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.

 

2 Comments

  1. ewinbee
    Jun 22, 2016

    In my experience, niceness and guess culture actually have nothing to do with each other. A person can be nice and assertive, or mean and assertive, and a person can be nice and meek, or mean and meek… though that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it’s not. Mean people from a guess culture are incredibly manipulative and passive-aggressive. There’s a reason that stereotype exists; because even women who fall short on the niceness spectrum are still trained not to say what they want. So they figure out how to get it without asking, and they lash out particularly cruelly at the ask culture.

    Here’s the thing: if you don’t say what you want, you end up with your needs not getting met. The key is how a person responds to that. You have your basic hermit who learns how to live without needing other people, or you can subsume other people’s needs in place of your own (the martyr), or you can live a life of steely-smiling resentment. Or a mixture of the three.

    … Or you switch cultures.

  2. Jericka
    Jun 22, 2016

    I was socialized as a girl, and taught that I shouldn’t make waves and that my value was in the comfort and harmony that I provided for other people.
    You are right. It’s hard to be the protagonist like that. It’s easier by far to fade into the background and be the support for everyone else’s adventure.
    But, sometimes adventure finds you anyway, or the people you were supporting turn out to be bad for you and you have to strike out on your own. Sometimes you discover that you have to ask for things even when it isn’t what you were trained and socialized to do.
    Sometimes you get angry. Nice people can be angry. We are told that we shouldn’t be. We are told to forgive and move past. Sometimes we don’t even recognize the anger as anger because we have been trained out of recognizing and dealing with our own feelings.
    I tend to cry when angry, not throw things, not stomp, not yell. I get nonverbal and cry ugly tears and sobbing. It gets worse, actually, when people focus on the tears and not whatever problem that I am trying to get fixed. People not listening and walking over me and/or berating me for things out of my control tend to be what makes me angry.
    I am more functional when I am angry or afraid for someone else, because, probably, there’s less inner conflict trying me up, and caring for others was always an ok thing for me to do. Caring for my own needs was what was labeled selfish, or inconvenient, or a waste.
    So, if I had superpowers(I don’t, but I am trying to explain a viewpoint or way of experiencing the world), it would probably be observation and camouflage. Urban stealth, and knowing what would fit in, and also, perhaps, noticing little details about other people that either fit the situation or don’t. Often, it isn’t conscious, even. The is the thing that gets labeled intuition, but, usually it turns out that you did notice something. There was a pattern, or a thing or movement out of place.
    When I worked for a credit reporting agency, we were taught about “social engineering” and how to spot it and not give out information to the wrong people. How not to let someone follow you into the locked building. A lot of it made so much sense right away that it’s possible that I had figured out some of the pattern already.
    Guess culture people are often raised with the idea that if we care about someone we will know a great deal about them. For example,”if you loved me you would KNOW!” I was hit with this one, and it hurt like crazy at the time. My idea of myself was that I was a loving and caring person. But I had missed something major about my spouse, and had misstepped seriously, so, obviously I didn’t care enough.
    Probably not an ask culture problem.
    It isn’t that guess culture people don’t ask for things, but, we are always scanning for information about if it’s ok to ask. Certain things are easy, because the asking is expected in our culture. a musician will be expected to do certain things, would be taught and possibly mentored in how to find jobs in that particular subculture. There’s a pattern that’s learnable there. Networking is something many guess culture people are quite good at.

    Clothes. I can’t speak for others, but, I did work fairly hard at fitting in. For a female presenting person, getting the clothes and makeup right to fit in is a project, and can absorb time like a hobby. Part of it is “fitting in” and part of it is the comfort of the people around you. There may be subtle signs of rebellion in your clothing, hair, and makeup as well(perfume as rebellion. I did that, but on the back of my hands so I could wash it off if it was too obvious or upset someone). I tend to cut inches off my hair when I am upset about something major. Whatever you do, though, reveals a lot about who you are trying to fit in WITH. A workplace? A church? A family? How you dress says a lot about how you feel, and if I am out of sync with the group it feels like a huge obvious thing, and very uncomfortable.

    I am trying to move from guess culture to ask culture and it’s an incredibly hard thing to actually do. I was raised with the idea of all the thoughts and emotions that were not being expressed and it was my job to detect them. It’s hard to go from that to, “if they have a problem they will say so, and, I shouldn’t spin my wheels and spend energy trying to figure out if there’s a problem if they have not said that there is one.” It may be, though, that spelling out all that internal stuff isn’t the best thing anyway. Just watch a few episodes of “Lie to Me” and learn some of the actual visual cues that can be indicated with visual description.

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