Saturday, July 30, 2011

Don't You Know That It's Different for Girls?

There are only two aspects of my novels which routinely attract favourable comment: world-building and my handling of female characters.  In real life, I find, I am regularly surprised by female psychology and the fact that, while they look broadly similar to us chaps, fundamental misunderstandings occur almost daily.  I don't claim this as a profound insight, but it puzzles me that I can have so little real understanding while being able to write female characters that readers respond to.

The obvious solution is that I don't in fact write female characters well, and readers are simply "blowing smoke up my ass", in the vivid transatlantic idiom.  Readers of this view should probably stop reading at this point.  The most negative review The Dog of the North received, from Helen McCarthy (a female woman, no less) in Deathray, paused to commend the "rounded, convincing, engaging" women, so I must be doing something right.

Another explanation is perhaps the generally cardboard of female characters in the fantasy genre.  There are exceptions, of course, but the source text of much subsequent fantasy fiction, The Lord of the Rings, does not draw us in on the basis of Eowyn and Arwen.  Too many women in fantasy are either enfeebled victims awaiting rescue, or implausibly rugged warrior types.  Women are plenty interesting enough in real life that the writer can adopt other models without alienating the reader.

The main reason I've been relatively successful with female characters is not, I think, because I understand the feminine psyche: it's because I don't.  My favourite female creations, Laura Glyde, Catzendralle and Larien, Isola and Eilla, are bewitching and mercurial.  The male protagonists of those novels don't understand them: Lamarck, Mirko, Beauceron and Todarko are all at home when they can move in a straight line, but confronted with subtle indirection and an absence of testosterone, they are rather less accomplished.  My own occasional bemusement at feminine behaviour is reflected in my protagonists'.

The interesting and engaging character, male or female,  for the reader, does not act predictably or within narrow boundaries.  The only living creature whose motivations and actions I feel I fully understand is my cat (and even here I may be deluding myself); and I would not argue that Britney would make a gripping fictional protagonist.  A character who surprises and baffles me will, I hope, interest the reader.

Britney... demanding but predictable

If there is an insight to be gained here, it's that to be able to write convincing characters, it's more important to be able to observe behaviour than understand it.  Creating a credible series of character interactions (often misleadingly oversimplified as "conflict" in how-to-write guides) is more about processing all the thousands of real-life interactions you've watched than understanding their motivations.  Do you understand why Iago felt impelled to destroy Othello?  Neither do I.  Do you think Shakespeare did?  Probably not.  But did it make for utterly compelling drama?  You bet.


pecooper said...

Cats may be predictable individually, but as a group they are as varied as women are. You learn from experience, but you never know when you first meet a cat that you will be sharing your peach yogurt with him or waving the laser pointer around so that she can chase it.

We have one now that is devoted to the scientific method. Every new toy we give her is carried over to the track-ball to see if it will roll as well in the track as the ball. Off and on, she has been doing this for a decade.

Tim Stretton said...

You're right, Paul. No two cats are alike - but once you have one sussed it tends to stay sussed. Although some are only predictable in their unpredictability...

Frances Garrood said...

"...more important to be able to observe behaviour that to understand it." That sums it up very well, Tim. The only problem comes when trying to write from an unfamiliar POV. I would never attempt a first person male. That, I know, would be competely beyond me!

Or as the verification word would have it, fogic.

C. N. Nevets said...

As writers we are at our best not when we portray someone else, but when we get our readers started thinking about someone else. That requires not absolute comprehension but observation, empathy, and curiosity.

In Dog of the North, I think one of the strengths is that your characters are not deliberately male and female. They are deliberately characters, some of whom are male and some of whom are female. There are some gender differences that play out, but they do so in a natural way.

This is certainly a contrast when compared to writers who it seems sat down at say, "Well, it's jolly well time I put a girl into this thing."

Tim Stretton said...

Frances, I wouldn't try a first person female POV myself! My final abortive Mondia novel had an occasional female third person POV which I was finding an interesting challenge.

Nevets, as you suggest, with characterisation as with everything else, the key is to make the reader do the work. The writer can hint and nudge--maybe even sledgehammer on occasion--but the story only exists in the reader's head.

dolorah said...

Aiyeee; I've only read through about 3 pages of Dog; just getting to Isola, in fact. One day soon, I hope to read straight through this novel, as it is engaging so far :)

Perhaps you write women as we'd like to see ourselves, not as we are, and that's what makes them "well rounded" characters?

Good thoughts :)


Tim Stretton said...

Donna, this post can only have set you up for disappointment once you come to read the final 472 pages...