Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Suanne Schafer, author of A Different Kind of Fire and Hunting the Devil which is short-listed for the CIBA Clue Awards, in the Suspense/ Thriller category. Today she’s here to talk about writing individualistic female characters. Take it away, Suanne!
When I first started writing, I thought I’d pen romances. I soon realized that, perhaps because of my past poor choices in men, I had difficulty creating those darned happily-ever-afters.
Eventually, I found that I’m good at writing about women who don’t depend on men; in fact, my women intersect with men who may or may not love them (gasp!). Over the course of nearly four completed novels, I’ve learned a few things about writing individualistic women. I’d say strong women, but that term has become somewhat hackneyed, now indicating one-dimensional women who lack flaws and are never challenged sufficiently to substantiate whatever makes them “strong.” I prefer the term individualistic since it means “characterized by individualism; independent and self-reliant.”
Since I write by the seat of my pants, I never develop those fancy sheets that list every nuance of a character, must less begin with the list below in mind. In retrospect, however, my protagonists meet many of these objectives.
While writing a female character, remember that an individualist female character…
- Has a full range of emotions. She’s more than a male’s sidekick and more than vulnerable, broken by internal conflicts, or having been used/abused by others.
- Has strengths and earns these strengths, though the price she pays may be high.
- Has flaws. Her imperfections can run the gamut from small peccadilloes to major shortcomings. Her strength, taken to the extreme, can become a flaw. For example, hard-headedness can turn into defiance.
- Has goals that don’t revolve around a man (yay!)
- Has her own character arc that evolves over the course of the story—and doesn’t depend on a male being around.
- Has backstory that provides reasons for her behavior. Even if they don’t make sense, they make sense to her, and she formulates her life based on them.
- Faces challenges and solves them with or without male assistance—her choice.
- Has an adversary worthy of her efforts—and this adversary can be herself.
- Interacts with other women, and men aren’t their only topic of conversation. (The Bechdel test)
- Accepts responsibility for her actions.
My first published novel, A Different Kind of Fire, is a highly-fictionalized retelling of my grandmother’s life. She was a descendant of the tough women who colonized the West Texas plains, battling the droughts, snakes, constant wind, and few people around for company. Initially, I thought I’d pen my grandparents’ love story, but I had a hard time writing her life as a romance. Since she was the only one experiencing personal and emotional growth, she became the sole protagonist and was renamed Ruby. In an effort to move from being a mere retelling of family history and to torture her as much as possible, I made her bisexual.
Though she has a fiancé, Ruby leaves him behind to study art back East, thus pursuing a goal unrelated to a man (#4 above). In doing so, she defies her stifling family and the social mores of the early twentieth century (#2 and #6). Her bisexuality (#9) reflects the conflict in her life. She’s torn between her two great loves; between art and love; between being an artist and a wife/mother; and between torn between city life and the prairie. Imperfect as she is, she becomes her own worst adversary (#8) as she vacillates between choices (#3). Only late in life does she realize her indecision has hurt not only herself but those she loves (#7), and she accepts responsibility for her actions. Through all of this, Ruby experiences the full emotional repertoire of a typical woman: love, hate, marriage, divorce, childbirth, stillbirth, resolve, indecision, success, and failure (#1).
In my second novel, Hunting the Devil, Jess Hemings, a biracial American physician, leaves the U.S. for Rwanda when she’s jilted by her long-time lover. She learns skills not included in her medical training, like how to deal with native healers, how to practice ad hoc medicine in the boondocks, and later, how to survive when she’s the hunted—or the hunter (#4). She journeys from being a woman who centers her life around a male to being a vigilante (#5 and 7). Her mixed-race heritage colors her reactions to Rwanda while her appearance places her in jeopardy (#6). When her two adopted children are murdered in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, she tracks their killer, an adversary worthy of her new-found inner strength (#8). She pays a high price (#2) for her resolve as she isolates herself from friends and family to conceal from them the dire nature of her goal. Much of the time, Jess faces her challenges without male assistance, yet at times she must intersect with her former lover—who still desires her—and a new, married lover who’s not sure he and Jess can handle each other’s PTSD. Like Ruby, Jess experiences a broad range of human emotions: love, rejection, hate, fear, birth, death, anxiety—plus all the trauma of being involved in a genocide—before she achieves her aims.
Some people advise gender-swapping, writing your females as males, then flipping the pronouns. I haven’t tried that—yet—though I have written a rather noir short story in a male POV. It might be interesting to switch its pronouns. Boy, that would make for one tough broad!
Overall, the best way to write an individualistic character is to write a real person and not get caught up in gender-specific roles.
Today is the first Wednesday of the month post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
Founded by the Ninja Cap’n Alex J. Cavanaugh, the purpose of the group is to offer a safe space where writers can share their fears and insecurities without being judged. The wonderful co-hosts this time are PK Hrezo, Pat Garcia, SE White, Lisa Buie Collard, and Diane Burton!
They ask an optional question each month, and the April 2021 question is: Are you a risk-taker when writing? Do you try something radically different in style/POV/etc. or add controversial topics to your work?
I don’t know if I’m a risk-taker, but when writing a story, all I think about is the characters and their journey. I’ve never shied away from a story because it moved into uncomfortable territory–discomfort is great place to write from, as far as I’m concerned. This ties in with today’s post from Suanne as well, because writing Individualistic, strong female characters, especially unlikable women is not a norm in the country I was brought up in. But Anjali in You Beneath Your Skin is in an affair with a married man, her best friend’s brother, and she keeps this a secret from her friend. She’s also a conflicted mother of an autistic teen. When writing her, I did what was necessary to keep her honest, authentic, and as close to emotional truth as possible. I didn’t realize it was a risk until I reached the publication stage.
