Friday, May 18, 2007

Who Needs Perfection?

By Gwen MastersBarbie
Last week I picked up a new novel by an author I had never heard of before. I got to page eighteen before I had to put it down and walk away. It wasn’t that the writing was bad, or that the plot wasn’t any good – it was the lead character. She annoyed the hell out of me.

The perfect protagonist is the one thing that will make me throw a book across the room in a fit of fury. Impossibly perfect bodies, stunning success without working for it, dialogue that I have to look up in a dictionary – these are not the things of real life. I love to lose myself in a fantasy from time to time, but even fantasy goes only so far before common sense takes over.

I admit: I’ve been guilty of writing the perfect protagonist. It was something I did back when I was just dipping my toes into the publishing pool, and my lovely editors forgave me the indiscretion. As time goes on (and as I trade the fairy tale youth for a bit of experience), I tend to write things a more realistically, and I want to read something more realistic, too. I want to read about the woman who might drink too much at the company party, who curses like a sailor when she gets pissed, who walks out of the house with no makeup. I want to read about a real woman, not a Barbie doll!

My all-time favorite flawed heroine is Orleanna Price from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. She’s the wife of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, a mother to five children, and trying hard to survive as a missionary in the deepest reaches of the Congo in the 1960s. She struggles with her faith, with her marriage, and with motherhood. She struggles to make peace with the village women even while she tries to make peace within herself. She bends until she breaks, and when she does finally fall to pieces, only then do we see what she’s really made of.

Two BarbiesOne of my favorite characters to write was Kelley, the woman in One Breath at a Time, my upcoming Black Lace novel. Kelley went through a breakup that left her devastated – she was cheated on, lied to, hurt immeasurably. She’s working through the pain of the betrayal and trying to get on with her new life. On her best days, she’s just like you and me. On her worst days, she has moments when one breath at a time seems to be all she can manage. But she keeps on keepin’ on, because you know, that’s what we do.

Dayle A. Dermatis has a unique take on the topic: “Are there perfect heroines? Because if there are, what's the point in writing about them? Where's the internal conflict, and thus the book? Aren't ALL main characters, by necessity, flawed?”

That’s a good point – and that’s why it drives me insane to pick up a best-selling novel whose heroine is a dainty wallflower. Dayle is right: What’s the point? The good stuff comes from the hard knocks, not from easy street.

Nikki Magennis is loving Carmen Martin Gaite’s heroine in Living’s the Strange Thing. Check out the blurb and tell me this woman isn't fantastic:

'Office file clerk Águeda Soler, 35 years old, lost her mother 2 months ago. During her husband's absence she visits her grandfather and, when the old man confuses her with her dead mother, she doesn't contradict him, and submerges herself into a delirium of emotions.'

In Nikki’s words: “It's so subtle you can feel the characters fingertips.”

Clarice and HannibalPortia Da Costa had a great protagonist in mind: “Clarice Starling. She's stubborn, opinionated, and sometimes tactless. She's fighting a constant battle to stop the ghosts of her past muddying her clarity of purpose, but she's intelligent, loyal and intuitive, and she's not afraid to admire the unthinkable.”

Portia has also written a flawed heroine or two in her time. Her favorite? “Maria Lewis from Entertaining Mr Stone. Don't really know why except that it was just so easy to be her for a while. Her flaws are my flaws...which are legion.”

Madeline Moore (sometimes Madeline de Chambrey) says: My favourite heroine I've written was in a short story for the Thunder's Mouth Press anthology Amazons: Sexy Tales of Strong Women (edited by Sage Vivant and M. Christian). She is the main character in the eponymous story, 'The Bearded Lady."

Why is she Madeline’s favorite? “After she has a mastectomy and chemotherapy she loses her hair, which means she loses not only a breast, but worse, her beard! So, whereas once she was 'more than a woman, now that her beard was gone...she was less than the most ordinary woman on earth.'”

Alana Noel Voth has a whole list! "Julia from George Orwell's 1984; Holly Golightly from Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's; Brett Ashley from Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises; Laura Brown from The Hours by Michael Cunningham; and Marguerette Duras as herself in The Lover. I love a writer brave enough to allow the rest of us to view her flaws in such a lush, erotic memoir. Seriously, Duras has inspired me beyond words and made me feel brave enough to explore my own flaws in writing."

Scarlett and RhettDeanna Ashford picked a true classic. “It must be Scarlett O'Hara for me. I first read Gone with the Wind when I was about 13 and I enjoyed it so much I read it from start to finish in one weekend. I admire Scarlett's strength and determinationin the face of adversity and he desire to rebuild her beloved Tara. However, I also wanted to slap her most of the time because she was selfish, emotionally stupid and callously used people to achieve her own ends. When she did eventually marry the one man who was right for her, her own foolishness destroyed her one last chance of true happiness.”

