Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How I discovered my feminine side

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on December 18, 2012.

In some ways, this post shouldn’t be necessary. Honestly, there’s no good reason why a realistic novel with a large cast of characters shouldn’t include a roughly equal number of men and women, at least once we’ve accounted for issues of setting and plot. Yet it’s unquestionably the case that interesting female characters can be hard to find, especially in works by male authors. There’s still no better proof of this than the classic Bechdel Test, in which a movie or other narrative work has to meet three simple criteria in order to pass:

  1. It includes at least two women…
  2. Who have at least one conversation…
  3. About something other than a man or men.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but surprisingly few works of art pass the test. And while this isn’t meant to be taken as a measure of a story’s merit—there aren’t any women in Lawrence of Arabia for a reason—it’s still worth asking why narratives that fulfill all three requirements remain the exception, not the rule.

This is especially true in suspense, in which otherwise great authors, like Frederick Forsyth, either ignore women entirely or prove utterly incapable of writing convincing female characters. As far as my own work is concerned, The Icon Thief and City of Exiles both squeak by, but largely on a technicality: both have women in the lead, but only a couple of female supporting characters with whom my protagonists can have a qualifying conversation. Yet something unexpected happened with my third novel. Eternal Empire is the concluding book of a series that has introduced a number of important female characters over time, and two of the three leads are women from the previous novels, along with many smaller but crucial roles. As a result, I’ve found myself writing numerous chapters in which only women appear. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but simply the way the narrative evolved. And although it might seem odd to comment on it, it’s a measure of the relative lack of female characters in this kind of story that it struck me, after the fact, as surprising.

Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

So how did I end up writing three novels with female protagonists? Part of the answer is that I’ve been enormously influenced by works of art in which unforgettable women appear. I don’t think I’d be writing this kind of book at all if it weren’t for Dana Scully, my favorite character on television, who, in turn, was clearly modeled on the great Clarice Starling. (It’s fitting, then, that Gillian Anderson has played such a prominent role on the Hannibal television series, thus bringing the wheel full circle.) It was also a test for myself as a writer. On some levels, men and women aren’t so different, at least not in a story like this: James Cameron has said that his preferred way of creating a compelling female character is to write for a man and simply change the name—which is how we got Ripley in Alien—and one of William Goldman’s favorite methods for brainstorming his way through a difficult story is to ask, “What if all the characters were women?” All the same, writing for a character whose experience is distinct from my own in certain fundamental ways forces me to think through even the smallest moments, testing them for plausibility, tone, and emotional truth.

Which is something I should be doing anyway, of course, but when I’m writing for a male lead, I’m more likely to overlook such problems, because I’m not subjecting the character to the same kind of scrutiny. When I recently went back to read my first, unpublished novel, for instance, I found that the lead character, a young man not unlike myself at the time, was serviceable, but a little colorless, probably because he was so easily assembled in my imagination that a lot of it failed to make it to the page. A character like Rachel Wolfe, by contrast, seems more real to me than most of my male protagonists, just because I’ve had to work on her more rigorously. In some ways, that’s the greatest possible benefit in writing characters of a different gender. It can’t be an accident that many of our finest novels, from Madame Bovary to Atonement, have been written by male novelists assuming a female point of view. Anything that requires a writer to look twice at things he, or she, might otherwise take for granted can only be a good thing. And in my fiction, as well as in my own life, I have some strong women to thank.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2014 at 9:00 am

One Response

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  1. I’m new to your blog, so I don’t mind the repost. Happy Thanksgiving.


    November 27, 2014 at 8:52 pm

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