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5 Ways “Difficult” Women Can Energize Your Writing and Make Your Fiction Memorable

4 March 2013

From Ruth Harris on Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

Before there was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Lisbeth Salander, there was Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, the heroine of a novel called Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. Smilla is part Inuit and lives in Copenhagen.

According to the flap copy of the FSG edition, “she is thirty-seven, single, childless, moody, and she refuses to fit in.” She is complex, thorny, obstinate, blunt, fearless, she loves clothes and, when required, she can—and does—kick ass. Like Lisbeth—who’s a talented computer jock—Smilla has her tech side and sees the beauty in mathematics.
Thinking about these two “difficult” women—Lisbeth and Smilla—I began to realize that the “difficult,” unconventional female character, like Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, appears in fiction again and again in different guises.

. . . .

Jane Tennison, the DI in television’s Prime Suspect, played by Hellen Mirren, is a “woman of a certain age” as they say in France. Her love life is on the gritty side, she drinks too much, she can be flinty—not flirtatious. The men she works with give her a hard time and she isn’t shy about pushing back.

. . . .

Ellen Ripley. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the warrant officer inAlien, is courageous, authoritative and has no personal life that we know of. She’s a sci-fi heroine who must rely on her own guts, brains and fearlessness.

. . . .

Mrs. Danvers, the creepy housekeeper with no first name inRebecca, is dedicated to her dead employer, the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter. She is intimidating, manipulative and willing to drive the second Mrs. DeWinter to suicide.

. . . .

The “difficult” female character can—and will—do the shocking, the unexpected and, as a consequence, will give your story an immediate jolt of energy. She is the character who doesn’t fit the mold. She is the boss (M), the beginner (Clarice Starling), the domestic employee (Mrs. Danvers).

2. The “difficult” female character will live in the “wrong” neighborhood, drink too much, have sex with the “wrong” partners—all good ways to add sizzle and wow! plot twists.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Characters, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

16 Comments to “5 Ways “Difficult” Women Can Energize Your Writing and Make Your Fiction Memorable”

  1. “The “difficult” female character can—and will—do the shocking, the unexpected and, as a consequence, will give your story an immediate jolt of energy. She is the character who doesn’t fit the mold.”

    I admit I’m already in a pissy mood after working on taxes over the weekend, but this kind of BS sent me over the edge.

    Oh, wow, it’s amazing that women can do the same things (or make the same stupid mistakes) that men can! [places hands on cheeks in astonishment, in addition to the thick sarcasm]

    “The “difficult” female character will…have sex with the “wrong” partners—all good ways to add sizzle and wow! plot twists.”

    Um, wasn’t this the entire plot of the Twilight series? [face palm]

    @&$Y*$@$*&@#)(@*# It’s the @#(*ing 21st century! Women are human. They are not @(#$ing DIFFICULT!

  2. “They are not @(#$ing DIFFICULT!”

    Suzan,

    Well, I do declare…

    That wasn’t very lady-like.

    brendan

  3. I can’t believe this was written in 2013. This is a bizarre post all around. For most of the characters she listed, the word she is looking for is strong or complex or three-dimensional. But for three of them–Alex Forrest, Annie Wilkes, Nurse Ratched–the word would be psychopath, not difficult.

    Seriously, would you lump Jack Reacher on the same list as Hannibal Lector?

    And this just confused me: 3. She will not take her niece or nephew to Disney World but to a stock car race one day, to the ballet the next and teach him or her how to run a bulldozer, how to roast the perfect chicken and how to rob a bank.

    The same woman? Um, what?

    While this: 4. She will most likely not be a secretary or a dress designer but a (believable) nuclear physicist, petroleum engineer or cat burglar. If she is a secretary or dress designer, it’s because she’s got a dramatic secret that will give your fiction a buzz.

    Just made me want to slap her into this century. And introduce her to Erin Brockovich.

  4. “Difficult” is in quotes, people. It’s meant to be ironic. Don’t know what “irony” means? Google “Steven Colbert” or perhaps “Brooklyn”.

