What type of women are you, and what are you not?
Different women respond to the same female character in different ways. Of course they do, because not all women are the same. So how do you write a realistic female character that will appeal to most women?
Women are complex creatures. They have layers and thoughts and feelings and unresolved histories. They can multitask and sacrifice and they think a lot. I love this about women. At the same time, I find this makes them tricky to portray realistically in fiction.
So I went to “When Genres Attack 2″ last week at Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt because the subject of discussion was heroines. The lovely Mardi McConnochie (“The Voyagers”), P M Newton (“The Old School”), Georgia Blain (“Too Close To Home”) and Kirsten Tranter (“The Legacy”) were on the discussion panel, and a great deal of what they said about female characters, and readers’ expectations of them, rang true.
But some of it also surprised me.
P M Newton kicked off the discussion by admitting that her female detective in “The Old School”, Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly, had been criticised because she had flaws, such as getting stomach upsets when distressed. Apparently, readers didn’t want a woman in a difficult job to have flaws, they just wanted her to be strong.
I agreed with P M Newton that it’s unrealistic to expect a female character not to have flaws, as that would just be a fantasy. Also, a woman can have flaws and still be strong. In my view, that’s called being human.
Georgia Blain added that she disliked it when men wrote strong female characters “devoid of emotion”, such as Stieg Larrson’s character Lisbeth Salander in his Millennium series and Peter Høeg’s character Miss Smilla in “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow”, whom she felt were phoney. But I wasn’t sure about that because, in many situations, I too am completely devoid of emotion, especially when I’m organising events, doing housework and saving the planet from its own inherent evils.
Okay, so I don’t save the planet from evil very often, but when there is an emergency (personal or business) I do become a strategic mastermind who has little time for emotion – mine or anyone else’s. Examples that spring to mind include car accidents, rushing my daughter to hospital with a back injury, my son having a life-threatening allergic reaction to a spider bite, you know, emergencies…
So I can understand why Larrson and Høeg wrote their characters the way they did. But I also understand Georgia’s point – female characters devoid of emotion do chance being perceived by women readers as phoney, because those readers are themselves complex creatures who enjoy reading about complexity.
Mardi McConnochie went on to praise Angela Carter for writing as if being a woman was fun (which of course it is!) and that the key was opening up possibilities for female characters. Yet Kirsten Tranter said she received criticism for opening up possibilities for her female protagonist in “The Legacy”, Julia, and allowing Julia to make a choice at the end of the novel that was essentially only for herself. Would Kirsten have received the same criticism had Julia been written as a male character? If the ending of Dennis Lehane’s “Gone Baby Gone” is anything to go by, said PM Newton, possibly not.
So how should we write female characters?
After listening to what these four vibrant authors had to say about both their own female characters and those of others, what became clear to me was that there will always be someone out there ready and happy to criticise the characters we write – whether they’re male or female, whether we’re male or female.
So what’s the answer?
I think the answer is the oldest answer of them all – there is no answer. As the leader of a writers’ group, I know all too well that you are never going to please everybody. So really there’s only one thing to do – write the character you want to write. Perhaps be self-aware about the type of woman (or man) you are, and the type you’re not. Perhaps be vigilant about what your female characters might lack and what they might need to make them more realistic. But, ultimately, just write them as honestly and with as much of yourself in them as you can, and as long as you get inside their head, in the place that they’re at in the world of your story, that character will be real – to you and others… but probably not everyone.