So, as many here will know, my next novel – Stray Souls – isn’t actually narrated by Matthew Swift. Sure, he’s in it. But he’s not doing nearly as much talking as you’re used to.
Stray Souls is my first ever heroine-led novel, and I must admit, I’m rather nervous about it. It’s always a little nerve-wracking, releasing a book, even if it is your 13th (no time for luck!), but up to now the number of female narrators in my life have been primarily noticeable by their absence. Sure, I write a lot of women, so much so that often my male narrators come to resemble rather weedy characters in a sea of feisty attitudes and sensible female shoes. But for the first time, I’m putting my full attention behind a female point of view, and I’m nervous.
It’s not because of the story, or the book, or even the character particularly. Sharon Li – the accidental shaman – shares not much in common with me at all, and that’s a very deliberate choice. One of my greatest fears is the day I wake up and discover that I am, in fact, writing two dimensional characters who are little more than a fantasy of what I wish I could be. Writing men has always been something of a defence mechanism against this development – and I have a pact with several of my friends that the day I even think about writing a writer as my main character, they’ll come and smash my keyboard. Never-the-less, in one or two respects, Sharon strays uncomfortably close to certain truths about myself which are all too easy to see, from where I’m sat. And sure, the idea that you could ever write a character who is entirely divorced from what you have seen, thought and believed is really rather daft. As a writer you are invited to imagine your way into the minds of monsters and madness, young and old, kind and cruel, but at the end of the day, even the greatest imaginations are tainted, informed and indeed expanded by the learning and common frames of reference which define the writer’s day-to-day life. To put it bluntly – I’m scared of looking too closely at Sharon, and seeing a bit too much of me.
However, let me lay it down fairly clearly here. Sharon Li is not me. Neither, while I’m on this theme, is Matthew Swift, for sure, while I enjoy Thai food just as much as he does, and have been known to play on swings in children’s playgrounds when no one’s looking (and sometimes when people are) I am not, at last checking, a not-quite-dead, mega-magical, psychologically confused sorcerer with administrative problems. For which we can all be relieved. Never-the-less, I live in slightly uneasy fear of the comparisons, concerned that there are deep truths about myself scribbled into the page which I lack the objectivity to see, but which lay out the foibles of my mind and soul all too clearly to more dispassionate strangers. There’s also, let’s face it, more discussion that crops up around writing female characters in fantasy books, even in this day and age. Questions of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ come up, two words which infuriate me heartily since at the end of the day the question ‘is this a strong female character’ doesn’t matter balls next to the question of ‘is she an interesting, exciting, engaging character with whom I can sympathise’ or, to put it another word… just a character like any other I try to craft! Fantasy in particular has a reputation for producing two extremes of female character – the unbelievably fearsome female with large guns (not just a metaphor) and a ‘touch me and you die’ attitude towards adversity… and the rather weaker, plucky-yet-frail female character often in need of being swept off her feet by deliriously enamored men, frequently it seems for whom breathing is not an option. I have minimal time for either extreme since once again, we seem to run into the problem… these aren’t characters, they’re cliches.
Perhaps at the end of the day, it’s best to be philosophical about these things. Do I enjoy the story that is told in Stray Souls? Is it exciting, interesting, does it sweep things along, do I like the characters, fear the demons and want to know their fates? Personally, I think the answer to these points is yes, but hell, that’s just me. However, if I can tick these points off, then does much else matter?