This post is inspired by three seemingly unrelated events this week.
One was an article by Renee Asher Pickup about the feminist implications of the story of Ted Bundy.
The other, a reflection on a Tumblr blog about Joss Whedon and the ever-elusive female heroine. (This latter post has been on line for over a year now; but I only came across it thanks to a share by author Christopher McKitterick on Facebook.)
These two articles are linked by one important element: They both use feminist analysis to understand a problem. In Ted Bundy’s case, how cultural expectations placed upon women might enhance the success of serial killers. In Joss Whedon’s case, how the crafting of authentic science fiction and fantasy heroines is bogged down by persistent (almost insidious) male bias.
Truth is, I’ve avoided the topic of women characters for a long time. Not because I don’t think it’s important. I do. But lately I go into eye-rolling mode every time I see another post about how to write women characters.
Haven’t we already talked about this? I think. Don’t you guys GET IT yet??
Sadly enough, it appears many still don’t. For some reason, understanding and writing about women continues to be the holy grail of an otherwise wonderfully imaginative genre.
So this week I offer a small epiphany with respect to my current work-in-progress, The Hunting Grounds. I’ve actually been applying this approach to writing women characters for a long time. What changed is that I came into a conscientious awareness of my approach. In so doing, I was able to solve a problem that’s been niggling at my story for a while.
Here are the key words: Instinctive. Instinctively. Instinct.
In her very insightful article, Renee Asher Pickup discusses how women in our society are often coached to downplay the significance of their instincts. They are told not make a fuss even when – especially when – they have a feeling that something’s wrong.
Men, of course, also have instincts, but we don’t call it that. In the case of men, the word applied to that ‘gut feeling’ is the hunch. A hunch carries a different connotation; we often imagine hunches as based on some underlying foundation of logic and evidence. Perhaps not all the pieces are there, but a man can, in true Sherlock Holmesian style, trust whatever conclusion he makes based on the pieces he has and act accordingly.
Instinct, on the other hand, is perceived as shaky and vague, even irrational. It’s a primitive response that we share with our “less-evolved” animal cousins. From the time we are girls, we are told that the woman’s domain of instinct simply cannot be trusted in the same way the man’s domain of the hunch can.
Here’s how thinking about all of this helped me: I’ve been stuck at one of those knots in the narrative where I know what needs to happen at point A and what needs to happen at point B, but I couldn’t quite nail the best way to move my characters between those two points. As it turned out, the sequence between A and B involved a potentially dangerous situation. After reading Pickup’s article, I asked myself a simple question:
Does my protagonist, Helen, trust her instincts?
The answer was a resounding yes. In fact, all of my major women characters trust their instincts, whether they are warriors or pacifists, queens or peasants, old or young, humble or ambitious. This is a hallmark of the women I write, and I believe now that it plays a major role in making them strong.
Once I had it clear in my head that Helen trusts her instincts, I knew exactly how she would respond to the situation at point A, and this made everything fall into place so that I could get her to point B.
Moral of the story? As an author, you need to know whether your heroine trusts her instincts, and why. All women have instincts (as do men), but not all women trust them. Trust of instinct, or lack thereof, will determine the decisions your protagonist makes, and in a very fundamental way, drive the plot and complexity of your story.
And now, back to writing stories about women…