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.
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
– Earnest Hemingway