Kate Pearce chimed in, “Ooh I was going to suggest Scarlet O'Hara too for exactly the same reasons! My other fav is Anita Blake, the heroine of Laurell K Hamilton's series. She starts off as a prudish, narrow minded Catholic and ends many men does she have in her bed now? I haven't counted for a while.”

Doesn’t that just make you want to ply Miss Anita with enough alcohol to make her spill the details?

Slutty nailsFinally, Olivia Knight has her favorites, too. “I'm such an A.S. Byatt whore. Frederica, from the quartet - The Virgin In The Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman. She's opinionated, ambitious, and unrelentingly clever - she never lets up into the sweet womanliness which is so often touted as a much higher virtue. I like heroines who aren't always nice, because nice holds women back left, right and centre.”

Olivia sums it up perfectly: "Anyone who doesn't explicitly and routinely match all their clothes and wear dainty little designer shoes has my vote!”

So forget the surgery-enhanced knockouts, the brilliant rocket scientists, the impossibly perfect lasses who never chip a nail. Who are your favorite flawed heroines?


Portia Da Costa said...

Ack, completely forgot my other great flawed heroine... Ripley! She's bossy, cynical, hard as nails, and makes no concessions to femininity... and yet she does have her sweeter moments of tenderness and compassion too. And she manages to combine being scared to death with being the bravest woman in the galaxy at the same time!

Janine Ashbless said...

My favourite heroine (flawed or otherwise) is Orual, from one of my favourite books: Till We Have Faces by C S Lewis. Extraordinary woman and an astonishing, moving, book - especially considering that the author wasn't exactly known for his empathy with adult females in his other writings.

Orual is born ugly in a Bronze-age milieu where a woman's only currency and powerbase is her beauty - so ugly she elects to go veiled. Throughout her life she's haunted by her unrequited longing for sexual love. She also got a sister, Psyche, who is just so beautiful and virtuous that literally a god falls in love with her. Orual is driven by a possessive love for Psyche to eventually betray her. But Orual is also smart, brave, strong and at the mercy of her moral conscience. She takes and holds the throne of her little kingdom.

Orual is her own cruelest critic (to the point of obsession in fact, this being a Christian book). The whole novel is a merciless disection of her sins. She dies totally unaware of how others see her: that she was "the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate and merciful of all the princes known in our parts of the world."

Portia Da Costa said...

Me again... of course, I admit that Ripley isn't strictly a *literary* heroine, but I'm sneaking her in because she's a fictional creation in a story/screenplay.

Hell, I wish I could write a character like her!

Janine Ashbless said...

Ripley's great, but I can't see her as flawed!

bossy, cynical, hard as nails, and makes no concessions to femininity ... Sound like virtues to me! ;-P

Olivia Knight said...

I'd just like to reassure everyone that two of my nails have broken and the nail-polish is chipping off the remainder. Anyone previously intimidated by my perfection - rest easy.
"Hard as nails" always makes me do a double-take as I think "Huh? But they break all the time!" then remember it's the kind that you miss with a hammer when you flatten your own thumb.

Portia Da Costa said...

Yeah... you're probably right there, Janine... In a lot of ways, Ripley *is* perfect! A fabulous warrior woman... I love her!

I have mutant fingernails, Olivia. They're like iron... they never break, and as I don't polish them, there's nothing to chip either. :)

TeresaNoelleRoberts said...

Then there are the "heroines" who are so flawed you read them in fascinated horror...and never forget them. Catherine from Wuthering Heights, for example. The woman is a beautiful, destructive psycho. If you knew her, you'd probably want to get her committed; she's literally dangerous to self and others.

But she's great reading material!

Sticking with the older works, all of Jane Austen's heroines have very believable flaws. Some are more endearingly flawed than others--I love Emma's know-it-all meddling, but not Fanny (Fanny? the one from Mansfield Park) and her utter lack of self-esteem and wish to fade into the background. It's believable given her circumstances, but BORING.

Sorry about the lack of modern characters, but pre-coffee, I seem to revert to my lit-major roots and forget everything I've read recently.

Erastes said...

There's nothing worse than a Mary Sue, and I read them all the time. Long perfect hair, no matter what time of the day or night, incomparable stamina, they can do anything better than anyone else, and nowhere more glaring does this show up than in historical fiction, too. Ick ick ick.

If you dump your Irish - born in a bog - heroine out in the middle of the Australian bush I don't want to hear how she learns to live on bush tucker without being told and then becomes friendly with the the natives, I want to see her nearly die of idiocy. It would make me think better of her, that's for sure.

