by JT Ellison
The indefatigable Sarah Weinman did a Dark Passages column for the LA Times a couple of weeks ago about female characters with dark histories. She cited some great examples of authors who use their female protagonists to tread into the traditionally male territory of overwhelming violence: Karin Slaughter, Mo Hayder, Gillian Flynn.
There is a common denominator in all of these fabulous authors’ characters: the woman has a tortured past. They are damaged goods. Abused, debased, yet, like the phoenix from the ashes, rising above their beginnings to become strong, compassionate female leads who step in where even males fear to tread.
But here’s my question.
Why does a strong female lead have to have a tortured background? Can a female protagonist make it in the fiction world if she’s not been broken first?
I daresay the answer is no. Because it just wouldn’t be ladylike for the female lead to have an unrequited bloodlust, now would it?
I know this isn’t a female-centric phenomena – it’s a crime fiction phenomena. There are plenty of male characters who are driven by a tortured past. John Connolly’s Charlie Parker comes to mind: if Parker’s wife and daughter hadn’t been brutally murdered, would he have ever become the man he is today? Of course not. But, and here’s a big but, for the most part, the male characters who are driven by despair didn’t have the violence done to them. To those around them, yes. To their loved one, (who many would argue are an extension of ourselves, and as such, what you do to them, you do to me.) The reality is, though, there aren’t a lot of male characters in crime fiction who’ve been raped or tortured, then struck out to find vengeance by becoming a cop, or a PI, or a spy.
To me, this ultimately harkens back to the archetypal female mythos – the soul eater, the strong woman who devours men because of our magical abilities – we bleed and don’t die. Therefore, we must have some inherent evil and that evil must be contained. Generations have tried to tamp down the Lilith that resides in all of us, just waiting to be freed.
So it seems goes the strong female lead in fiction. If, and only if, she has been raped or beaten or otherwise horribly misused, has lost a sibling or a parent to violence, will she be allowed to acknowledge her bloodlust. The violence done to her unlocks the deep-seated resentment, and society understands—not condones, mind you, but understands—because of what she’s been through.
In other words, society has conditioned us to tamp down our feminine wiles, to stow away our power, to hide behind our men and only emerge once we’ve been raked over the coals through some unspeakable violence.
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
What in the hell is that all about???
Why can’t a woman be strong because she’s strong? I know we’re talking about fiction here, and we need to have a weakness that’s apparent in order to “relate” to the characters, but I’m always amazed at just how many female lead characters fall prey to this. Mind you, and this is an important caveat, there are instances of this that mold the character into who they become that won’t work any other way.
Karin Slaughter’s Sara Linton is a perfect example. She is so touched by the evil that’s done to her that it’s now imprinted itself on her psyche, and we know that evil begets evil. They can smell it hopping around in the veins, whispering the siren’s call filth vile exremous hate that emanates from the very cells of the blood they’ve permeated. She has no choice but to go forth and battle evil, because it follows her everywhere she goes, sensing her weakness, and her strength.
Our Zoë Sharp’s Charlie Fox is another that can be cited here as an appropriate product of an unspeakable violence. Zoë’s books work for me because there’s an unanswered question that rides through the series. On the surface, Charlie becomes a monster, a killer, because she has been forced to become one through the monstrous act that’s done to her. But did she? Or was there latent evil in her system? Would she be who she is despite the despicable actions of her teammates? There are many people who don’t turn into a killer after violence is done to them. I think there resides a small possibility that Charlie would have ended up exactly where she was regardless of her rape. Charlie is my favorite kind of character, the moral person who does immoral things. Her struggles with her new reality are some of the most nuanced in modern fiction today.
But many, many writers take this path—the tortured backstory—as a shortcut to give their women depth, and it can fall flat.
On the surface, it’s a psychological windfall. We cheer because it’s the underdog syndrome, the need to root for a character who has glimpsed the depths of hell and can come back to tell us all about it. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite books have female characters who’ve had some roughness in their past. I’m not saying this is wrong, or bad, or you shouldn’t do it. It’s just a phenomenon that I find fascinating, a trend that I’m not sure is a good one.
