Shove Your Female Lead Off a Cliff
If you’re a woman I’m sure you remember listening to your parents read or tell you fairy tales about the beautiful princess riding off into the sunset with her charming prince and living happily ever after. Although we’ve come a long way since the days when I was a kiddie, many girls still get their pretty little heads stuffed with these fairy tales in one way or another. From books to movies to television. It’s as if the fairy tales, or something close to them, are wired into our DNA.
Is it any surprise, then, that variations of the happy-ever-after theme so often seep into the grownup stories that many women write? There’s often a beautiful girl with beautiful hair and beautiful eyes. And a tall sexy, breathtakingly handsome hunk. Together they ride off into the sunset. Men usually have no such illusions about their lead characters. They will shove them into all sorts of mischief and mayhem. Women are getting better about this, but I still see it, especially in beginning women writers.
Yet real life for women rarely if ever resembles a fairy tale. We gain too much weight, we need makeup to improve our skin and eyes–or so we believe. Worst of all, we age. We don’t stay 19 or 29 forever. Gasp! We get cellulite and wrinkles and saggy skin. In our relationships, we argue and say nasty things. We lie and cheat and get lied to and cheated on.
And if statistics are any guide, most of our relationships—whether marriage or shacking up—don’t last forever. Even when they do, we soon discover that our mate has flaws and quirks and personality traits we could very well live without. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we will admit that we’re pretty darn flawed too. And that together we’re two imperfect beings who have created an imperfect union, despite all the love we may continue to have for each other.
So why are we so soft on our female lead characters? Women writers especially? Why do we often have to make them flawless or nearly so? And why do we create plots with these silly happy-go-lucky endings? I think it has to do with all the fairy tales we tell our impressionable young girls and women. It starts at a very young age and really never stops. It continues with sappy love stories in novels and movies and on TV for women. I enjoy an occasional sappy love story as much as anyone. The challenge is to dare to be different and keep it out of our writing. (Unless you’re writing a romance novel. Then you’re excused. Maybe.)
In my early novels I struggled with this. I was afraid that if I deviated from the norm for women’s fiction–with the pretty girls and happy-ever-after endings–that no one would buy my novels. A couple of editors even suggested that I make my lead character more attractive or more appealing in some way. I was encouraged to write happier endings because that’s “what readers want.”
But do they really? All the time? I know I don’t. In my last novel, Money Can’t Buy Love, I decided to try something different and created a deeply flawed lead character. Lenora Stone struggles with her weight. She lacks poise and self-confidence. In short, she’s like many of us. Then I asked myself, what would such a vulnerable woman do if she suddenly came into a huge fortune and captured the attention of the man of her dreams? Would she smarten up, gain confidence, and go on to lead a life of dreams? Or would her flaws kick in and lead her down a twisted path?
The ending of Money Can’t Buy Love falls somewhere in between. It’s not joyful, nor is it sad. It’s real. Lenora suffers consequences but there’s a glimmer of hope. I believe that readers are more diverse and more adventurous in their literary tastes than we sometimes give them credit for. And that they can enjoy stories of flawed female lead characters who don’t meet deliriously happy endings.
I encourage beginning women writers to challenge themselves. Be bold and adventurous and willing to take reasonable risks with your female lead characters. Explore options outside of your first instinct to always protect them. You will be rewarded with deeper characters and far richer stories.