My Newest Writing Challenge: Writing A Different Sort Of Woman.
So I’m sketching out my next novel – you know, the one I’m live-writing for charity, please please donate, plug ends now – and I’m up against a weird stumbling block:
I’m writing a girl protagonist.
Which is a weird issue for me. I don’t have a problem writing female characters – my two most popular stories involve an adolescent girl growing up in a space, and a teenaged girl caught in a time loop as she tries to rescue her terrorist brother – but most of my female characters are the no-nonsense, tough-as-nails sort. My co-protagonist Valentine dresses up in a lot of frilly dresses, but she’s also very alpha and confrontational.
Yet this novel calls for a more ephemeral sort of woman, a Stevie Nicks sort with a hippieish streak at the center, and I’m like, “Okay, how do I do that?”
What I’m realizing is that I’m intersecting two issues here, and both of them are only tangentially about women.
The first revolves around ask culture versus guess culture – and all of my female protagonists have been very ask culture. If they have an emotional need, they’ve got no shame in collaring someone and saying, “Hey, gimme.” They experience no embarrassment about being turned down for something they asked for, and they’re not afraid to ruffle feathers.
Which is interesting, because what I realize I’m trying to write is not a girl per se, but a prototypically “nice” person, i.e., someone who values harmony and other people’s feelings equally to their own concerns (if not higher). In guess culture, the whole point is that you never outright ask for what you want, because you don’t want to embarrass both of you by forcing someone to refuse you. Women are more traditionally groomed to be that sort of person, often because the cost of open confrontation for women is a lot higher, but that’s not a female problem per se. There are prototypically “nice” men, too.
And honestly, “nice” isn’t hard to write. What I’m struggling with is how to make the nice person a protagonist who’s initially proactive in their lives against heavy external suppression. I’m currently reading Naomi Novik’s UPROOTED, which has a very sweet and caring protagonist early on – but the structure of the novel is how that character goes from passivity to power, and she literally has to be kidnapped to a tower with a wizard before anything happens.
I’m not looking for a “spunky” protagonist who gets roped into an adventure she didn’t go looking for, but rather a very sweet person who goes out and grabs adventures with both hands and yet is not the oft-clueless Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
I want a driving force.
So what I realize I’m having trouble with is understanding how a smart and ambitious guess culture person does anything. I’m too New York, and all the artists I’ve known have been bite-your-face-off sorta people, and I’m trying to internalize how they actually function when they can’t just bellow, “This is what I want.”
Particularly since this lead character is a musician, and part of any artist’s struggle is sliding that foot in the door.
Then I’m trying to figure out how that intersects with a concern with for looking good for other people. Valentine dresses very extravagantly in the ‘Mancer series, but you’ll note that she often sticks out like a sore thumb; she dresses because it makes her feel sexy, not other people.
And here’s the issue: as I’ve talked about before, my mind often tells me that something is important to this plot without actually explaining why. Currently, my subconscious is telling me very strongly that this character dresses well because she’s hoping to impress others, which reveals something vital about her character that I don’t know yet, but when I do understand why she’s that way then I’ll understand.
Let’s quote the They Might Be Giants song again, children: “I already know the ending; it’s the part that makes your face implode. I don’t know what makes your face implode, but that’s the way the movie ends.”
So in addition to being nice, I’m also trying to get my headspace into someone who dresses well largely to project a socially-approved image, which is… not something I’ve ever done. Or largely experienced. And I know men certainly do it (I can point to any number of guys who dress up for the club), and I know that women who dress to fit in also often get a sense of personal satisfaction out of it as well.
But I’m trying to figure the distress of someone who, at various points in the novel, won’t be able to dress appropriately – and to express that concern without turning her into stereotypically idiotic ZOMG FUCK THESE DINOSAURS WHAT ABOUT MY HEEEEEEELS woman from Jurassic World.
Which is part of my stupid writer-brain. It wants to stretch, to write a type of character I’ve never written before, and of course it’s the sort of person who I have seen a lot but never known that well. And what I want to do is write someone realistic, not a cobbled-together bunch of personality traits, and so trying to import all the necessary libraries for this character to function is going to be tricksy, tricksy, tricksy.
And I suspect, sadly, that I know what will happen – it’s what happened with Flex. I remember writing 50,000 words on Flex before finally getting to That One Scene With The Buzzsects, and going, “Oh, hey, I’ve written half a novel, how can I be meeting my protagonist for the first time?” Yet, in fact, I didn’t really know who he was until he first touched that Broach.
So I suspect that I’m going to have to write a lot of words before I connect with this as-of-now nameless character. And I’m going to have to reshade a lot of conversations after I finally clamber inside her head and understand what makes her her, but goddamn if I am not hoping to avoid all that bullshit and just get her right on the first draft.
The issue is that I don’t want a stereotypical anything. Despite the title, I want to move beyond “feminine” as a descriptor – as honestly, it’s sort of an insulting shorthand – and shift into the place I get to with my best characters, which is knowing them so well that I have a hard time condensing their personalities down for marketing purposes. I’m trying to figure out how this person works so that “feminine” is merely one of several things that could be said to describe her, and I want to do it before I start the novel.
Probably won’t happen, though. I start live-writing the novel Friday. As mentioned, $10 will get you an entry to watch a man who’s written nine novels flail his way through the tenth.
As also mentioned, sometimes I write essays that point towards a wise and noble conclusion; other times I’m just sort of flailing and discussing difficulties. This isn’t a wise conclusion. It’s just a bunch of concerns I’m noting before I launch into this novel.
Let’s hope I can figure out how this works before then.