I find men interesting and often find myself watching them as I would a wild, strange creature in a zoo. Men fascinate me. Consequently, after years of watching the boys in my life, I find it easy to write male characters. Weird but true. What I have trouble writing are female characters. Weirder, but also true.
I grew up in a female-centric (is that a word?) home. I went to an all girls’ high school. Most of my friends are women. And I’m a woman for god’s sake. So why is it so damn hard to write female characters? You’d think writing from a female POV would be like falling off a horse. Not!
As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, my current project is a novel I’ve been working on for some time. The story centres on a large, Irish Canadian family struggling with the life-threatening illness of one of their own. I’m using three rotating first person POVs to tell the story; Anne, the matriarch, Burt the eldest son and Barb, the youngest sibling.
Burt is fun to write. I arrive at my desk excited to work on a Burt chapter. He’s a boy and I like writing about boys!
I have also had knee slapping fun writing his younger sister, Barb’s character. A female character, true, but one who does every blasted thing I would love to do, but never in a million years would do. Her sense of adventure and F-you-F-the world attitude is wonderfully freeing. Burt and Barb show up on the page with very little effort from me.
In contrast, Anne, the matriarch’s character may one day cause me to throw myself in front of an ice cream truck.
During a particularly painful critiquing session at my bi-weekly writing circle, someone posed the $64,000 questions; why did I think Anne and I weren’t connecting and (maybe more importantly) what was I afraid of?
Anne, I thought, I’m afraid of Anne. After all, she’s living every parent’s worst nightmare—her kid is sick and the family aren’t handling it well.
We aren’t meshing because as her world falls apart, so must I, but I’m not, I’m not letting myself fall apart (ficturatively of course).
You’re right, you’re right. It’s my responsibility to stand with Anne, to take my reader where she lives and right now that’s a dark and scary place. I have to make the readers experience what Anne is experiencing when she encounters her monsters. My readers need to know I’m holding the steering wheel firmly in the 10:2 position.
But alas, my wonderful writing friends have come to the rescue and suggested an exercise to help me access Anne’s feelings. Here’s the exercise (designed to push the writer deeper into their characters) in case you find your characters are misbehaving as badly as Anne.
Copy a strong line from your existing prose onto a clean piece of paper. With that sentence as your guiding light, start writing everything you see, hear, smell, FEEL around that sentence. Keep your hand moving for fifteen minutes.
Here’s the sentence I chose.
It scared her to realize how ill her child really was.
Fifteen minutes in, I was shaking. I’d reached down into Anne’s life, and finally I had written two strong, emotive pages I could work with.
Anne scares the bejesus out of me, but I owe it to my readers (and to myself) to push my fears aside and write Anne’s true story.
Good luck, writing comrades and may the force be with us!!!!!!
“Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise…As creative channels, we need to trust the darkness. ” ― Julia Cameron
“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” ― Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within