Getting into the heads of characters
This Thing of Darkness is told from the point of view of an 18-year-old girl – Riley Benjamin. I am not an 18-year-old girl, I have never been an 18-year-old girl and I’m never likely to become an 18-year-old girl. I’ve understandably been asked a few times why I chose to write from the perspective of an 18-year-old girl and how I managed to pull it off.
When I first had the idea for This Thing of Darkness, it was Dean’s story (the lead male character) that came to me. I imagined a guy who had had a pretty rough start in life, whose parents were there physically (most of the time) but absent emotionally, a boy who didn’t feel loved. I imagined what this boy might do to find that sense of belonging that we all crave. I imagined him getting that connectedness from his mates – other boys from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and equally loveless home lives. I imagined these boys left to their own devices, roaming the streets of Adelaide looking for trouble. I imagined them finding it and then having to pay the consequences. So Dean was born in my mind. A guy whose upbringing had led to some bad choices, which had then led to a very horrific outcome.
But I really wanted the reader to be able to see the older Dean who, despite his chequered past, was actually a pretty decent guy who was trying to make peace with what he’d done and to just get on with life. A guy who just wanted normalcy, but also who had a lot to offer the world, if only he was given a chance.
One way I thought that I could show the reader this other side of Dean was to do it through another character’s eyes – someone who could actually grow to love him. So I created Riley – the girl who narrates This Thing of Darkness.
Having created Riley, my original intention was to tell the first half of the book from her perspective and then the second half from Dean’s. This didn’t end up happening. By the time I got to the halfway point (and the major turning point in the story where I had planned to switch perspectives), Riley’s own story had developed so much that it demanded to be finished. Hers, then, became the main story and Dean fell into second place. Dean’s voice was present in my early drafts in the form of little diary entries/letters that he used to share his inner thoughts, but I ended up cutting them out. They just weren’t working and almost didn’t seem necessary once it became all about Riley.
So, I didn’t intend to write This Thing of Darkness from the point of view of an 18-year-old girl but, once I got into it, I found it easier than I thought it would be. I think this was for two reasons. The first is that I had teenagers around me when I was writing the book. My daughter was in her early teens (when I started it but late teens by the time the book was published) and there were the lives of friend’s kids that I had to draw on.
The other (more important) factor is all this is that Riley comes from the same world as me. She lives in a semi-rural suburb of Melbourne (which is based on Warrandyte, where I grew up), she goes to the same high school as I did (when I write the school scenes I mostly picture Warrandyte High, where I went), her English teacher is my Year 12 English teacher (Greg Stewart), her parents are together (like my still are) and happy (for the most part!) and she has a sibling who she loves but often clashes with (same as me back then). So in all these ways, she is having the same upbringing as me, only she’s a girl. Our genders seemed like the least of our differences.
Readers will ultimately judge how well I took on the voice of an 18-year-old girl in This Thing of Darkness. I found it more difficult being in the head of a teenager than in someone of the opposite gender. Writing across gender … I might look at that in my next blog entry.