Because we’re victimizing our heroines to make them appear more heroic.
When I was first writing Taylor, something was very one-dimensional about her. Looking back, I understand now that she was too perfect. I asked an old English professor for advice and she said something vitally important: she needs to have a weakness. That was an a-ha moment for me. Oh, I thought. She needs to have a weakness. Okay. I can do that. Now what would that be????
You can see how easy it would be, at this particular point in time, to insert an unspeakable evil into her past that makes her what she is. Weakness, though, bespoke weak to me, and that was exactly the opposite effect that I wanted. My girl wasn’t going to be weak. She was going to be kick ass, and not because she was driven by a demon, it’s just who she was. So in the first book, Taylor smokes. That’s her weakness, her humanizing factor. And it works for me. She doesn’t have a big secret in her closet, a tragedy that drove her to become a cop. She chose that route because it was the right thing to do. Many might find her boring because she is a moral person doing moral things because of an overarching desire to rid the world of evil. I don’t know.
Just for the record, I am not a feminist, by any means. I’m happy in my role in life, being the wife, being the nurturer. I do hate that women aren’t paid equally for their work, and I will become highly annoyed if you suggest to me where my place is or neglect to treat me like a lady. But I’ve worked in male dominated environments before, and I learned very early on that there were two ways to get a leg up. One, sleep your way there. Two, earn the respect of your team. Guess which route I took?
And I’ll tell you, earning the respect of your team means showing absolutely no weakness. So when it came time to write my female character in a male world, there was no chance she’d be showing any either. I just don’t know how to program that way.
So. Am I completely off base here? Would you rather see the damaged soul find redemption? Or is it okay for women to finally come into their own in crime fiction? Look at the double standard that exists when it comes to sex: I know if there was a female lead who acted like the men, we’d all get into trouble. It’s not ladylike to have desires and act on them – that makes you a slut. But a male character can screw his way through the book and no one bats an eyelash.
How is this any different?
Wine of the Week: 2007 Feudo Arancio Nero d’Avola Sambuca di Sicilia paired with a hearty puttanesca sauce.
(Oh come on, you knew that was coming….)
Fascinating, JT. I never thought of it that way, but now I can see a definite thread in some of the fiction I’ve read recently. I envy your ability to think of characters this way.
Interesting point. There certainly are a lot of male thriller protagonists who are kick-ass becuase they seem to have been born that way. They never seem to have a moment of doubt or pain or a bad memory. And you’re right, I don’t recall a lot of heroines without baggage. But then, I don’t read much of those kinds of characters, becuase I find the "perfect cop/spy/etc" characters excruciatingly boring.
Give me a protag with a past and a head full of dark memories any day. It’s why I like Batman more than Superman, and Wolverine most of all.
We *are* the problem. (Allison and I talked about this very issue on our panel at RWA.)
First, in the interest of debate, I’d say you actually are a feminist, in the original Webster’s definition: one who supports the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes. I know you well enough to know you don’t think women should be lesser-than in any of those three cases. Right? [You are *not* the corrupted definition of feminist that anti-feminists use, which is a woman who wants to degrade or demean a man, emasculating him or elevating a woman over a man in every area, solely based on gender.] [Can we separate the term now from the connotation and corruption of the word in this day and age? I’m not sure that we can, since so many women I know who are for equality and who enjoy things like the right to vote are not comfortable calling themselves feminists. But I digress…]
But… here’s where it’s interesting… in a post talking about strong women, and coming out the gate with "What the F**k is Ladylike?" – you, as a woman writer, took a moment to show that you have a nurturing side. [Anyone who knows you for five minutes knows this about you–and that is a compliment.] You’ve shown you can be strong and tough (choice of language, choice of declarative nature of the charge) but still feminine (enjoying home, hearth, husband). The "I’m not a feminist" statement really, in actuality, implies: "I am not a threat… or a difficult-to-get-along-with personality."
