Writing/ being a “strong female character”

One of the students in my senior seminar is exploring representation of female characters in contemporary fiction. On the one hand, there’s pressure to write “likeable” women protagonists. Koa Beck wrote about this for The Atlantic in 2015, quoting an amazing retort from Claire Messud, in response to a journalist’s question about whether anyone would want to be her protagonist’s friend:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.

If only I could be that direct and brilliant when people annoy me. My student Chloe assigned Beck’s piece to the seminar, as well as this one about strong vs. strongly written female characters, as she prepares to write a final essay on the subject. Discussion was lively.

These essays resonate with my train of thought during last weekend’s World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, which was mixed. I saw some very good readings panels–mine, on speculative poetry, was brilliantly moderated by Terese Mason Pierre–but a couple of half-baked ones, too, plus participants asking hostile questions and volunteers who seemed strained to the limit. I’m not sure I would go to this convention again, although the city made up for it: great walks, great pastries, and vaccine policies a woman can get behind.

Listening to one of the presentations I found most useful, on story structure and character, made me think about revising my novel Unbecoming. Panelist Susan Forest said something like: the core of the book, the hard work it does, is rooted in the one action your character takes at a defining moment, the action that produces irreversible change. Ellen Kushner, in the Q&A, also remarked that everyone is haunted in a way that prevents them from living their best life; the author’s job is to decide, what is the worst thing that could happen to a character haunted in this particular way?

My editor helped me locate and rewrite the crisis moment Susan Forest describes. At the outset of Unbecoming, the main character, Cyn, refuses to recognize her own strength, magical and otherwise. And when you don’t admit the power you have, others get harmed in ways you could have mitigated, or maybe even headed off, if you had your wits about you. Cyn does come to terms with power and its consequences by the end, but the choices she makes about how to use her magic are problematic: some good, for sure, but some ethically questionable, to put it mildly. The problem she faces lies in the nature of magic–by definition, power is inequity, right? The MOST ethical thing is to give up your magic/ privilege, to redistribute it, but that’s ALSO hard, for a million different reasons. In short, I’m sympathetic to Cyn, but I don’t entirely like her.

A book of poems creates characters, too, some of whom are strong or strongly-written. Eric Tran visited campus this week, and while his poems seem intensely autobiographical, he emphasized their fictionality, how many of them rely on invention rather than personal history. One of my favorite’s of his is “I Tell My Mother About My Depression” (scroll down at the link and you’ll find it), and, interestingly, that was the one he chose as an example of writing in persona–not what I would have expected. Yet all poems fictionalize, even when they hew closely to fact. How you experience your life, after all, changes all the time; the you who writes the poem won’t exist in the same exact way tomorrow. I often feel distant from and critical of earlier poetic selves. Some of the poems in my most recent collection, The State She’s In, like “The South,” involve a version of me looking back at an earlier mindset and telling Former Lesley off.

Further, compelling poetic characters, the people implied by the words, are often flawed, messy, self-interrogating. I love a good poetic self-indictment.

Are the women characters in The State She’s In “strong” or “likeable”? I invoke strength in some of the poems, weaving spells to banish bad people. Elsewhere I explore the accusation that Hillary Clinton wasn’t likeable (like Claire Messud, I say, For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?). I also test, I think, the limits of womanly likeability by writing from anger–against Trump’s regime, workplace harassment, and the racist past and present of Virginia, you name it. My collection received many lovely reviews, but a mixed review that often comes to mind (not linking to it!) was by a writer who wrestled with her own discomfort with or even distaste for those gouts of outrage. It was one of those reviews that reveals at least as much about the reviewer as it does about the book, but it brought home to me how, even in an age of activist poetry, it’s hard for a woman to write from negative emotion without risk of alienating otherwise sympathetic readers.

By Ruth Rodriguez

6 Comments

  1. Enjoyable piece. I also like reading unlikeable characters or about unlikeable characters, esp women. I enjoy seeing how they’re handled, what the writer sees as unlikeable about the thing they’ve created. Writing them really IS fun. Getting under the skin is not without merit.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a lovely poem (Tran’s). Something I wrestle with that you’ve brought up here is the fictionality of poems. Often, readers in critique groups or otherwise have assumed the “I” voice in my poem is mine and is telling things as they are/were. And that’s not strictly the case; some are decidedly personas, and some are versions of my experience revised for…what? MORE truth? An unexpected or newly-acquired perspective? A what-if? Or maybe to hide some aspect of my own experience. I don’t know. My sister read my chapbook of poems about being teen girls in the 70s and took issue with my ‘facts.’

    As to unlikable characters…they are often so compelling! I think because they can be so complicated. Like: what’s the backstory here, why is this woman such a thorny person, what makes her so–is it intrinsic, hereditary, experience, nurture or lack thereof? As a reader, my ambivalence toward a character is often a form of curiosity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love this! Yes, people bring an assumption of truth-telling to poetry unless it’s a persona poem, flagged as such in an obvious way (and I’ve heard people say they dislike persona poems because poems should be true). It’s art, and therefore framed and filtered and patterned in ways life never is. Also, I like thorny people in reality as well as fiction, although the recent fashion of making serial killers sympathetic (in Netflix AND novels) leaves me queasy. Otherwise, bring on the ambiguity.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. To my way of thinking, the best poems are always persona poems to some degree, regardless of subject or voice, because the poet hasn’t let the facts get in the way of the truth. Our tendency to equate the two is the source of many societal ills and much personal suffering.

    Liked by 1 person

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