because I’m not good enough to pull it off. A fair possibility.

Well, the fact remains that I’d be no good at writing young wizards, or genuinely-bitter antiheroes, or lovesick Vampires… they’re just not in my repertoire. So I write what I know –– what I believe in –– and if I desperately want to do something completely different, it’s my responsibility to learn, and experience, and grow to the point where I can do it justice.

For now, honestly, I’m happy with the protagonists in my life. They never fail to prove they’re smarter than I am, and that they’re better human beings than me (the Earthers especially). Good company to keep in one’s own head… if you’re twisted as I am.

But the beauty of writing, and of reading, is that you can always go new places, and meet new people. There are countless writers with seemingly infinite perspectives, so with just a little searching, you can doubtless find the adventure you’re looking for.

And if you can’t find it, take after Becky and write it yourself.