I’m trying my hand at writing a short piece of fiction that I actually want people to read. I say “trying my hand” because it’s been a few months now…OK, OK, nearly a year…and I’m getting nowhere (obviously). There are a variety of reasons for this (work, hobbies, laziness) but the main one is that I’m trying to get myself out of the mindset that my lead character will be uninteresting to my target audience.This is the worst kind of thought that can occupy a writer’s headspace. Worrying about whether readers will be receptive to something you haven’t even finished writing yet is a surefire way to not publish anything. At all. Ever.
I’m primarily getting hung up on whether the character is likable. She’s smart, she’s tough, she’s independent yet she has a group of people around her whom she cares for deeply despite having limited ways of showing it. I’ve explained my character’s conflict with her nemesis to some of my friends and the general response has been something along the lines of “Can’t they work together?” Well, no, because he’s the villain. He thinks that she’s wronged him and he wants to destroy her. Working together isn’t an option. It should be pointed out that the “work with your enemy” sentiment comes mostly from women. If the character was male, I don’t think this way of thinking would even come up.
Let’s face it: as a fiction-reading/watching public, we like @ssholes…as long as they’re dudes. TV, books and movies are full of mean-spirited, prideful, self-congratulatory male characters. I think we like this because even though they’re @ssholes, they solve problems. They solve problems without worrying about whose feelings they’re hurting in the process. Grant Ward of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s whole character is built on the @sshole loner archetype. The Doctor definitely has his d*ckish moments but we love him. Sherlock refers to himself as a “high-functioning sociopath” and I have a t-shirt that says I AM SHERLOCKED. I could go on and on.
Women who solve problems — especially alone, without the help of a male counterpart whose every move they can support (I’m looking at you, Sleepy Hollow) — exist in a narrative primarily to be “taken down a notch”; it’s the Mean Girls Effect. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with female/male buddy shows, but where are the women who just get to be tough and take no crap, and don’t have to be incredibly polite and pleasing? These days, it seems they’re generally relegated to sidekick status. (I’m looking at you, Agent Melinda May.)
(Side note: There was some debate in the Whoverse recently when Peter Davison (aka the Fifth Doctor) talked about how the show wouldn’t work with a female Doctor. There was lots of whining about the possibility of not being able to “connect” with a woman in the role and how “the strength/love of a woman” makes the male Doctor “realize his humanity.” Bottom line? If a female Doctor didn’t work it would be because no one ever thought it would work in the first place because…gender stereotypes. Again, we love dudes who are get-it-done, know-it-all @ssholes; we don’t like those same qualities in female characters.)
This is the narrative running through my head as I work on this short story and try to decide whether my main character should kill her nemesis. My editor friend says if she kills him too early in the story, she’ll definitely be unlikable and I will lose half of my audience. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if his presence puts everyone and everything she holds dear in jeopardy; his death at her hands without her having exhausted all of the avenues she can find in which she does *not* end him will reflect poorly on her character, not his. Ugh.
Here’s what I need to do: I need to suck this up and write, and work out my feelings about the crappy ways in which women authors and characters get boxed in by stereotypes later. Not that much later but definitely after I’ve finished writing my story.