Boy or Girl? How an Author Decides the Gender of Her Main Character

The title character of my new book, “Henry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human,” was supposed to be a girl. I held out against Harry Potter for years because it bugged me that J.K. Rowling, the mother of a little girl, decided to write her epic adventure story about a little boy. So I knew that when I sat down one day to write my own epic adventure story the hero would be a girl.

Henry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human

Henry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human

My prejudice against boy stories dated back to my freshman year in college, when a friend asked what film was playing at the movie theater on campus. That night was a double bill: “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

“It’s men going places,” I said, summing it up neatly.

The comment was glib and offhand, but as I said the words, I realized men were always going places—to town, to Washington, to infinity and beyond. Girls stayed home. Not in my books, I resolved.

And yet somehow Henry turned out to be a boy.

Henry’s boyness started to take shape the moment I imagined his best friend, a remarkably advanced human unit called the ETC-420-GX-2 (E for short). The very first time Henry, who is a robot, meets him, E is lying on a cardboard box fast asleep. Suddenly, he opens his eyes. They are blue, the exact same blue as my own little boy’s.
I hadn’t meant to insert my son into the story, and yet somehow it seemed right. “Henry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human” is about a community of robots who inadvertently invent humans who are smarter than they; it was conceived of during a stolen afternoon in a darkened movie theater, the first one I had after Emmett was born. It was June and the magazine I worked for released me early and suddenly I had a summer Friday all to myself. I knew I should pick up my child early from day care, but the temperature was in the 90s and the day care center had better air-conditioning than my apartment and he had all his friends to play with and, well, it had been almost a year since I’d seen a movie.

Absent at conception, Emmett was present throughout the story’s creation, as E effortlessly became an older version of him—the same bright eyes, the same infectious smile, the same delighted laugh. In no time at all and before I could even stop it, he was running down dark deserted passages of secret government facilities with his best friend, Henry. The two were as thick as thieves, and there was nothing I could do to separate them, despite many valiant efforts to change one and then the other’s gender. Some narratives have their own internal engines, their own dramatic inevitabilities, and sometimes it’s better to graciously submit than go down fighting.

So, feeling an unexpected pang of sympathy for J.K. Rowling, I abandoned my preconceived notions and left Henry and E alone to run to their hearts’ content. The story is better off for it and so am I.

But the next epic adventure I write is going to feature a girl, and, man, is she going to go places.

Lynn Messina is author of eight novels, including “Fashionistas,” which has been translated into 15 languages and is in development as a feature film. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Self, Modern Bride, and she is a regular contributor to the  New York Times‘s Motherlode blog. She lives in New York City with her husband and sons.

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