On Creating Fictional Heroines
(or I used to be Snow White, but I drifted)
An author's lot is not, on the whole, a happy one (unless you think being able to spend your working day in your pyjamas is a plus.) Frustrations abound; remuneration doesn't. One of our biggest frustrations arises from the fact that authors and publishers don't share an agenda. An author wants to write the best book ever. A publisher wants to sell as many copies as possible of the best book ever. This conflict of interests means author and editor can find themselves at creative loggerheads over what you - the reader - want.
To the best of my knowledge, the only publisher to have done reader market research is Harlequin Mills & Boon. Nevertheless editors always claim to know what readers want. Actually all they know is, what readers buy. That isn't the same thing. Think of all those much-hyped books you bought that disappointed.
Authors who get emails from readers and have leisure to browse book blogs and chat forums know precisely what readers want and just how far they might be tempted to step outside their reading comfort zone. But money talks and what it says, I gather, is that heroines in popular fiction must, above all else, be likeable. Ideally, they must also be morally spotless. (But not holier-than-thou. No one loves a do-gooder.)
Along with a lot of writers, I think a protagonist's first duty is not to be likeable, but fascinating. In my experience, the flawed tend to be more interesting than the flawless, yet editors look for a cross between Pollyanna and Mother Teresa, with sex appeal. Heroines must in addition be young, pretty and thin because... well, because popular women's fiction is about the young, pretty and thin, isn't it?
Mine isn't. I write about spiky, awkward, real women and most of them aren't young, pretty or thin. The heroine of STAR GAZING is middle-aged, widowed and blind and she's not too happy about any of that. (In fact the Scots hero describes her as "crabbit".) Over the years my heroines' bolshy behaviour has led to some editorial conflict as I've resisted attempts made by patient and long-suffering editors to make my female protagonists nicer.
It's not just that I think, in fiction, nice is generally boring. It's that I'm steeped in the classics and know niceness is not necessary; that many a book has stood the test of time despite the heroine's lack of social skills.
Let's face it, Jane Eyre is not exactly Miss Congeniality. And I'm surely not the only one who'd like to slap Emma Woodhouse. Cathy Earnshaw is a minx at best, demon at worst. Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Scarlett O'Hara, Tess D'Urberville... None of them would have made Head Girl. Even everyone's favourite, Elizabeth Bennet, is tricky. At a time when marrying for love was just a fanciful notion, turning down Collins' marriage proposal was a selfish act that would rebound on her large and impecunious family. But we love her anyway.
These problematic heroines haven't exactly blighted the books in which they appear. On the contrary, they are the reason we read and re-read. We relish their complexity, their guts and their moral ambiguity.
But times have changed. There seems to be a belief now among editors of popular women's fiction that female protagonists must set some sort of example. They mustn't drink to excess or swear; they mustn't desert or even dislike their children and they should always be kind to old people and animals.
It's not that publishers see themselves as moral arbiters, rather they're convinced readers won't like a woman who is less than perfect, and if they don't like her, they won't like the book.
This might be true occasionally, but not invariably. In my second novel, A LIFETIME BURNING, my anti-heroine Flora, a clergyman's wife, commits every sin apart from murder, but when she dies, some readers cry their eyes out. I know because they've told me. They don't like Flora, but they do pity her. Now call me old-fashioned, but I think evoking readers' compassion is a higher goal for novelist and publisher than avoiding readers' censure.
I sometimes wonder how the Brontës ' novels might have fared in today's slush piles. In an idle, possibly vengeful moment, I composed an imaginary rejection letter sent to an aspiring Charlotte Brontë. I tried to emulate the tone and content of the kind of helpful editorial feedback that many authors receive nowadays...
Dear Ms Brontë
We enjoyed your manuscript JANE EYRE. You write well and most of your characters are believable, but I'm afraid we found your plot relentlessly downbeat and depressing. Does Helen Burns really have to die? Does Rochester have to be blinded? A disfigured hero is not appealing and spoils your otherwise feel-good ending. We wondered whether superficial burns and a partial loss of sight would serve just as well?
We found Rochester himself problematic. He isn't likeable, nor is he physically attractive. He is wealthy (a point in his favour) but you fail to clarify whether or not Adele is his illegitimate daughter. In short, he just isn't hero material.
Sadly, Jane herself is not very appealing as a heroine. She's feisty, but physically unattractive and a little prissy. There's little for a female reader to identify with here. Something more upbeat is required for a romantic heroine. Readers might forgive Jane rejecting Rochester's immoral proposal, but to reject St John Rivers as well makes her look priggish and ungrateful.
You might want to think about demoting Rochester to a subplot and upgrading Rivers to main hero, perhaps dropping the unappealing religious aspect of his character. No one loves a do-gooder! You could then dispense with your frankly unconvincing plot device of Jane hearing Rochester call to her after the fire. I'm sorry, but we really don't think paranormal romance has a future.
