The last couple of posts, we've been discussing the missing moms of children's literature. But of course, moms are missing all over. I'm too lazy to do this but I wish someone else would look at the so-called genre of "women's fiction" and figure out the percentage of mother main characters (MCs) vs single MCs. My lazy, unverified guess is: 1:50. It's rare. Having written three books for adults, two of which starred mother MCs, I've learned some things about why the moms are missing.
Common wisdom is if you write a book that involves romance, your MC should be:
For the greatest sales, you want a MC who the largest majority of readers will most easily relate to. Most readers of romance-infused books are female, so most MCs of this genre are female. All readers have been or are young, so a young MC is safest. All readers have been or are single and childless, so a single, childless MC is the most universally relatable. This is the trifecta of MCs.
In young adult literature, the most widely relatable MC looks like this:
2. Under 18
Common wisdom is a male main character, because of that old (often self-fulfilling) belief that girls will read boys but boys will only read boys. Teens can more easily relate to a character near their own age. White and straight are a kind of invisible character type--so normal we don't question it. Someone asked me recently why I don't just get with that program. If a book series about a boy is more likely to sell big, why not just make my next MC a boy? For me, writing a book is so hard, I can't force a story. I can't cherry pick a best selling idea and just make it happen. Looking at my books, is there a female MC I could have easily swapped for a male MC? It would be a very different story. Besides, there are many boy-centered series that are not best sellers. Everyone can try to be JK Rowling or Rick Riordan, but it's always a gamble. You can't write to the market. You just hunt down the story that calls to you.
Relate-ability of MCs is one reason that young adult literature is so popular with adults. Most adults can relate to young adult characters (especially if they're well-written) because they were young adults once themselves. Adult characters live longer, make more choices, have more stuff happen to them, get more narrow in their types and personalities. Once your character has married, you risk losing the readers who aren't married and can't relate. Once your character becomes a parent, again, you risk losing readers.
Even mothers don't always want to read about mothers. As one neighbor mother told me recently, "I read for escapism. I don't want to read about another tired old mom." Another mother told me she likes to read about characters in their 20s to early 30s. I asked how old she was. "33." That's common. We often like to read to where we are and no further. Perhaps because it's less work. We'll watch shows about mothers and fathers, because the show does more of the brain work for us. But reading requires more active participation from the reader. The closer a character is to us, the easier to relax into a book.
When I started writing Austenland, I was young and single, and so was my MC. When I wrote The Actor and the Housewife, I was a married mom and had new things on my mind. There were ideas I wanted to explore that required a mom MC. I loved writing that book. But I know there were readers who didn't like the book or wouldn't pick it up because they couldn't relate to a mother MC. I knew going into Midnight in Austenland that my MC choice was a risk. And there were consequences--some readers found Charlotte the main character "hard to relate to" because she is a divorced mother. But for me, it made the story better. I had to send a very different person to Austenland than in the first book. I didn't just want to tell the same story over again. Besides, I keep hoping that there is a place in literature for all kinds of characters, even moms. And I hope that there will be enough readers who are willing to give a less conventional heroine a shot. I don't know if Midnight will do as well as Austenland in the long run, and I don't know if my divorced mommy has significantly hindered sales. But I'm glad Charlotte Kinder is in the world, and I'm happy I got to tell her story.
It's my personal opinion that as readers we start out in a comfort zone--a wonderful, necessary, cozy comfort zone of reading. And no one can successfully nudge us out of it except ourselves. But to be a mature reader, a proficient reader, eventually (all in our own time) we read a lot of different kinds of things and fall in love with different kinds of characters--ones like us, ones nothing like us, and everything in the middle.
I don't think there is anything wrong with reading as a kind of self-reflection. It's wonderful! I think every reader goes through eras where this is most interesting and helpful. I do think that the ideal, however, is eventually to read for both gazing inward and searching outward. Fiction is such an amazing way to live in someone else's shoes for a time, especially when they're different from ourselves.
That's the way I like it anyway. Variety. A little bit of everything. With sprinkles on top.