By Gwen Masters
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.
One 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.”
Portia 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."
Deanna 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 up...how 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?
Finally, 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?
Friday, May 18, 2007
By Gwen Masters