I bring that up because that’s what the baggage has become a shorthand for in fiction–that the woman is someone well can relate to. And it is a shorthand, and it [edited to clarify–adding gratuitous baggage] can be a lazy way of depicting a strong woman character. [note that it is not always a lazy method–just that it can be.] "Well, she’s strong, maybe too strong–she’ll feel threatening and unlikeable, so let’s have a buttload of baggage so people will feel compassion / sorry for her and will forgive her this little aggression tendency she’s got." It’s much easier to cough up baggage than to simply say, ‘This is a strong woman. Opinionated. Determined. No real baggage–she’s that way because she chooses to be."
The question becomes, how do you help the reader relate to such a strong woman? How do you define her femininity in such a way that you keep what makes her a woman while making her relatable? If we eschew deep, wretched baggage as overwrought, what do we do it its place?
That, I think, is where the fun begins, in creating characters — in finding those flaws, in finding ways to make their very strengths *also* their biggest flaw, in finding nuances to why we care about their character, in spite of their choices.
[The caveat here is that this is just one angle into the problem. There are more, but I’ve gone on too long. I look forward to reading what others say / debate and / or what they disagree with!]
Best title ever. Not sure what I can offer. My protags, male, all have big baggage. Regarding women, I do think a strong, tough female can exist, unshaped by some horrid incident in her past. And I think she can be interesting enough to hold a reader.
Similar to most industries, from my mostly uninformed POV, it seems the publishing world has a base set of parameters for its genres. It’s fine to move around–inside the lines. Get outside the lines…you get your hand slapped.
And we as readers, like sheep, eat what we’re fed.
It’s why movies like Independence Day–sheesh–get green lit.
Thought-provoking, JT. Thanks.
Great post, with a lot to take away. I think you’re on to something here, with one small suggestion. I understand why you don’t want Taylor to show no weakness, but, since we can see inside her, we can see it. No other character needs to, but the reader can be privy to the conflict inside her as she keeps this weakness from discovery by the other characters.
As for what is ladylike? Typing F**K instead of spelling it out. 🙂
Talking about this with some writer friends recently, I noted that this is probably why paranormals are becoming so popular. For a lot of young women, the strong, resilient, capable woman of the Grafton/Barnes PI novel just doesn’t feel realistic in our current world. There is so much grief and backlash she would have to deal with.
And sucking up to the boys by refusing to admit to being a feminist is part of it. The neutering of female anger about the misogyny in the world is one of the reasons mystery fiction written by women is perceived as not being as "strong" as men’s. We are writing with one arm tied behind our backs.
Hey, Toni, if JT joins RWA next year we should have her on our panel!
What Toni didn’t tell you, is that we called our panel "Smart Women, Short Skirts." Apologies to Buffett.
I understand what you mean by feminist, and what Toni means, and I’m not going to add anything because it would venture into political territory which I avoid like the plague. But I know exactly what you mean, JT, and am right with you.
And I’m right with you on the blog, in that it is hugely problematic to write a strong, independent female lead without giving her baggage. (And some problems with unpublished authors is that there is too much baggage, but that’s another post.)
I’ve written characters with what I’ll call "baggage-lite" meaning it wasn’t a personal attack on them, but something happened in their past that shaped/is shaping the choices they made/make in the present. Carina Kincaid was raised in a average large Cuban-Irish family. When she was 19 her nephew was kidnapped from his bedroom (and murdered) while she was babysitting. That event triggered a lot of changes and choices among Carina and her six brothers and sisters. Julia Chandler is a prosecutor for no reason other than she wanted to be one. Her "baggage" is that her older brother who she was extremely close to married a woman she loathed. When he died, she took over managing their parents vast estate (though she didn’t want to) because she had to make sure Crystal didn’t screw it up. She vies for time with her troubled niece. Robin McKenna was "normal" except that because her mother could never manage finances, Robin ended up being a stripper to work her way through college. It wasn’t until she was older that tragedy hit and her roommate murdered. And Megan Elliott was an Army brat whose father died in the line of duty when she was in college. It didn’t change her career path (the FBI) but it does shape her views of the military and soldiers, and she knows more about the military life than most, which helps her in her current case.