    For the literal minded, Ruth means “women who are considered ‘difficult’ by the mainstream culture”. That’s why she put the word in quotes.

    • Anne, I’m sorry, but there are a whole slew of stereotypes in the blog post that are dangerous. It’s not just the word ‘difficult’. But let’s say, for example, she meant “ballsy”

      –“The “difficult” female character will live in the “wrong” neighborhood, drink too much, have sex with the “wrong” partners—all good ways to add sizzle and wow! plot twists.”–

      Ballsy women can live anywhere, they don’t have to drink too much or sleep around. They can be secretaries, hair dressers, waitresses, dress designers, mothers, wives, etc…

      And this: “She can be stubborn, pathological…”

      The lumping together of mentally ill female characters with strong-willed female characters (such as Ellen Ripley and Annie Wilkes) under the umbrella of “difficult” (no matter how it was intended) is disturbing. For the not so literal-minded, it sends the message that a woman with sharp focus, strong opinions, and the courage to voice them must be crazy.

      It’s not what the character does for a living, where she lives, or her family situation that illustrates strength. It’s her choices, her actions, her words, and the inner and outer demons she battles–and how she overcomes them–or doesn’t.

  5. I was alittle taken aback, because I’m a pretty staunch feminist, and I sort of felt like: What about difficult men? But I read the full article, and think this is very worthy of discussion, and actually supports the complexity of female characters.

    So, I like the word: Dimensional.

    Writers need to write female characters who have more dimensions to them, other than just looking to fall in love. First, it’s more real. Women in the real world are complicated. And that means readers will be more engaged, they will resonate with the real women in their lives.

    I also think there are female archtypes here that wakes the reader up, rings true and engages them emotionally.

    Very interesting topic for discussion.

  6. So…am I alone in wondering where the novels full of non difficult women are? Bc it seems like most female characters these days are built on being difficult in the ways she describes. Not all that revolutionary really.

  7. Mira–Thanks. Anybody who’s had their books rejected over and over because the heroine is deemed “unsympathetic” knows why Ruth’s post is still relevant. In many genres, women are allowed to be “feisty” or “kick-a**” but only if they 1) behave like men and/or 2) are charming and hot.

  8. So her first example is Lisbeth Salander, an interesting, dysfunctional woman who suddenly and for no good reason starts having sex with the detective, who is an obvious Larry Stu if I ever saw one. Does that mean that my female characters can be nothing but my sexual fantasies, as long as I fantasize about dysfuntional women? Surely there are much beter examples of strong female charcters in modern literature and film.

  9. “Does that mean that my female characters can be nothing but my sexual fantasies, as long as I fantasize about dysfunctional women?”

    John,

    Here in Atlanta, no one I know spoke of Lisbeth Salander and the Millenium Trilogy.

    Where I visit in London, Hampshire, Spain and Croatia, it was THE talk of every table. Enthusiastically discussed by women left and right.

    I didn’t think it was that well written in places, it plodded a bit, but it had something.

    I had the feeling that Larsson’s novel writing, (as opposed to his journalism) improved as the book went into the second and third book. I’m not alone in thinking that.

    Quite a few trilogies I’ve read elsewhere, (notably, “The Hunger Games,”) didn’t improve one iota after book 1.

    Noomi Rapace was the most extraordinary creation, she was precisely as I had pictured Lisbeth Salander.

    Lastly, the one character whom I thought was the dogs rowlocks, “Monica Figuerola.” Well, she just made my mouth water.

    I’d like to meet her tailor:)

    brendan

    • Dog’s rowlocks? I love that.

      To be honest, I gave up about a quarter of the way into the second book when she somehow used math to (magically) predict the location of the occurrence of a “water tornado,” whatever the hell that is, taught herself all of math and physics in a summer by reading a few textbooks, and otherwise proved that–rather than the dysfunctional, weird girl we had all thought–she was actually the smartest, cleverest, most amazingest person to have ever lived in the whole wide world, ever.

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