A woman by any other name

I often struggle to connect with female protagonists and it’s a challenge as both a reader and a writer that interests me enormously. There is little, in my opinion, as disappointing as a book with a wonderful plot but poorly relatable characters and I think I’ve found the cause. Emotionalism.

With an ever growing demand for strong female leads, good character development seems in some cases to have been replaced with either a near lack of emotion or psychosis levels of emotional overload.

The former I find most commonly where the author is male, and is characterised by a fragile appearance juxtaposed against a tough attitude. The character is either permitted to experience only simple emotions and must feel one at a time (most commonly anger, lust and guilt; usually in that order) or almost none at all. I call them the numb ones; characters where the writing is so emotionally unavailable that I’m unable to suspend reality and spend a few hours sharing their experiences. For me it’s like a bad first date; filled with the desperate desire to enjoy yourself whilst ignoring a growing sense of dissatisfaction.

By contrast the later type of character is a whirlwind. In the real world she would be the crazy ex to end all crazy exes; leaving a devastated trail of deeply troubled but strangely attractive men (or women) in her wake. These appear more often as the curse of the woman author, and may well start their story as a sarcastic but caring individual who is likely to be hard working with an atypical body type. In essence, the Mary Sue. That imperfect perfection the author most desires to be, whose weaknesses must also be strengths and whose rapid decline into potential mental illness passes unnoticed by the supporting cast of characters.

Much like the numb ones they also often only experience simple emotions, however these characters feel them all at once in a maelstrom of irrationality that has been marketed to read as ‘no nonsense strong woman’ but instead leaves a deep sense of confusion. Here too the connection doesn’t happen, because while the character is emotionally available it’s at a level I find totally frustrating. I’d compare it to a child having a temper tantrum, but kids aren’t required to make sense.

So, to me, emotion is undoubtedly key to good female character development, because it should be a truth universally acknowledged (to borrow a phrase) that plots may change but people do not. And while I’ve read a lot of debate about what makes writing ‘good’, the dry discussion regarding technicalities of prose fundamentally fail to address personal connection and identification as a measure of success.

One of my favourite authors; Terry Pratchett wrote people in a way that was reminiscent of Charles Dickens (the artfulness of Dodger and his character Charlie are a wonderful homage to an author whose work his so resembles). Furthermore he wrote strong female leads in a genre typically constrained by male protagonists long before the advent of social desire to read about women as a main character and not as the romantic interest on the side. These characters weren’t defined by their gender or made great by it, they were just people.

So that’s what I’m aiming to write too; people. Wish me luck.


2 thoughts on “A woman by any other name

  1. A great post Sam! Was interesting to hear a female perspective on what makes female characters disconnect with a reader.

    Your closing point was very in line with my beliefs. Characters should, first and foremost, be people. Regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation; everyone is people at the end of the day! (Plus a mention of Pratchett always gets my interest 😉 haha)

    Liked by 1 person

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