Today I read a wonderful blog piece by Jo Eberhardt about how men and women are perceived differently in the same situations. It was quite stunning for instance, to discover that research shows although men talk significantly more in groups than women, women are perceived as talking more than men. The author went on to report that her son complained she always read him stories about girls and never about boys. Upon investigating the child’s library it was revealed that in fact, “…only 27% of his books have a female protagonist, compared to 65% with a male protagonist.”
This sparked me to write this post, one that’s been brewing for some time. In the comments section of that blog post, I observed, “And the female protagonist must be fierce and kind, gifted in some way, and remarkably intelligent. We would never tolerate a Holden Caulfield or a Humbert Humbert or even the dufus from Ricci’s Origin of Species, or the loser from A Perfect Night to go to China… I could go on…”
Because the protagonist of the novel I’m currently shopping around handles roadkill, medicates through sex and has a bit of a death wish due to a burden of guilt, she doesn’t come across as the most noble of creatures. One agent to whom I submitted this novel wished me success and “happier stories.”
This wasn’t the first indication I’d received that my protagonist isn’t sympathetic, so I’ve given this aspect of my book a lot of thought.
I’m trying to think of a novel where the female protagonist isn’t particularly honourable – to begin with in any case. Munro’s Rose is: “Self-destructive, all her evil cards on the table, manipulative, immature, lacking self-confidence and self-esteem, and fascinated by the power she holds over her boyfriend/husband,” according to Kerry Clare. Does anyone love Scarlett O’Hara? She isn’t exactly a sympathetic character, but she alone among thousands of unsavoury yet compelling male leads stands out and holds our attention.
So what if your character isn’t evil or conniving? Is she then less interesting? If she’s not bad or even sweet and silly like Bridget Jones, we can feel neither superior nor sympathetic. What if she’s just misguided, isolated, damaged, and simply doing her best?
If all the required elements are in place– including external as well as internal conflicts – and the writing is apparently strong, what is missing? Is it less valid for a messed-up woman to reach equilibrium than it is for a messed-up man? Why is there less interest demonstrated for those sorts of journeys?
I believe the problem may go back to expectations of women in general. If they aren’t beautiful and modest, they need to be outrageously skilled at justified killing or problem solving. If they make a mistake they most certainly can’t have meant to, or if they are truly nasty then we need to love to hate them, reading them with the fascination of witnessing a car crash.
In a workshop, Barbara Kyle once told this joke:
Q: How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Writers won’t change anything.
It’s funny, because it points to our reluctance to slay our darlings, but it isn’t true. I’ve changed my darling. I haven’t made her ‘happier’ but I’ve taken a few bad words out of her mouth and softened her a little around the edges. But the truth is, the story needs her to be that pseudo-tough girl with a chip on her shoulder and an armoured heart. We all know her.
I believe that the more we shift our expectations of women in real life the more we will root for women in fiction. We are all flawed and damaged in one way or another. Sometimes our path to redemption is circuitous and misguided, but every character and every breathing person – male or female – is on their hero’s journey; a journey that is universal and at its core, simply human.
Here are the links to observations about unlikeable fictional gals: