Thanks for all your great comments on the last post! I'm very interested in your thoughts in this matter, and please keep talking. Here are a few more thoughts.
The default character is male. I first realized this was true for me when I had my first child. I found myself identifying all of his toys and stuffed animals as "he." In books, too, animals and characters that didn't have obvious girlie eyelashes or wear skirts were all "he." The characters that made up my son's world were 95% male. I began to question that in myself and supply "it" instead or assign "she" to several stuffed animals, in a perhaps ridiculous attempt to help him grow up surrounded by a more diverse cast of characters. Parents, have you noticed this male-first tendency too?
When I do school visits, often I'll bring up 4-5 students to make up a story on the fly. The first question I ask them, one by one going down the line, is "What is the name of your main character?" I try to put the girls on the end and start with them. Boys always choose a male MC, and if the girls go after the boys, they also always choose a male MC (this data is based on doing this exercise perhaps 100 times). But if the girl goes first, sometimes she'll choose a female (though 75% of the time she chooses a male too). This is a strong indication to me that we are used to main characters being male, even in the younger generation when the world is filled with book choices that feature girls. Are movies to blame, which rarely feature female MCs? Are these kids not getting the books that have female MCs? Or do girls not feel like the MC in their own lives? Do boys have the imagination to consider girls potential MCs? Is it possible that some boys do not think girls really matter as much as boys, aren't worthy of their own stories, aren't, perhaps, even as real as boys are?
The default character is white. As a writer who is white, I definitely fall into this trap. If a character isn't white, I often describe that, but if they are white, I don't describe because it's assumed. For the first time writing this book, from the POV of a character who isn't white (she's half white, half Latina), I found myself realizing I had that habit. In Dangerous, when we first meet two important characters, Dragon and Howell, I had Maisie describe Dragon as a "black man" and Howell as a "white woman." Interestingly, the copy editor noted that and asked if the "white woman" signifier was necessary. Because "white" is default, assumed, even if you don't specify. But I thought Maisie would specify so I left it.
I want to challenge myself and all of you to become more observant of this. To toss out the "male and white are default" ideology that's so deeply written into our brains. Change comes after awareness.
I remember when I first told my husband that some suggested that teens wouldn't be able to identify with Maisie because she was too unique in too many ways. That teens like to read about a character most like themselves. And Maisie just had too many points of difference: she was half Latina/half white, she had one arm, she was home schooled, she was a science geek, she was obsessed with space.
He said, "When I was a teenager, I couldn't relate to growing blades out of my knuckles or having super powered healing, or being chased by the Canadian government or having no memory of my past. But I could relate to feeling like a freak, to being an outsider." (he's talking about Wolverine)
I really believe it's not the details of a character's appearance or particular circumstances that most draw in a reader but the shared human the emotions. Books are a great place to realize that, where the visual is in our head and we are inside the character's head. I think we just need to read more books about characters who don't look like us, whatever we may look like, and eventually any misgivings that may still linger about Specific characters being unrelatable will become meaningless.
Thanks to everyone who is talking about this book. You really make writing a book like this possible. Thanks to everyone who came out to my events in Massachusetts and New Hampshire last week! It's great to be home. I'm back to touring next week and I have lots more events this spring so check out my event page.