So I think you can get away with not having deep baggage, or personal baggage. I have written characters who have a major event happen in their early life (before 21) and others who simply adjust to a situation that could honestly happen to anyone. My heroes tend to be less "tortured" but some have baggage as well. It’s really how we deal with it that makes us strong or sympathetic.
I think it’s easier for readers to buy into a baggage-laden heroine who is in law enforcement or another male dominated position because it’s an easy thing for the writer to convey. I.e. Carina Kincaid–her nephew was murdered, she got serious about life in general and became a cop. My first heroine became an FBI agent because an FBI agent adopted her after her father killed her family, then tried to kill himself. The reader can buy that easily, without a lot of explaining, and it was harder to convey Megan Elliott without falling to stereotype in what we perceive a strong female cop as being. So to soften her, I gave her a weakness for pedicures 🙂 . . . painted toes is hugely feminine.
Anyway, I could write about this all day . . . and I had a point when I started. It’s easier to give baggage because it’s a win-win with the readers. We all–every one of us, every reader, every editor and agent–is biased in some way, and we have an inherent set of values. In the legislature, at least a decade ago, we knew (based on polls, focus groups, etc) that voters (ALL voters, men and women) would pay more attention if a man talked about economic policy and a woman talked about education policy. Fair? No. I handle all the finances in my house. But it’s a deep-seated, basic bias that most people would deny they have, and could probably give a million reasons why it’s not true. But when tested, the exact same message would have less support when shared by one gender vs. the other. You always want the edge, so you play to the stereotype and the bias. Going against the grain means you have that much harder to work to sell your message.
Ditto for authors. And it works in every type of character, not just the strong female characters.
But it can be done. Everyone has a weakness. It doesn’t have to be a tragedy.
You’re such a wimp, JT. For once I wish you’d come out and tell us just how you feel.
I agree that "earning respect" can be enough to carry a character, with or without "baggage." In the normal course of character creation in fiction we include flaws, but they don’t always have to relate to trauma.
"baggage-lite" – Allison, what a great term! I don’t have much to add, I’m afraid as it has already been said in the previous wonderful comments by others. As I was reading I was trying to think of female protag examples that fit into the no baggage category…. wow, it was tough coming up with some.
J.T., I do believe this post is going to be playing in the back of my mind every time I sit down to write a new female protag – thank you for bringing this up – you have certainly put a new spin on things! (And Toni and Allison are right – you should join RWA and go on a panel with them – I’d make sure to be there and witness the exchanges!)
JT, absolutely spectacular post. Have I told you lately you’re brilliant?
Yeah, I totally get why the abhorrence of the term and the desire not to associate with it. (I can look at that with a clinical eye in a blog, but I wouldn’t go around saying I’m a feminist for the very social-backlash the word has garnered.)
LOL on the title. I think I am purposefully forgetting it because I kept mispronouncing it. (I kept calling it Short Women, Smart Skirts.)
Have you read Nicola Griffith’s "Aud Torvingen" series? Aud is strong just because she is. Oh sure, some will say she’s strong because she’s gay, but that’s really not a torment to her. It’s just another factor, like being an ex-cop. She just is.
And she absolutely kicks ass.
I think making women phoenix-like makes them safe, somehow. If a woman has a tortured past and rises above it, it’s her past that has shaped her. I kinda suspect that inherently strong women are threatening so some perceived archetype of femininity, but if there’s something that has destroyed that nurturing, selfless component, then it’s okay to be badass.
And I agree, I think that’s bullshit. Women can be strong simply because we are.
But flaws do make fictional characters human, and those help us relate to them, develop an affinity, even a sort of friendship. People who are perfect just make the rest of us poor mortals feel rotten, and who wants that in a heroine?
Right on, awesome, brilliant post. I see no reason why women protagonists cannot have exactly the same back-stories as male protagonists. I do feel that all interesting characters must have complicated backstories or they simply won’t feel real, they won’t have extraordinary tales to tell, and we as readers won’t be compelled to follow along.
Great and thought-provoking post, JT.
Tortured doesn’t equal baggage doesn’t equal emotionally multi-dimensional.