Writing female characters: do you find it easy or challenging? While writing female characters, do you consciously try to make them individualistic? Do you have questions for Suanne Schafer? Have you joined the Insecure Writers Support Group?
My debut literary crime novel,”You Beneath Your Skin,” published by the fab team at Simon and Schuster IN is optioned to be a TV series by Endemol Shine.
It is available in India here.
Reviews are appreciated–please get in touch if you’d like a review copy.
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Yay for a female character who’s more than a man’s sidekick, Suanne! Both of your books sound really good!
And Damyanti, your book “You Beneath Your Skin,” is one I will never forget. Anjali is a compelling character because she was authentic and emotionally real. I had my first facial in seventeen years recently, and while I was having it, I couldn’t help but think of Anjali. I’ve worked with autistic kids in my classroom a number of times, and I really connected with Nikhil. The beginning where he is lost in the mall had me breaking out in a cold sweat. Suspense kept me going throughout the book. Congratulations on the tv series of your book! What a thrill for you!
Thanks for the kind words, and sorry I missed this comment earlier. So pleased that Anjali left an impact on you.
Creating female characters who are independent and confident is beautiful ♥🙋♀️
I completely agree, Christy B
I completely agree. I think this is the best way to write any character. Create them authentically, consider them as real people, as much as they can be, and then write the story. I love the list you have here, and I think it’s a good one to have for female characters, male characters, and even children. I like my characters to be “relational” in their lives, and I didn’t realize that creating a teen, female swordswoman who loves her parents, struggles with doubt, and while saved by a guy, once, doesn’t rely on men all the time would be a problem…until it came to finding a place to sell it. After realizing that not a single press I knew about at the time carried Christian fantasy titles with individualistic women characters, I started down the self-publishing path. It was also a bit of a struggle with my first few readers, who really wanted that romance angle to take shape in a different way than it did. Romantic love is wonderful, but it’s not the only way a character can grow.
You wouldn’t believe how many agents have responded to my work with “I laughed, I cried, I read all 400 pages in one sitting—but I don’t think I can sell it.”
Hi Damyanti – Suanne has some very sensible ideas here … while her characters I’m sure will bring them to life for us as we read the story. You’ve brought the wonderful ladies in your book ‘You Beneath Your Skin’ to a full life … I found them so realistic. A really interesting post – thank you … good luck to all who write stories – Hilary
I loved Damyanti’s Angali character. She had real struggles and a life that wasn’t easy.
Reading Suanne’s perspective was enlightening, considering the present short story Im working on which has a female lead. As far as I remember Anjali is individualistic and real. It’s not just a risk but a huge responsibility to write about real people, divorced from social ideals because it helps society to become more acceptable of them. More acceptable of real people.
Omg, She described me to a tee! Probably why I patterned my strong/individualistic female protagonist after myself. Great advice.
I love that you identify as being individualistic. I do too. I’ve had many jobs, am now on my 4th career, have travelled the world—always just a bit different from everyone else.
Suanne – thanks for the great food for thought. I like the idea of writing a story in one gender, then swapping it out afterward. Very intriguing.
Damyanti – I think you really nailed writing complex, individualistic female characters in You Beneath Your Skin. That’s what made it such a compulsive read.
I’m working now on a gothic southern tale and finding the teenaged voice a bit difficult. She’s locked in an asylum against her will, and keeping her sane while having her sound crazy to her keepers is a challenge.
Thanks so much for reading, and your kind comment, Ellen.
I do write multi-faceted female characters. I need to think about the males, as well. Real people is the key. Sometimes, we bring up topics that some people might find controversial. We write them anyway. Your story is an excellent example of that.
Lots of good hints for writing female protagonists. I especially like “Has an adversary worthy of her efforts—and this adversary can be herself.” Isn’t that true! I definitely consider you and all first-time authors risk-takers. That step into publication–that is daunting.
Thanks for your kind thoughts.
When I am writing a woman as my MC, and secondary, I try to get feedback in regards to true voice. The feedback has been overall positive. The few times I was off the mark, I took suggestions, tweaked things, and came away with a stronger foundation for the characters
I did the same thing with my noir-ish spy short story. I sent it off to be vetted by an ex-Marine, ex-diplomat who was currently at Langley. He said I nailed the voice of a middle-aged impotent spy.
I like calling characters individualistic instead of “strong.” So many times people equate “strong” with aggressive traits and flawlessness. Individualistic is important for both male and female characters. When I think back on the fairytales I grew up with, I remember vulnerable females who wait around for a nameless prince to swoop in and instantly fall in love with them. Neither gender has much individualism in those cases.
Exactly! As a physician, I believe that every human has male/female/other traits, and the author has the choice of which of those to bring out. An emotionally strong character may weather a challenge better than a physically strong one.
You covered quite a few risky topics in one book.
Suanne, I like the one about things making sense to the character although it might not to the reader. We all react to things differently based on what we know and what we’ve experienced.
Somehow, I feel that it’s not worth writing unless an author takes risks. It’s so easy to churn out books that are virtually identical to so-and-so’s best seller. What makes an author successful (perhaps not financially, but as a writer) is the ability to be distinctive.