“They never write stories about people like me,” my thirteen-year-old daughter said. She had just finished yet another YA novel filled with active, adventurous, extroverted sort of people. But Naomi isn’t like that. She’s a beautifully quiet, caring, quirky introvert. Being with other people causes her anxiety, and her favorite activity is reading a book alone. She’s more likely to help quietly from the background, unseen, while others take the lead, and never argues with or confronts others. She wanted to know: Why were none of the people in those novels like her?
I decided that the world needed a protagonist like Naomi. For my novel Three Laws Lethal, I created a fictional Naomi, eight years older than the real one, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. I invented for her a library nook that no one else knew about where she could spend hours reading or working and feel safe. I gave her an inner thought life based on all of the science fiction and fantasy books she’d read and reread.
But there’s a reason protagonists like Naomi are rare. A protagonist has to address problems. She has to act. She can’t just sit idly by while events happen around her. How could I make a character like Naomi the heroine of an action-packed novel? Naomi suggested I should make her the villain of the story instead, but I didn’t want to do that.
Instead, I made her a programmer. Software developers can spend much of their time alone, and yet still impact the world around them dramatically. From her library sanctuary, she trains artificial intelligence software for a fleet of self-driving cars. When the software turns out smarter than expected and starts developing goals of its own, she’s the only one who knows. She has to decide what to do. She has to act.
A book also needs other characters. So I invented Tyler, a wholly imaginary young man exactly suited to understand her and relate to her, to connect to her despite her anxiety and self-imposed isolation. Tyler is a programmer, too (though not as good as Naomi), and their shared connection to the self-driving cars project gives them common ground. Until everything goes wrong…
When I finished writing Three Laws Lethal, Naomi was one of the first to read it. The result? She was delighted. (Whew!) She said: “She’s like me! Usually characters don’t react like I would in situations, but most of the time, Naomi does just what I would do. And I really like Tyler. I want to find a guy like that. Though it’s kind of weird reading about a boyfriend that your father wrote for you.”
She now has a T-shirt that reads, “I am too emotionally attached to fictional characters.” I guess I’ll call that a success!