Challenging Myself to Write Strong Female Characters by Bryon Quertermous
I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by strong, talented women my entire life. My best friends growing up were mostly women, I always related well to my tough female teachers who were viewed by others as “ball-busters,” and I married a tough, strong women. So when it came time to write my first novel, you’d think it would be full of strong, talented women who defy stereotypes, right?
Eh. Sort of.
While the two main female characters in my first novel, Murder Boy, aren’t weak or passive, I realized after the fact that both are portrayed almost entirely as products of their sex lives. The first, Posey Wade, is our protagonist Dominick Prince’s sounding board and crush early on. But her main character trait is that she’s having an affair with her professor while her over-protective bounty hunting brother hates everyone she has sex with and wants to shoot them all. I’d like to say that was my attempt to subvert the clichés and comment on the tropes, but really I was just going for the easy storytelling option and I’m kind of embarrassed by it.
Things are more complicated with Lindsey Buckingham, a cop and Dominick’s main foil (and ultimate rescuer) in Murder Boy. While it sounds good in theory, the only reason she’s in the story at all is because of a pact she made with God after a sexual assault and her desire to lock down Posey Wade’s brother Titus as her life partner.
I could certainly point to entrenched societal privilege in the media and stories I consume, but that’s a cop out. I read a lot of great books by great female writers featuring great female characters. I know better. I should have done better. And in the sequel I’m currently writing, I think I am doing better. I’ve made Posey more of an equal partner (and in some cases, superior to Dominick), and her professional life is one of the main narrative threads of the book.
By themselves I don’t think Posey or Lindsey would necessarily stick out as poorly written female characters, but together, as the only two major female characters in the book, I’m uncomfortable with the fact that both are defined by their sexual histories almost exclusively.
I also don’t think I explored Lindsey’s pact with God enough in Murder Boy and decided to double down and explore what would make a strong, rational women resort to that sort of hackney desperation to survive. While I think the opportunity is there for a strong story arc, there’s also the very real danger of exploiting her trauma and making things worse. I’ve thought about moving on and forgetting about it, but I’m trying to stretch myself as a writer and a human and use my privilege to share diverse stories and that seems like a cop out. I’ve also thought about exploring this issue on it’s own in a short story or novella. I’ve got lots of options and the main reason I pitched this piece to a website for female readers is to get the input of female readers. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments on this issue.
Bryon Quertermous is the author of Murder Boy and the forthcoming Riot Load. His short stories have been published in a number of journals of varying repute and he was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award. He currently lives outside of Detroit with his wife and kids. Visit him at http://bryonquertermous.com and follow him on Twitter @BryonQ.
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