I think that the tortured past is easy because it’s a convenient starting point for showing growth –"Look how far she’s come. Look what she’s overcome."
That’s true of baggage (which is much more common in both genders) too.
And though I get your point, I do think it’s more interesting to read characters that have some internal conflict that drives them to achieve/accomplish/work in the present. That doesn’t mean it has to be dark or horrid.
Science fiction is filled with strong women; I’d argue that they’re more common there (and possibly in romance as well) than in crime fiction. Is this because we’ve unconsciously continued to let women be victims –even when they’re our own protags?
Frankly, I find many male protags tiresome because they don’t
After a bit of thought, I have decided that ALL actions are caused–in real life–by some sort of "back story". I mean, seriously, there had to have been a crazy sort of event, or series thereof, in the lives of the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, J Edgar Hoover, and Patrick Fitzgerald. Look at Monk–the Monk movies are so interesting because of the back story. I find those without dark backgrounds to be sort of flat, which is why I enjoy the likes of Aurora Teagarden, Goldie Baer, Nora Blackbird, Kinsey Millhone (who does have a motivating back story), and Michele Martinez’s Melanie Vargas. You can clearly see the motivation behind what they do, and it makes for a richer character.
So I guess I would argue that male characters, like Dirk Pitt, for instance, who don’t seem to have a back story, are less well-developed and consequently, less interesting. To me, anyway.
Great post, JT, and some terrific comments here. I like the idea of female protags with baggage, but in my case they’re usually physically and mentally strong characters and it’s emotional baggage in the form of guilt that binds them. It doesn’t imply that physical violence was done to them … simply that they are sentient human beings who have concern about actions they’ve taken in the past.
"The neutering of female anger about the misogyny in the world is one of the reasons mystery fiction written by women is perceived as not being as "strong" as men’s. We are writing with one arm tied behind our backs."
RIGHT ON, Mary R!!! Thank you!!!
Karin Slaughter and Mo Hayder are two of my favorite writers on the planet, and now I’ll have to check out Flynn. I love them because they don’t back away from the horror and brutality of rape and they portray it without a nanosecond of titillation.
For far, far too long women DIDN’T talk about sexual abuse. The statistics are that at least 30 percent of us are survivors. That means one in three women protagonists who have been assaulted is simply the truth. I’d much rather have the truth than the lie of silence.
But please, God, let men write about rape of men before they jump into exploring what it’s like to be a woman who’s been raped. Get yourself into a prison for a week if you want to be truthful about it.
This conversation has also been going on for a while in the fantasy/sci-fi communities – it’s the "warrior heroine must have been raped" trope.
The problem is that people are uncomfortable with women and violence. They can’t reconcile mother and murder (although the greatest danger to any child is from its parents – just the preponderance of opportunity, not to mention motive) so there must be some sort of anamalous experience that turns a woman into someone capable of handling/handing out an ass whooping.
But the thing is, statistically, rape is NOT an anamalous event in the lives of most women –sexual assualt is a spectrum and most of us will fall along it sometime. So is it really as damaging to women’s agency as we think? I don’t have any answers, just pondering. Thanks for the provoacation, JT.
Yes, yes, yes. Great post JT. This touches on the debate about why men are reluctant to pick up books written by women, and I think in large part it’s due to the conventions you’ve outlined here. There is a sensibility among women writers that if we throw in enough violence, men will flock to our books. This is not only shortsighted, it’s been proven wrong time and time again. It’s not the violence, but the way the story is told.
Men and women ARE different–but we all have baggage. The question is where we store it. As a rule, male characters tuck their suitcases away in a closet when they’re not in use. Female characters carry their bags around with them. And at the risk of raising ire, I’m not certain this isn’t reflective of who we are, or who we’d be, even if this weren’t a male dominated society.
Well, I think feminists are sexy, but then, I got kinks they don’t even have names for yet.
Let me preface this by saying I do not have a degree in Lit Crit. Probably I have no idea what I’m talking about. Not to mention it’s late on a Friday and I’m so effing tired I should just shut off the computer.