I don't read a lot (read any) modern fiction really, so it's difficult for me to comment there.

As to my side of things, it's the same for heroes. I've written - I admit it, perfect boys. Or at least perfect looking. David in Transgressions is just about "spray some ice cream on me and enjoy" perfect, but I hope I've given him enough personality defects to make up for it.

It's the human that it interesting, I think. The thing I'm writing now - one of the protags has a deformed foot, and he's extra defensively snarky to keep people at a distance, but I'm actually looking forward to him getting his kit off.

Who do I think is well done?

Becky Sharp. I like the way that she's got opportunities to do Very Well and still mucks it up.

Katy Carr in the Katy books - although I hated her when she grew older and got religion because she turned into a big fat Sue

Jo March - she is written by someone who knows writing, obviously, churning out potboilers until someone points out that she could do better. She's impulsive and does stupid things (MARRY LAURIE YOU TWONK!) and cuts her nose off to spite her face. I was very dissapointed not to see more of her behaving badly in Little Men and Jos Boys. Again, the St Sue complex seemed to have taken over.


Nikki Magennis said...

I have to add Stephanie Plum - for those who haven't read Janet Evanovich's series yet, really, you've got to - you're in for a treat. Stephanie is a completely inept bounty hunter, with a bootylicious sidekick and two men in a horny love triangle. She's always trying to wrestle naked greased men to the ground and her cars keep exploding. Hilarious.

Alison Tyler said...

I don't read...
Heh heh.

Actually, I think that almost all of my favorite books have male protagonists. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade. Roddy Doyle's Jimmy Rabbit. Elmore Leonard's Raymond Cruz.

Flawed female heroines for me are all in movies, and I think they're all played by Bette Davis. My favorite? Margo Channing from "All About Eve." Jealous, snippy, cruel, cunning, and yet forgiving, loyal, and drop-dead gorgeous...

Gwen Masters said...

I just thought of another...Kathy Nicolo from House of Sand and Fog. She'sa complete train wreck, but you can see underneath the chaos the woman she once was, and could still be, if only she chose a different path than the one she's on.

Gwen Masters said...

Oh! Another one! Olympia Biddeford from Fortune's Rocks by Anita Shreve. At a very young age, she falls in love and has an affair with the town doctor, who is three times her age, married and the father of four. Her growth and struggle through the novel are mesmerizing. And it's a delightfully sexy book, too!

Alana said...

Hi Gwen,

Your post is marvelous, love it. Thank you. Soon as you proposed this topic I couldn't wait to read the results and then hear what everyone else had to contribute.

Alison, I was intriqued by your comment, about most your favorite books featuring male protagonists. One book from my childhood that irrevocably influenced my writing voice was "The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton. Ponybony stayed in my blood stream and colors every male voice I write. Interesting to note The Outsiders is chuck-full of flawed boys but the one girl character, Cherry, is not only golden but gorgeous as well.

I think that's the one thing women endlessly battle with, even in our fiction: physical imperfection, the flaws marking the map of our bodies. We'll forgive a woman her emotional and intellectual flaws without batting an eye if she's gorgeous. If Paris Hilton was ugly do you think we'd (meaning Americans) entertain her selfish petty ruthless meaningless crap a second longer?

Put her in jail! She deserves it.

When I was a girl I read a lot of Nancy Drew. Beautiful, smart, courageous, virginal. Yikes! She ruined me, (and yet I keep her around with fierce determination) as did those early Harlequin Romances in which every damned heroine was beautiful. And of course, she was never complete until the very gorgeous and very rich man showed up to "save" her.

Face it, in American culture, and perhaps Britian too, flawed women are those who aren't beautiful, aren't thin, and/or aren't married. (Why is she single; doesn't any man WANT her?) Hey, maybe she doesn't WANT a man.

A single woman beyond age thirty is suspect. Trust me. I'm living proof. People give me the oddest looks when it comes to my marital status, or lack thereof. Yup. I'm so "flawed" folks it ain't even funny.

With that said, may I confess writing memoir, like looking at myself in prose, staring hard at myself in words is DAMNED painful? I recently wrote some erotic memoir and in it admitted stuff about my mind, soul, and body that caused me shame, humility, fear, and lots and lots of tears. And then relief, even pride.

Gosh, can we let it all hang out ladies? That is where our true "feminine power" resides, and we do try so hard to squelch it.

Deanna Ashford said...

