There is going to be a certain amount of ‘coming out’ in this post.
My name is Rebecca and I am a writer who can’t write female characters.
Which is a bit weird, seeing as I am a 47-year-old woman, don’t you think?
A writer friend calls it creepy. Maybe she is right. I’ve tried, believe me.
My first novel (stopped counting at 250,000 words, but you get the picture) was centred on a young woman in Iron Age Britain. Well, you’d think that. She was the character on whom the story pivoted. It was her point of view. But that was the novel that gained me a certain reputation in my writing group. They banned me from using the words ‘massive chest’. I think ‘muscular legs’ were also mentioned. Needless to say, there were a lot of hunky Iron Age warriors running about, fighting for the right to have sex with my heroine. Now I read back through the text, she seems like a structuring absence, an empty space at the heart of the novel. She is a weakly drawn character. She is two dimensional, a paper cut-out compared with the male characters.
I am considering resuming work on the book I’ve been wrestling with for a while, which is currently entitled ‘The Butler Did It’ – four years’ work, and I still haven’t come up with a better title! This novel is centred around another young woman. And I think that is the problem I’ve been having with it. I just can’t get a handle on her. I’m just not as interested in her as I am in the men who surround her. They are the initiators of the action. It is their requirements that force her into the situation which forms the centre of the story.
I can’t get excited about her.
I’m just not that into her.
Yesterday I was watching a TV adaptation of Michel Faber’s dazzling novel, ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. I hadn’t meant to, but it was on, so I thought I’d dip in, though I had seen it before, when it was first screened.
The central female character is Miss Sugar.
Wow. If you needed a character that was a polar opposite to my ‘butlering’ heroine, you couldn’t come up with a better one. Sugar is a dazzling, sinister, forceful, sympathetic, passionate creature. She is a girl of 19, forced into prostitution by her mother. She is a brilliant writer and voracious reader who crafts a novel of sexual retribution while her clients sleep off their hangovers in the bed beside her. She is entrancingly beautiful, and yet she suffers with a horrible skin disease. She longs to escape her profession, and yet she is the most sought-after whore in Victorian London. She is transcendent, stealing every scene she is in, bonding all the other female characters together in a conspiracy against the male ones, who are either sinister and abusive, or weak and ineffeffectual. For me, she is right up there with Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp and Elizabeth Bennett as one of the great female characters of literature.
The thing about Sugar is that she takes the situation that she has been forced into by predatory men, and turns it on its head, coming out triumphant. That’s what my ‘butlering’ heroine is supposed to do, but frankly, she couldn’t triumph over the confines of a wet paper bag!
Conversely, my readers tell me that my male characters are psychologically complex, three-dimensional, tangible creatures. I’m good at one gender, but not at the other.
Time to fix that.
Miss Sugar is my inspiration. I’m settling down to rewrite my heroine. To rewrite what I have written from her point of view. To get inside her head. Not exactly to copy Sugar, but to use her as inspiration. To learn how to be sympathetic to my girl. To admire her. Which I don’t at the moment.
You have to like your characters (at least) in order to write them. How can you propose to spend a minimum of two years with them, looking them in the metaphorical eye every day, if you don’t?
I#ll let you know how I get on. And in the meantime, if you haven’t read ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’, you absolutely should.