I’ve never been a teenage girl

Recently I’ve found myself thinking about teenage girls. No, don’t run away. I promise this won’t get weird.

The first reason was the new webseries by RoosterTeeth Studios, RWBY, while the second was the John Scalzi book Zoe’s Tale. Both stories star young female protagonists, and both of them are written by men. Can you see where I’m going with this?

Scalzi does a better job, as is befitting a professional. The dialogue and characterization for his main character Zoe are pretty good. He makes other blunders in the book – it’s by far the weakest in his Old Man’s War series – but Zoe works decently well. On the other hand, the four main protagonists (all young women) in RWBY have been sporting some seriously awkward dialogue. The writers have been doing a good job with all male characters and the older female characters, but when it comes to younger women, they lapse quickly into cliche.

I think the reason why Scalzi does okay while the RWBY team falters – writing experience aside – is that Scalzi sought help from women to make sure Zoe worked. Scalzi knew he had a liability – he had never been a teenage girl, and like most of us who were once teenage boys, he never really understood them. Men? No problem. Older women? By the time we all grow into adults, at least the more perceptive among of us start to understand each other better, so that’s a leap he could make. But teenage girls? Not so easy. Hormones make it hard enough for teenagers to understand themselves, much less the members of their similarly beleaguered opposite sex.

The lesson here is that there are limits to empathy. I tend to assume that I can jump into the mind of any character, but there are limits. There are some experiences you just can’t capture unless you’ve either lived them or spent a great deal of time observing those who have–and we all know what happens when grown men start paying too much attention to teenage girls, so watch out fellows.

If you’re writing a character you’re not sure you understand, first do everything you can to try to understand them. If you still can’t, get help from someone who does (as Scalzi did). In the end though, be prepared for failure. Scalzi came close, but Zoe’s character still lacked the “snap” of his other characters. By all means, you should still try if the story you want to tell requires it, but go in with your eyes open. It will be tough, and you’ll probably never fully grasp why.

As for me, I’ll stick with older female characters for now.