JT, I disagree with what you said, that women can only be seen as strong if they have first been victimized, because I think you have it backward. Turn it around: Women who have been victimized can become strong. That’s not just a manipulation of semantics. It’s a powerful message and it’s important that women are able to express it in fiction.
History is full of examples of women being victimized by men, and by society as a whole — treated as goods to be damaged or discarded without penalty. But how recent is it that women have been able to write about that victimization in not-so-polite terms, to demonstrate their strength not merely to survive, but to flourish? To become heroic.
The only comparison in past fiction that comes immediately to mind of a traumatized woman who finds strength (did I mention I’m tired?) is Scarlett O’Hara. One could argue that she was the victim of men going off to war, leaving their women to deal with poverty and lack of protection. She did what she had to do to survive. Though set during the Civil War and reconstruction, that story and her character struck a chord with women circa 1940-ish who had recently survived the Great Depression and were suffering the loss of their men to World War. It evoked the emotion of its time.
The strong women with a tortured past being portrayed in fiction today evoke the emotion (and honesty) of this time. Rape and violence toward women are not new. Our freedom and willingness to write about them, to see those women as capable of becoming strong and heroic, is new. It’s raw and honest and hopeful and I’m grateful for it. Just as I’m grateful for writers — like Karin Slaughter, one of my favourites — who can write about it with brutally gorgeous and unflinching prose.
Women don’t "need to have a weakness" or even past trauma to be heroic, but women are in fact dealing from an historic position of weakness and I think we do need stories that demonstrate triumph — not over men, but over adversity and the helpless rage of being victims.
So says a woman who is strong in spite of never having been a victim of violence.
[Apologies for being so wordy. My internal editor is evidently taking a nap.]
Part of the problem is that we’re so programmed by cultural expectations about what men and women should be, we enforce those expectations on what we read and watch. And one of the things I’ve learned is that we’re hard on atypical portrayals of our own gender.
I’ve tried a couple of times to write mystery/intrigue with a female MC who is unsentimental, not especially polite, doesn’t like children or other women and can swear like a sailor when provoked. This female MC didn’t have any major traumas in her past, no rapes, no torture; she just grew up in a male-dominated household.
Anyway, the male crit group readers didn’t have a problem with her; the female readers hated her. "I don’t buy her as a woman," was a common complaint. "Too hard, too masculine." The male readers generally didn’t have a problem understanding why the male MC wanted to sleep with her (she also happens to be smart and attractive), but the female readers couldn’t accept that a man would find such a creature desirable. I actually had at least one woman suggest that the MC be an abuse victim to explain why she was the way she was.
The obvious problem: women are the majority of mystery readers. If they don’t accept that a woman can be perfectly happy without the traditional feminine qualities unless she’s been brutalized, you’ll continue to see a parade of female MCs who must have utterly horrid backstories just so they can kick some ass.
(I’ve also had male readers reject the concept of a male MC who enjoys art and has fairly sophisticated opinions about women’s fashion. "Is he gay?" *Sigh*)
JT, this is an utterly fantastically wonderful post, and you rock.
I do have one bone to pick with you, however… when you write: "I do hate that women aren’t paid equally for their work, and I will become highly annoyed if you suggest to me where my place is or neglect to treat me like a lady" and then claim NOT to be a feminist, it’s rather a contradiction in terms. Okay, maybe one would have to substitute "treat me like a human being…" to score points with Gloria Steinem, but still, your statement is the essence of feminism, which is to say, "hey, women are actually people."
Today you are my kickass heroine, absolutely.
To quote JT, "bultshit bullshit bullshit." As an author, you write the best book you can, every fucking time! Any compromises you make to your characters and story is your decision. If you create an abused character because you think it will sell, that’s YOUR decision. If you do it because you think it genuinely reflects a culture of male abuse, that’s also YOUR decision. If you do it just to make your character more rounded, YOUR decision. No need to cry foul, bemoan an unsympathetic readership, or raise the banner of feminism. Take full responsibility for what you write.
What a terrific blog post.
I had never thought of the female main character in that light before and, upon reflection, realize that you are quite correct.
The comments following your post are just as interesting as the post.
