A question I get asked a lot from reviewers of For Steam And Country is: Is it weird to write from a first person perspective of a sixteen year old girl?
The answer is yes. It took me several passes to actually dial in what Zaira Von Monocle’s perspective would be, and I had to work extremely hard to get her to the point where she’s the fun character in For Steam And Country that my advance readers tell me they love.
I’m going to give a little peek behind the curtain as to my learning as a writer, and my process as I came up with all of this, in hopes that it is both interesting to readers, and potentially helpful to newer writers.
When I first conceived the novel, I knew that I wanted to write a Steampunk fantasy, to create a fantasy world of kingdoms and airships, alchemy and swashbuckling, high adventure that most books in the steampunk genre had shied away from. Most books in the genre either went going something darker and grittier, or dipping further into romance. I also wanted to make it somewhat YA (I consider the finished product a tweener between YA and regular fantasy, though it’s perfectly suitable for all ages), which I thought would allow me to take a lighter tone.
YA fantasy novels take the first person perspective more often than not, allowing for a real sense of feeling like you’re inside the head of the protagonist, or at the very least sitting across from them while you take high tea. A recent trend has them in first person present, which makes people really feel in the action, but I didn’t want to go that far, as it’s very few and far between I read a book in the present tense that doesn’t annoy me.
I actually had this plan to write in the first person perspective from the onset, getting to worldbuilding and character creating. In keeping with YA, I wanted to keep the protagonist young, and also to the market, having a female perspective seemed the way to go. I looked at the idea and thought, “wow, do I really want to write a 16 year old girl in the first person?” It sounded pretty daunting, and like it required a lot of work to keep realistic. Once I looked at the job from that perspective, I viewed it as a writing challenge to myself.
Very little gets me motivated like a challenge, competition, even if it’s something as small as posing the question to myself if I could pull something off. In fact, a lot of my best work comes out of such challenges. It sounds silly, but in writing, self-motivation is about the most important skill you can learn. It’s hard to go through scenes, especially some of the heavier ones, and it’s much harder to edit. If you have other goals that trick yourself into feeling like a game, then you’ll more often than not breeze through something that seemed at first like a chore.
And this turned out hard to do, not in the sense of it took me a long time to write--I actually had so much fun with this world and with these characters that I breezed through my first draft-- but when I went through it the first time, the character didn’t come across as a good protagonist at all.
In my figuring this out, I observed teenagers, and tried to remember what it was like to be a teenager myself. Frankly, I found teenagers to be a bit rambunctious, acting without thinking, and extremely low in self-confidence (for the most part, there’s always exceptions). And I wrote my character as such. In my early submissions drafts that I sent out to agents and editors, the character whined a LOT. She was combative, teasing her love interest a bit too hard. Honestly, it felt very realistic to me from what I’ve seen of a lot of teenagers, but those behaviors grate on a reader if they’re too pronounced, and I found that many of the editors didn’t connect with the character because of that.
I later learned the value of connection over realism in writing, something I wish I would have learned a lot easier and sooner. Readers want to see some flaws, some mistakes, but they don’t want that to be overwhelming, don’t want to find a person annoying. And in a heroic adventure, some of those life quirks need to be toned down rather than be presented as too realistic.
I let the book sit for awhile, wrote Star Realms: Rescue Run, and released that to quite a bit of fanfare. When I looked at this novel again, I saw it was close, but I needed to push that perspective character to the next level. I thought of who this character was, and how it would have shaped her so she’s different than just a normal teenager. Zaira’s lived mostly abandoned, on her own except when the neighbors checked in on her. She’s had to work for herself, farm for herself, wash her own clothes, cook her own meals for a couple of years now. That’s a pretty hard life to have 14-16, and one that requires a lot of work. As such, she’d be tougher. The whining had to go. She’d also have a very strong sense that she could do anything herself, including going in and doing things like flying an airship (minor spoiler, but I think you probably figured out that airship flying occurs by this point!). That has negative effects like stubbornness, which provide for some good conflict that a reader can relate to more. With those major facets of her personality in mind, I rewrote the book. And this time, everything clicked.
Even though there were heavy rewrites, I flew through this last pass because I made a character that was compelling and fun for me. And that’s what it takes to make something compelling and fun for a reader.
Authors often strive too hard for realism, to the point where it makes a lot of works bland and boring. Something that we can’t connect with because we’re not wishing we were in that person’s movie. And that’s what the author has to create. We as readers want people to rise up and be heroes, to meet challenges, to exceed expectations. That’s why we escape into fantasy in the first place. Realizing that changed my world, making Zaira Von Monocle into the farm girl-turned-hero that she ended up being in For Steam And Country. She’s still got her inexperience, but her wide-eyed sense of wonder and being willing to take on big challenges makes her a fun protagonist. I hope you enjoy reading about her as much as I enjoyed writing her.
Jon Del Arroz is the author of the Alliance Award nominated and top-10 Amazon bestselling Space Opera, "Star Realms: Rescue Run." His second novel, "For Steam And Country," is just out. He hails from the San Francisco Bay Area, is a guest contributor to the Hugo Award-nominated Castalia House blog, and regularly posts to http://delarroz.com. Twitter: @jondelarroz Gab.ai: @otomo