Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Suanne Schafer, author of A Different Kind of Fire and Hunting the Devil which is short-listed for the CIBA Clue Awards, in the Suspense/ Thriller category. Today she’s here to talk about writing individualistic female characters. Take it away, Suanne!
When I first started writing, I thought I’d pen romances. I soon realized that, perhaps because of my past poor choices in men, I had difficulty creating those darned happily-ever-afters.
Eventually, I found that I’m good at writing about women who don’t depend on men; in fact, my women intersect with men who may or may not love them (gasp!). Over the course of nearly four completed novels, I’ve learned a few things about writing individualistic women. I’d say strong women, but that term has become somewhat hackneyed, now indicating one-dimensional women who lack flaws and are never challenged sufficiently to substantiate whatever makes them “strong.” I prefer the term individualistic since it means “characterized by individualism; independent and self-reliant.”
Since I write by the seat of my pants, I never develop those fancy sheets that list every nuance of a character, must less begin with the list below in mind. In retrospect, however, my protagonists meet many of these objectives.
While writing a female character, remember that an individualist female character…
- Has a full range of emotions. She’s more than a male’s sidekick and more than vulnerable, broken by internal conflicts, or having been used/abused by others.
- Has strengths and earns these strengths, though the price she pays may be high.
- Has flaws. Her imperfections can run the gamut from small peccadilloes to major shortcomings. Her strength, taken to the extreme, can become a flaw. For example, hard-headedness can turn into defiance.
- Has goals that don’t revolve around a man (yay!)
- Has her own character arc that evolves over the course of the story—and doesn’t depend on a male being around.
- Has backstory that provides reasons for her behavior. Even if they don’t make sense, they make sense to her, and she formulates her life based on them.
- Faces challenges and solves them with or without male assistance—her choice.
- Has an adversary worthy of her efforts—and this adversary can be herself.
- Interacts with other women, and men aren’t their only topic of conversation. (The Bechdel test)
- Accepts responsibility for her actions.
My first published novel, A Different Kind of Fire, is a highly-fictionalized retelling of my grandmother’s life. She was a descendant of the tough women who colonized the West Texas plains, battling the droughts, snakes, constant wind, and few people around for company. Initially, I thought I’d pen my grandparents’ love story, but I had a hard time writing her life as a romance. Since she was the only one experiencing personal and emotional growth, she became the sole protagonist and was renamed Ruby. In an effort to move from being a mere retelling of family history and to torture her as much as possible, I made her bisexual.
Though she has a fiancé, Ruby leaves him behind to study art back East, thus pursuing a goal unrelated to a man (#4 above). In doing so, she defies her stifling family and the social mores of the early twentieth century (#2 and #6). Her bisexuality (#9) reflects the conflict in her life. She’s torn between her two great loves; between art and love; between being an artist and a wife/mother; and between torn between city life and the prairie. Imperfect as she is, she becomes her own worst adversary (#8) as she vacillates between choices (#3). Only late in life does she realize her indecision has hurt not only herself but those she loves (#7), and she accepts responsibility for her actions. Through all of this, Ruby experiences the full emotional repertoire of a typical woman: love, hate, marriage, divorce, childbirth, stillbirth, resolve, indecision, success, and failure (#1).
In my second novel, Hunting the Devil, Jess Hemings, a biracial American physician, leaves the U.S. for Rwanda when she’s jilted by her long-time lover. She learns skills not included in her medical training, like how to deal with native healers, how to practice ad hoc medicine in the boondocks, and later, how to survive when she’s the hunted—or the hunter (#4). She journeys from being a woman who centers her life around a male to being a vigilante (#5 and 7). Her mixed-race heritage colors her reactions to Rwanda while her appearance places her in jeopardy (#6). When her two adopted children are murdered in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, she tracks their killer, an adversary worthy of her new-found inner strength (#8). She pays a high price (#2) for her resolve as she isolates herself from friends and family to conceal from them the dire nature of her goal. Much of the time, Jess faces her challenges without male assistance, yet at times she must intersect with her former lover—who still desires her—and a new, married lover who’s not sure he and Jess can handle each other’s PTSD. Like Ruby, Jess experiences a broad range of human emotions: love, rejection, hate, fear, birth, death, anxiety—plus all the trauma of being involved in a genocide—before she achieves her aims.
Some people advise gender-swapping, writing your females as males, then flipping the pronouns. I haven’t tried that—yet—though I have written a rather noir short story in a male POV. It might be interesting to switch its pronouns. Boy, that would make for one tough broad!
Overall, the best way to write an individualistic character is to write a real person and not get caught up in gender-specific roles.
Today is the first Wednesday of the month post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
Founded by the Ninja Cap’n Alex J. Cavanaugh, the purpose of the group is to offer a safe space where writers can share their fears and insecurities without being judged. The wonderful co-hosts this time are PK Hrezo, Pat Garcia, SE White, Lisa Buie Collard, and Diane Burton!
They ask an optional question each month, and the April 2021 question is: Are you a risk-taker when writing? Do you try something radically different in style/POV/etc. or add controversial topics to your work?
I don’t know if I’m a risk-taker, but when writing a story, all I think about is the characters and their journey. I’ve never shied away from a story because it moved into uncomfortable territory–discomfort is great place to write from, as far as I’m concerned. This ties in with today’s post from Suanne as well, because writing Individualistic, strong female characters, especially unlikable women is not a norm in the country I was brought up in. But Anjali in You Beneath Your Skin is in an affair with a married man, her best friend’s brother, and she keeps this a secret from her friend. She’s also a conflicted mother of an autistic teen. When writing her, I did what was necessary to keep her honest, authentic, and as close to emotional truth as possible. I didn’t realize it was a risk until I reached the publication stage.
Writing female characters: do you find it easy or challenging? While writing female characters, do you consciously try to make them individualistic? Do you have questions for Suanne Schafer? Have you joined the Insecure Writers Support Group?
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