I have been listening to all the discussion about “representation” in literature, and it has made me reflect quite a bit about my own reading habits–both now and when I was younger. I’ve been trying to figure out what character in literature I most identify with…which one “represents” me, and I am finding it more difficult than I had originally thought it would be.
When I was a young reader (way, WAY back when) there weren’t a lot of pale young girls with glasses and braces who liked to read away entire summers. So, rather than finding a character I could identify with, I ended up reading stories with characters whom I hoped to be more like.
I read the Little House on the Prairie books, because I liked history, and because I was fascinated by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was smart and spunky. I also devoured a series called “The Great Brain” about a really smart kid because, even then, I knew that intellect lasted longer than looks. I didn’t necessarily see myself in these characters, but I saw the person I hoped to become.
When I read now, I rarely see much of myself in the protagonist. Because really, who writes stories about moms with three kids who is compulsively cheap and writes on her lunch hours? Even if they did write them, I don’t think I’d bother reading them; no one wants to read about someone who cuts her own hair at 11:00 on a Friday night because that is the only time no one else wants the bathroom. So, instead, I read books about the kind of woman I hope to become–you know, some day–when I grow up.
I read a lot of history…because I was fortunate enough to grow up with a great-grandmother who loved to tell me stories and who shared her history with me. I have her old postcards and love letters and gifts from beaus. (She lived in Prague, Oklahoma before the land run, and she dated Jim Thorpe for a while. I still have some of their correspondence. In one, he swooned that she was “fat as a pigeon,” which apparently was quite a compliment back then).
I also read (and re-read) Outlander because it has I love all things Scottish and because, duh, history (or at least historical fiction). The series also taps into the very visceral need I have to connect with my own heritage. I married a Wallace…and my own family boasts the blood of generations of MacDhòmhnaills and Wallaces and Lynns. And, I’ll admit, I still feel a spark of pride when I read about Jamie’s red hair and his Catholic faith. Despite the obvious gender difference, I immediately identified with him.
I also identified with another literary ginger. Ron Weasley is a favorite of mine. I admired his steadfastness. While I could definitely relate to Hermione’s love of books and obsessive desire for knowledge, it was Ron that suffered the constant comparison’s to Harry, and it was Ron who quelled his own self-doubt and jealousy and stood by Harry’s side. (I know, I know, he wavered, but give the guy a break…he still did better than I would have!)
I have read a lot recently about under represented cultures, genders, body types, etc. But for me, I didn’t see myself so much in the appearance of a character, but in his/her soul. Even as a child, when a character I had grown to love hurt, or had doubts…I felt his doubt and pain; it didn’t matter that the doubt and pain was housed in a male body. Even now, I feel a kinship with James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser because of his faith, and his sense of honor, and his desire to protect those he loved no matter what the cost. It was of no consequence that such loyalty came in a masculine form.
That is not to say that we shouldn’t have characters of all sizes, shapes, colors, creeds, et al. It just means that, for me at least, I take my heroes where I can find them. And, as a writer, I write the characters as they come to me. I never set out to make a character a certain height, or color, or nationality…that is just how they come to me–just as I never set out to have a son with ginger hair, or a daughter with a mass of unruly curls, or another daughter with locks the color of Scottish honey. I just hope that my children find characters that they can look up to, no matter what their gender, race, or religion.