Love and best wishes,
Friends, my deepest apologies for sparking a conversation and not participating in it. We had a personal glitch yesterday, but it’s on the mend now and I’m sort of back.
This post did exactly what I hoped for – started a fascinating discussion. I think all sides were represented, and I can’t say I disagree with any of them. I also learned that I need to redefine my thinking on feminism, as it was pointed out several times that what I think and feel is what feminism really is all about. My exposure to "feminists" has always included man bashing, man hating, and resentment. I feel none of those things – I love men – so I’ve always aligned myself elsewhere. So thank you for opening my eyes. I do think we were created equal – all of us – and we should be treated accordingly.
I also saw the issue from the other side, a thesis point that I completely missed. We should be celebrating the women who rise above their personal tragedies to become strong, independent forces to be reckoned with. Many people don’t rise above their tragedies, and I for one want to go on record agreeing that the ones who do should be lauded in every form possible, fictional or otherwise. Thank you to BCB for putting it so elegantly.
Also, I neglected to separate a personal tradegy from flaws. Flawed characters are fascinating. All of my characters have flaws. Lots of them. But I’ve never seem being raped as a character flaw, if that makes sense.
Regardless, my friends, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. And Toni and Allison – I am a proud member of RWA, and would love to work with you.
A most interesting post and discussion, JT. I, for one, am not overly fond of protags with a lot of angst brought on by some traumatic event from the past. I prefer characters who grow stronger by overcoming flaws relating to life experiences, either personal (I also had a character trying to kick the smoking habit) or work-related. The male PIs in my two series are called on to overcome problems brought on by past decisions.
I enjoy reading about female characters who fit the same mold. I have a female PI, which some would call a sidekick, in each series, a strong woman who has overcome earlier problems not related to trauma. My characters won’t hesitate to shoot if the situation calls for it, but they don’t go looking for excuses to elilminate somone.
I just posted on my website about this a short while ago. I write a female heroine without a dark past, she’s an unapologetic strong woman. To be quite frank, the whole "tortured protagonist" thing is interesting, but seemed to be everywhere and I wondered myself why women in particular were being given such backstories. Perhaps the poster on this site that mentioned women have been writing with one arm tied behind their backs is onto something? Maybe there’s been concern about the reception a non- tortured heroine would receive and so such manuscripts are rarely written (or more accurately -bought?) I don’t think she needs to be tortured to be interesting. The women I know are strong, independent, and willing to have men around them that are the same way, so feels quite natural. But be forewarned–just came from a signing where I’m told the male owner loved loved loved my book –and then was told by someone who knows him that he was blown away that it was written by a woman, because he does not read thrillers written by women as a rule. So glad he still gave me a chance. I’m debut and learning that this writing business is not for the faint of heart.
JT–loved this post, and found the comments equally enlightening. When you bring up the F word, though, I can’t resist jumping in.
I AM a feminist. I married one and together, we’re raising three of them. I proudly tell them so, even my son, who groans with embarrassment.
I’m too young to have burned my bra, but am old enough to have some scars from the ongoing battle–like the fellow student who came up to me after a class at Wharton to tell me he’d never realized that women could speak up in class and actually have something meaningful to contribute. He wasn’t being the least bit condescending. He was simply amazed.
I want to create characters who believe the fight shouldn’t be about whether or not women have something worthwhile to say in class, whether they deserve equal pay, or whether their name should be listed after their husband’s on the loan statement. In my mind, those questions have already been answered by the feminists who preceded me. I’m much more interested in the discussions that take place well beyond that which we should take for granted in 2009.
Elegantly? Now that’s not something I’m used to hearing. 😉 Thank you for your generosity in characterizing it as such.
BTW, I like your characters just fine the way they are.
I’ve firmly resisted the suggestions of agents and editors to give my heroine a dark horrible past to explain her actions and who she is – the dark past certainly has its place, but in my books would be contrived and an easy out. Most of us are shaped by a million tiny things rather than one large traumatic one, and it’s my belief the reading audience is not only smart enough to get that, but to appreciate a character whose flaws and "past" they can identify with.