I've just taken five minutes downtime from checking galley proofs, and my brain isn't working properly. The only other flawed heroine I can currently think of is one from another book I read in my early teens - Forever Amber.Amber St Clare uses her beauty and wit to climb from almost the gutter to becoming mistress of King Charles the second. Yet she is a selfish women and has an almost obsessive love for another man, Bruce, Lord Carleton.
In the end she gives up everything she has achieved to follow him to America, when he has already told her he is married and doesn't want her anymore.
If we are talking of on-screen heroines, I confess I always rather liked Xena Warrior Princess. She could be cold and hard, she had doen terrible things in her past and she could fight better than most men and also she looked good in leather!

Deanna Ashford said...

Speaking of personal flaws- which we weren't I know - but on looking at my post I had to add this. When I type my brain works faster than my fingers and I often type words but put the letters in the wrong order and then never notice I've done it!

Madelynne Ellis said...

I've been wracking my brain over this one, trying to think of a single female protagonist that made a real impression on me -- it's been difficult, all my favourite protagonists are men. However, how about Demelza from Winston Graham's Poldark books, she's a miner's daughter, resourceful, loyal and way out of her depth in any sort of society, and every time she tries to sort things out she commits some hopeless faux pas or it horribly backfires.

Alison Tyler said...

Oh, Alana... Ponyboy! I think I was in love with Soda, though. Outsiders was the first book I stayed up all night to read.

But I had the chance to go over Nancy Drews recently—found a box of my old ones—and even though Nancy is virginal and good and would never ever bend over for Ned Nickerson, I'm very sure that George is a lesbian. Plus, Nancy is all the time being tied up and gagged and knocked out by the bad guys. She's like Philip Marlowe in that respect. Gets clobbered on the head, but shakes off the blow with only a little headache to show for it.

You just took me down memory lane.

Madeline said...

G-R-E-A-T post! There's a cornucopia of heroines listed so far - lots of good reading coming my way. I'm definitely going to investigate Stephanie Plum, for one.
Three cheers for Ripley. I've loved her from the first Alien, and I never watch horror - but I make an exception for her.
Classic heroines - Anna Karenina and Madam Bovary. Especially Bovary, who can't settle for a boring life and pays for it horribly. Part of me wants to cry, 'Settle!' and the other part knows why she cannot.
More recent flawed heroines of mine are Sophie, from Sophie's choice, which I read nonstop one weekend and then rented and watched the movie. I loved her with all my heart, in the book and in the movie, which to my relief was well-done and almost completely faithful to the book. DOn't you hate it when the story is fiddled with as it makes it's way to the silver screen. I'm thinking, in particular, of the main character in 'In the Cut.' She was terrific, but she met a terrible end, and I KNEW they would change the ending for the movie. Meg Ryan did a great job, but the HEA ending didn't fit with the mood of the piece. I liked the main character in Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' and even more, her sidekick, both of whom faired poorly in a US in the near future, when the US is run by a fundamentalist president and women are oppressed, and used primarily for breeding. Of course I could go on and on but I won't.

Madeline said...

ps - my real life heroine, who insists she's deeply flawed, is Portia da costa, because she works really hard and refuses to get a swelled head about her success. Very down to earth, yet so creative! Wow.

Portia Da Costa said...

Aw shucks, Madeline! I'm tearful and sniffly now... but in a good way!

What a kind thing to say! You are very sweet. :)

Nikki Magennis said...

'Gosh, can we let it all hang out ladies?'

At this stage, Alana, I really don't think I've got much choice!


Alana said...

What a wonderful compliment to give your friend, Madeline. Even though I don't know either of you, I find that sort of admiration between women inspiring.


Kate Pearce said...

Stephanie Plum is absolutely hilarious and as for the Joe and Ranger triangle I keep wanting to yell at her-'why choose?' have them both-but that might just be me.
I love Ripley too

Madeline said...

You're welcome. I've been mentally riffing on 'Barbie' and thinking, hey, maybe we're too hard on the girl. Maybe she's not so perfect after all. She has an obvious shopping addiction and shoe fetish. She's a fag hag of the first order, having wasted at least thirty years pursuing the obviously gay Ken, she can't make up her mind on a career and has abandoned a vast number of promising jobs, always reaching for she has no nipples and she hates math. (she SAID so! Even if only for a limited time.) I think Barbie's one of us...flawed, trying hard, maybe too hard, and sorta sweet.

Nikki Magennis said...

'...having wasted at least thirty years pursuing the obviously gay Ken' - Ha!

Poor Barbie...anybody read AM Homes' story 'A Real Doll', about a boy and his sister's doll? Very disturbing. But brilliant.

Alana said...

Nx, Love AM Homes. Where can I find the story of which you speak?


Nikki Magennis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nikki Magennis said...

Grrrrr.. why do my links never work?

I found the story online at Barcelona Review -