One of my personal biggest obstacles when it comes to writing urban fantasy might be just a personal limitation, but I doubt I’m the only one.
Technology changes with mindboggling speed in the modern world. Thanks to that technology, trends change just as rapidly, propagating through the entire globe and being forgotten in spans of time that not so long ago would have been unthinkably brief. I am, personally, rather fond of various kinds of technology, although I confess to resenting being forced into constant upgrades that often complicate without necessarily improving things. Much of my time is spent online; I’ve found more friends I can relate to and trust that way than I ever have in person, including people I deeply care about from all over the world. The Internet offers a research resource that I could never have dreamed of years ago when forced to dig through often outdated books at the local library.
That said… I was born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, graduated from high school in the 90s. I grew up in the country, not even in a village most of the time but usually outside of it on a farm; I saw peers at school but rarely had contact with them outside and then only the few friends that I felt I had anything in common with; much of my free time was spent alone with pets, although I had a limited choice of kids of similar age not too far away. My first computer had no hard drive, only two 5-1/4″ floppies, and MS-DOS, no Windows, and certainly no Internet; my brother used it for games now considered primitive, I used it for homework and writing.
The obstacle I mentioned is this: I’m finding it more and more difficult to write anything from the perspective of characters who are significantly younger. Not because I have any particular age bias; I have no trouble writing about characters of all ages when I’m doing other-world fantasy (although I admit to finding children tricky). It’s because the mindset created by growing up in a world of constant connection is one I can’t seem to get into. As near as I can tell, the fundamental way of interacting with the world and with other people has altered drastically for anyone born in the Western world in, say, the past two decades. I assume there are still introverts who don’t feel the need to be chatting with friends 24/7 via a dozen social media platforms, but even for them, there’s never been a time when the option wasn’t there. “Friend” now means something very different than it used to. So does “famous”.
For the record, this isn’t a value judgement. This is not a rant about how society is going down the toilet and what-is-the-world-coming-to. Changes usually have advantages and disadvantages both. It’s just the perplexity and frustration of a fantasy writer, who can get inside the head of a character who isn’t human at all, yet is finding it hard to bridge a gap of a couple of decades.
Now, maybe if I had kids, it would make sense to me. (Or maybe not.) Maybe if I had a job or pastime that involved sustained contact with them, it would make sense. (Or not.) Neither is the case. I’m not sure either would be enough to let me fully get into the right headspace, anyway, and to write and make it work, I need to be able to live inside that person’s head.
My approach to writing is, as I’ve said elsewhere, emphatically about people. It’s about giving the reader a chance to step inside someone else’s life and experience the world differently. In order to create that, unless I want all of my significant characters to basically be me, I need to be able to place myself within that reality. Sadly for humanity, we can never fully experience the world the way anyone else does; personalities and past histories shape perspective even of identical events. The trick, of course, is imagination and extrapolation: I can’t say what the world would be like for every young man left alone with his family’s ancestral house and an unusual roommate, but I can say that if that young man has the particular mix of character traits that add up to Christian, then he’ll react to events the way he does in my Lamia. Every character has something of me in them, even if it’s very small, because that gives me a bridge; every character is a synthesis of my own experiences and observations and research. I admit my male characters are typically less than macho, but I’m okay with that; I have no doubt that it’s possible to pick holes in how I show characters that can be given other labels (although I plead individual variation, for the most part – nothing, after all, is universal). It’s entirely possible that someone twenty or forty years older than me would find flaws in characters of their own age. For the most part, I think I’m at least within a plausible range.
None of those, including the villains who are by definition doing things I consider bad, feel as difficult for me personally to grasp as a simple generational gap.
This wasn’t always a problem. When I wrote BlackWolf, I was in my very early twenties, and a cast predominantly in late teens and early twenties involved the world as I knew it (well, with the addition of werewolves, people with a variety of unusual abilities, and other weirdness). Even in Lamia, the characters are younger than I would choose now, though the gap in both age and time is less (however, there is still, definitely, weirdness).
Gradually, I’ve come up with ways to work around it.
I will probably write sequels to both BlackWolf and Lamia. In the former case, unless I want to pick up twenty years after the events that have occurred so far, or try the impossible task of rewriting the first novel, I’m going to have to just declare the sequel to be set in the mid-90s. It takes a little of the immediacy from the advantages of urban fantasy, but not too much. In the latter, it’s likely to be a thornier issue. A few years passing since the events of Lamia would be fine, but ten years or so would be pushing it, so I may have to do much the same.
There are some young characters in YinYang, which will I hope be available very soon. Sensitives are generally living hand-to-mouth, but more, they’re paranoid about being tracked so I can see them being rather technophobic in many ways; mages are generally used to living well, but are raised with a subtle attitude of superiority, and there are internal divisions within mage society that limit who you’re voluntarily going to associate with, although access to information would be highly valued. The fantasy elements of the story strongly mitigate the effects of the real-world cultural generation change. I’ve been asked by multiple test readers for a sequel, but I’m unsure whether I’ll be able to do so, since I’m not sure how far I can stretch that particular workaround in this case. At least for this novel, it worked.
Elsewhere, in my admittedly-peculiar playground universe, the alternate world Gaia is paired with a version of Earth that has some differences: a single change in the technological progress in the 80s or thereabouts snowballed into some differences even by the 90s, and by the time I get to the bulk of it which starts in the 2020s, the changes can be assumed to be significant. Change the tech, change the social effects of the tech.
I find it an odd situation, having to invent workarounds for a purely chronological situation when I can use sufficient research to extrapolate the thought processes of someone whose psyche reflects their wolf other-form, or for that matter write plausible transgendered characters when I’m a cisgendered woman, or even the basic one we tend to take for granted, write male characters although my personal experience of life is strictly female. I suppose everyone has blind spots, and I have no doubt that I have others, but this one is so broad that I’m grateful I’ve been able to think of ways I can work around it!