As a writer of fiction, one of my main goals when writing a story is to create characters in a way that will make readers connect to them. Each person I put on a page is unique, with their own collection of quirks, trauma, and limitations to add to the story line.
In the world of fiction writing there seems to be a widely used trap for developing female characters. Specifically in the way trauma is created for female characters. It’s a trap I see over and over again to the point it has stopped my progress in a novel. The trap is sexual assault.
To be clear; I am in no way downgrading the traumatic effect of sexual assault. I am not saying it does not happen. I know it happens in alarming numbers across the globe. And I am not saying that it does not have a place in fiction. What I am suggesting is that there’s room in fiction for more, and we should start filling those spaces in with something more.
Women are amazing creatures in the real world. We suffer and conquer so much. Traumatic issues that often strike men in the imaginary world, strike women in the real world. Women lose parents, lose spouses, lose limbs. They have gambling addictions, drinking addictions, sex addictions. They blow chances, blow careers, blow up their lives with a multitude of mistakes. But writers tend to go the easy road. If they need to show that a female character has been made strong or made broken, they pull out the sexual assault.
Two examples of where the sexual assault line was unnecessary for character develop were the recent move Split and the novel Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes. The movie was alright but – without giving away any spoilers – there were two major life events, not even touched on by the film, that would have been enough to create a hard outer layer for their female lead. Instead Shyamalan relied on what’s become the standard.
The novel by JoJo Moyes is brave. And it was a book club book I actually enjoyed. The subject of whether or not a person has the right to decide to end their life if they deem there is no longer quality to it is a big topic to take on. She did it well, with feeling and emotion felt by people on both sides of that debate. To further be able to take such a heavy subject and meld it with a heartbreaking love story, was impressive. She kept it from being over the top, and the ending was exactly what it needed to be.
But half way through the development of the story, as you’re getting to know Louisa and Will, the flow of the story comes to a halt as Louisa delves into a clouded memory of a drunken night and an assault in a garden maze. It was a scene the writer called “almost a throwaway” in this article in the Washington Post, but was used as a way to explain why she was who she was. As if we hadn’t already been given insight into Lou. For me it was jarring, and did not further my understanding of her.
Louisa was quirky. Her family life was a little on the dysfunctional side, her sister was spoiled to say the least, her relationship with men showed me how that home life had influenced her. Louisa was the sister expected to tow the line, just keep moving along, don’t grumble, don’t protest, give up your bedroom and sleep in the closet room, and she had always fallen into that role. Her whole life had been that role.
That girl was who she had always been. Not just after the briefly-mentioned assault. Nothing makes that more clear than the famous bumblebee tights, which she explains were her favorite in childhood. It was a contradiction to the belief around the telling of the assault that her strange sense of fashion was a way to keep people away from her, and made the maze story even more unnecessary. If the book had received the same editing by Moyes as the movie did, I doubt readers would have had any difficulty understanding Louisa.
In the future of fiction I would like to see writers give their females more. Open up their worlds to both good and bad. Let your women and girls taste things, experience things, and survive a beautiful or torturous variety of emotions. Let them have moments of weakness. Let them survive all manners of trauma. And occasionally, just let them be strong.
It’s International Women’s Day and I think it’s a great thing to recognize women and for us women to recognize ourselves every once in awhile. It’s a good thing to take a step back and say to ourselves; ‘Self, we rock.’ It’s a good thing to give a high five to your female friends and family and coworkers and the barista at your local coffee spot. Because the truth is, we deserve it. We do rock. Being a girl can be tough.
I know some people don’t like the F word but I consider myself a feminist. I know that we all put our own spin on what that word means for us as individual women. For me it means toughness and strength with a soft, sensitive inside. It means accepting my good side and my bad side. It means recognizing that I am just as capable as anyone else at being successful and being happy. It means I am in control of that success and that happiness. It means no one is better than me just because of what’s in their pants.
I participated in the No Women campaign today. I participated by not going to work and wearing my red Wonder Woman t-shirt. I read articles on the movement, watched updates on the various rallies, in this country, and around the world. But I didn’t go to any actual protests. I hung out with my husband today. I didn’t avoid spending any money. We went to lunch at a locally owned place. We did some grocery shopping at a locally owned grocery store.
I did that because our waitress was at work today, we added to her tips. The girl in the bakery who boxed up two eclairs for us, and the girl that watched us self scan our groceries were at work today. Those girls depend on their jobs, which depends on those stores, so in a small way we were letting them know they can depend on us. Supporting women, supporting our local economy, is not anti-feminism. Not in my book anyway.
So to all the females out there I hope you found a way to celebrate yourself a little bit today. In fact, celebrate yourself a little bit every day. Take the time to remind yourself that you rock.
“You should come take a picture of the sunrise.”
It was 7:15 on a Monday morning I didn’t actually need to be up for. President’s Day. My office was closed for the holiday, and in an idyllic world I’d be sleeping in, gearing up to get some writing done, or spending a relaxed family day. But “idyllic” wasn’t our world and hadn’t been for awhile.
The weekend had started well and ended rough. We’d been here before. More than I’d like to think about over the last nine months. We’d done a family dinner Saturday to celebrate my little brother’s birthday. We’d had a family dinner with just us and our three kids Sunday and he’d sat down to eat, he’d joined conversations, he’d laughed. Then he disappeared. He relapsed. We started over.
Something had to give. I had to stop giving in. He had to decide what he wanted. He didn’t need to be saved, he needed to save himself and decide he was going to do so. We’d cried, we’d screamed, we’d pleaded and begged and bribed for months. He needed to make the choice on his own.
He didn’t make his final choice that Monday. He talked about fixing it but he wasn’t really there yet. By Thursday he was gone again. He pushed it and made us do what we never wanted to do. We didn’t want to have to make that choice but we had to stop the chaos. My heart couldn’t break anymore. I needed to get back to a different kind of normal. We had to make him choose to get help or leave. He left that night.
Then another Monday came, another day at home for me. This time not for a holiday but for a sick day, recovering from a chest cold. Exhaustion. The texts started first – He wanted to get better. He wanted to come home – and my heart hurt all over again. The phone rang and my husband answered. Tears. He wanted to get help. He wanted to come home. He let my dad bring him to us, knowing what the outcome would be. Coming home only meant one thing.
He packed a bag, he cried, but he didn’t say no. When we got him to the door of the place I hope will save him he didn’t beg to leave. It was different this time. This time he knew he needed to stay. He knew he needed to be somewhere safer than home. And it took him some time to admit it, but I think he knew it on that first Monday morning, watching that sunrise.
“You should take the picture with me in it.” he’d said through quiet tears over his shoulder. I stood, barefoot, on the winter morning concrete, and snapped the shot he’d requested. He never asked to see it. His mind was elsewhere during that sunrise.