My friend Rob Reid is a children’s lit maven, author, and performer. He also teaches at the university here in Eau Claire and every semester kindly invites me to speak to his adolescent literature class. The students are primarily undergraduate education majors, and a few grad students working on a media specialist degree (such optimism!). It’s always a fun Q &A.
Rob had put my novel Thin Ice on the required reading list, and the students were prepared to grill the author. One woman tossed out an especially pointed question: Why didn’t I include much in the way of Wisconsin culture in the book, which is set in northern Wisconsin? She specifically mentioned German influence.
More pertinent than no German influence, I thought as I prepared my answer, was that though the book is set in an area of the state where many Native Americans live, you wouldn’t know it from reading the novel. And this in fact may have been the unspoken point the student was really making.
Her question was a really a very specific form of a frequently asked question authors get: Why didn’t you talk about…?
Because my main character wouldn’t. Thin Ice is a first-person narrative, which by definition means there’s a narrow world view. In that situation, an author’s only obligation when it comes to world-building is to show the world in which the viewpoint character lives and/or sees and thinks about at the present moment. Therefore, certain people and things and lifestyles that one person takes for granted might not be part of another person’s story and should not be introduced into the story.
In my longwinded answer (I can really get going during a Q & A), I contrasted Arden with the protagonist of another of my novels, Cory Knutson (Revolutions of the Heart). The two novels are set in the same area of Wisconsin, but Cory’s story includes several Ojibwa characters and a plot line affected by race relations. The difference isn’t because I did a better job depicting the culture and people of the area in that book, but because the protagonist’s worldview during the timeframe of the story is a wider one.
Another version of this “Why?” question is often found in complaints about portraits of adults in YA novels. Well, same answer: My obligation as a writer is to create the character’s world, not the world a concerned adult reader prefers a child/teen sees.