09 March 2015

What do Women [Protagonists] Want?

Yesterday was International Women's Day, an event I learned of only by going onto social media in the evening. Lots of great quotes here. However, in celebrating the achievements of women, I am compelled to pause and reflect on the women I know and what they have achieved.

I really dislike how social media is too often a repository of hatred and polarizing debate on, among many topics, the roles of men and women. I like to think I'm above the fray, adopting a neutral stance, and welcoming all individuals of whatever sex and gender and roles a person may have. As a writer of fiction, I try to keep the stories as real or plausible as possible, especially in the relationships which seem to be at the core of each of my novels.

As a male, I'm stuck with a few limitations, first among them is portraying a female character in an authentic manner. That is, letting her be her own person rather than, say, merely a companion to the male protagonist. It has not been easy but I believe I've done well enough. Most of my readers have been women, it seems, and most have liked (even praised) the female characters. However, I do recognize that these female roles tend to fall into two broad categories, which typically fall further into categories made by others as either 1) madonna or 2) whore. This "traditional" dichotomy is quite disagreeable in this day and age.

Although there may be a wide range of traits within each of those categories, enough that they can overlap and even allow a character to possess both, it is not enough for creating authentic female characters. As a young writer I started unsteadily and, thankfully, have grown in my craft and in my sensibilities. I have written the older woman ensnaring the younger man for her own amusement (AFTER ILIUM). I have written the younger woman tricking the older man for various benefits (A BEAUTIFUL CHILL). I have written the career woman trying to adapt herself for a sudden romance with a man transforming into a vampire (A DRY PATCH OF SKIN). In my earlier writing, I created a female protagonist who serves in one instance only as the romantic interest of the male protagonist (AIKO) and, in another instance, almost a "sidekick" to the self-absorbed male protagonist (YEAR OF THE TIGER). I've even dared create an alien society based on a matriarchal model but I follow the husband/father character's adventures trying to return to his family and his world (THE MASTERS' RIDDLE). I didn't want to write about a female of that world suffering, so I let the male suffer--turnabout, eh?

I know, I know, I know: bad boy. Bad male writer. Honestly, I like women, and I like having them in stories. They also say "write what you know"; that stops me in my tracks, obviously: I don't know how to be a woman. All I can do is observe and ask questions of women I know. One woman who eventually read the novel in which the female protagonist was based upon her did agree that I had depicted her perfectly, even though what transpired in the story was not flattering.

My goal as a writer has always been to portray realistic characters. That is, characters who think and act from plausible motivations comparable to those of actual people I have known. Isn't that art imitating life? Like many writers, I borrow from the world around me, incorporating (i.e., "making into a body") living people and their various quirks, mannerisms, speech patterns, body language, and psychological agendas (as much as I can discern) into believable fiction appropriate to the character.

That is the hardest part of writing a novel, I do believe. Getting the character down--harder still if the story is told in the voice of that character. 

So for this day of celebrating women, I think about how I have depicted women in my fiction writing. Flattering? Complimentary? In derogatory fashion? Or as real, multi-faceted individuals? Or, as George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series has said, I also try to write female characters as people, not as "just" women. Society has set up women in various roles, like it or not, and in that attempt to create fictional worlds which approximate reality, we must unfortunately depict women in less than ideal circumstances. But the woman who suffers and does not fight back or grow is not a character we want to read about; hence, the applause and cheering for greater women characters who arise from their oppression and achieve great things despite society and the men who try to hold them back. What do women characters want? Probably what real women want: to be real and to realize their innate potential as persons, not as "women."

Along this vein, it is THE DREAM LAND, my science fiction trilogy, where the most interesting female character lives: Gina Parton. In the first volume she is the lead personality in the adventures of two young people exploring an interdimensional doorway. As her male companion, the protagonist Sebastian Talbot tells the story, veering off into his own adventures, Gina reappears only at irregular intervals. I tended to miss Gina in the first book, but I was happy when she became a queen albeit by marriage. In the second book I let her reappear, having her own life, her own adventures, but did not fully realize them. I had plans for a volume that was all of her lives separate from Sebastian.

In Book III, I gave her full stage. After wrapping up several storylines by the middle of the book, Gina returns in her own adventure. By this point in my writing history I was ready to write a very strong, determined, take-no-shit female character who fights for herself and her family and who achieves great things. She enters a city in the future of the world she is trapped on and works hard, rising into the executive class. Her background in science provides her a foot in the door of the space council whose mission is to plan what to do as a fatal comet approaches the planet. Gina soon leads the council, all the while exerting her influence on politics in her adopted city and conducting an affair with a fellow scientist to feed her emotional needs.

The end of the story forces Gina to make difficult choices. To save her daughter, to allow her daughter to get a seat on one of the spacecraft destined to evacuate the planet's select few, Gina bites her lip and submits to the Governor's kinky fetishes. It is the most difficult scene I have ever tried to write, balancing her anger and determination with her mental acknowledgement to give in in order to secure her grown daughter's freedom. She sacrifices herself for the good of others--a role too often assigned to the woman in the story. Here it is simple math: there is a finite number of seats on a few spacecraft but she never loses her fire for justice.

I'm biased, of course, but Gina Parton a.k.a. Jinetta d'Elous is my favorite female protagonist. I love her, but she would not love me. She is too strong to put up with someone like me. She would lose patience with me, and likely write her own damn story. But in the end of such a beautiful, fulfilled life, even the strongest character, female or male, will be ready to let go and watch the comet come down.

In the real world, however, there are plenty of women achieving great things. But there should be so many more left to their talents and ideas, allowed to fully engage in their efforts, left to achieve things for the betterment of all humanity! After all, we are not in competition; we must work together, encouraging each other, lifting each other up rather than putting anyone down.

As the father of a daughter now entering the frantic world of career, family, service--whatever she wants to do--I want her to be free to achieve everything she possibly can and be a leader among leaders who will work to make our world a better place than it, sadly, is today.

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. I just realized that I write mostly male protagonists. I wonder why that is? My female protagonists tend to be strong, do-it-all sorts of people as are my men. The only thing my men don't do is breastfeed. I think I write from my own experience, and perhaps I am more liberated now than I was in the 1970s.

    1. Not everyone who grew up in the 70s is liberated!

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  3. I probably should have added that I have been praised for how I depicted a female character, even in internal monologue ("How did you know how a woman feels?" written on a comment sheet in a workshop). I've also been criticized for "daring" to write a female character in first-person because I cannot possibly know how women think (I changed the POV to close-3rd). So it goes.

  4. Good piece Stephen, it gave me much food for thought.