You write well and with passion, but JANE EYRE belongs to no clear genre and this would make it extremely difficult to market. Sorry not to be more encouraging, but in a fiercely competitive field, a romantic novel has to have stand-out qualities to be commercially viable.
Thank you for letting us read your manuscript.
A N Editor.
For me the genesis of a novel tends to be a combination of visual things, ideas that gnaw away at me until I find I'm thinking about them a lot and making links. (I think those connections are what make you a novelist rather than a short story writer.)
I start with ideas, "what-ifs?", but those ideas always seem to come with people attached to them and very often snatches of dialogue. (This is no doubt a throw-back to my days as an actress. I'm familiar with story-telling through dialogue.)
An example of this "vision" process in EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY was the "woman alone in a light white room" opening. I could really see the room and sense the atmosphere. I could see the woman but I didn't know who she was or who she was writing to. When I wrote the letter in Chapter 1 I didn't even know if the daughter Megan was alive. I thought she might be dead or even imaginary. I wasn't sure when I started the book just how far "gone" Rose was.
Sometimes I think these visions must be visual puns or symbols with other meanings. The white room was both Rose's home and her "cell" in the mental hospital, but it was also the deeply medicated blank space of her mind. I only worked all that out later. When the "visions" come I often don't know what their significance is. I don't always understand what I've written, or rather why I've written it. I'm not sure I think that's necessary. I do think you need to be able to trust what you've written, which means trusting in yourself as a writer. That's the hard part.
Once I get these "visions" in my head I start trying to set them up as scenes, try to work out how someone could end up in that situation. That must be another throwback to my acting days. At drama school in improvisation classes we would sit in the middle of a circle of fellow students and be handed an object - a bunch of keys or a weird small ad from the classifieds - and then after a few minutes' thinking time we would be "interviewed" by the tutor and other students. We would have to answer in character, a character that developed as a result of our response to the object and questions. 30 years on I can still remember one student's sinister school caretaker and the creepy way he fondled a big bunch of keys.
When I'm plotting, I just keep saying "What if...?", trying to make things as complicated as possible. (You can always simplify later.) But I don't think much actually happens in my books. I have complicated situations and relationships. My plot, such as it is, arises out of those.
It was quite hard keeping tabs on everything in EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY because the characters knew far more than they were letting on. Everyone had something to hide. I wanted to write a book that as soon as you finished it, you'd want to go back and re-read it to see if I'd cheated! I also wanted the book to read differently the second time round when you knew all the history. So a lot of the dialogue had to work on two levels, meaning one thing to the reader, but something else to the characters, who knew a lot more. (I used the same method in A LIFETIME BURNING which reads very differently second time around, when you know what the characters know.)
Fortunately, I don't need a plot to start writing, just a situation and some interesting characters. The jumping off point for A LIFETIME BURNING was a puzzle I set myself which was about nothing/everything happening at one particular moment in time. I wanted to write a book, a key scene of which was a character walking into a room and seeing or experiencing something that made him/her re-evaluate their entire life. Not the wife in the arms of the postman because that would only make you reassess your marriage. I wanted to think of something that would shake a character to the foundations. But - and this was the killer! - I wanted nothing to happen. I wanted no-one to know, for there to be nothing happening on the surface. Life would just carry on as normal - apparently - whilst seismic shocks were still reverberating beneath the character's surface. In addition, I didn't want the reader to know what had happened! I thought of something eventually. When you read the scene "nothing happens". Only much later do you find out what was actually going on.
That kind of plotting fascinates me: nothing happens, but at the same time everything happens. I love the paradox. I always find what goes on inside the mind of a character more interesting than what goes on outside it.
... and Gestation of a Novel
It's a strange and elephantine gestation period writing a book. To begin is terrifying; to persevere can be fun (and in any case carries no great sense of responsibility - you're only doodling anyway, the manuscript can be abandoned and another begun, no hard feelings.) But by the time you've written 50,000 words you can't pretend you're fooling around any more. The book means business and you wonder if, this time, you're really up to it.
The only way to cope is to continue writing. That's when you long to get to the brow of the hill so that you can see the valley spread out below and enjoy the scenery as you coast down...
There was a day when I knew I'd got to that significant point with A LIFETIME BURNING, a point when I felt I knew the book would be finished. It had taken me 366 pages, 115,000 words to get to the stage where I believed the book had its own momentum, that it would cross the finishing line without my cheering it on.
I'd written twenty-five chapters in draft and had four more (plotted) chapters to write. Months of editing lay ahead but it was a huge relief to emerge from the no-man's land of wondering if the uncertainty would ever end, if I would ever feel the exhilaration of freewheeling downhill having spent sixteen months pushing that fictional bike to the top of the hill.
This event happens only every couple of years and deserves, I think, to be commemorated. So I raised a glass and settled down on the sofa for a well-earned rest with a feeling - albeit fleeting - of smug satisfaction.