I had never written from the female perspective before. And in case it’s not clear from my author photo, I have forty-three years of experience being a guy and scant little being a woman. (Limited to one or two episodes of cross-dressing that I’m pretty sure didn’t fool anyone—being 6-foot-1 with a hairy chest tends to be a tipoff).
Nevertheless, as a writer I have one boss: The story. And if the story demanded I write a female protagonist? So be it.
I could do this, right? I was raised by a confident woman who worked outside the home from the time I was in diapers. She taught my brother and I to do our own laundry, cook our own meals, do all the housework-type chores then thought of as women’s work (which may sound trite now; but, believe me, in 1980s suburban America, we felt like we were the at the tip of the feminist sword). She showed us what an accomplished, determined, professional woman looked like every single day of our lives.
But it was more than just my upbringing. My best friends have always been women. And then I married a woman I admire and respect; a woman who is great at articulating the struggles of her gender; and a woman who, let’s be clear, is much, much smarter than me.
I’ve always read female authors and books with female leads, even if I have come to despise the phrase “strong female character.” Or, put it this way: You can go ahead and refer to V.I. Warshawski, Kinsey Milhone, or Kay Scarpetta as a “strong female character” all you want, as long as you describe Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, or Dirk Pitt as a “strong male character.”
(So, yeah, maybe we can retire that phrase, huh?)
Anyhow, I felt like I had some resources I could call on in creating a credible female character. Not that it made me any less anxious. Because, let’s face it, the last guy you want to be pegged as these days is The Guy Who Doesn’t Get Women. The world has too many of those already.
With one last “Don’t Be That Guy” I started writing. I created Melanie Barrick, a working mother who goes to pick up her baby from childcare one day, only to learn he’s been taken away by social services. . . and no one will tell her why.
The first scene went off like a rocket. Same with the next scene, when Melanie comes home to learn her house has been raided by the Sheriff’s Office.
By the next scene, a strange thing was already starting to happen: Melanie’s gender was more or less disappearing. As I wrote, I was more worried about: What does she want? What does she need? Who’s trying to stop her? What skills or personality trains does she bring to bear in overcoming those obstacles?
In other words, I was asking the same questions I had always asked when writing male characters. Other than one or two scenes where she felt a sense of physical danger because of her relatively small stature, gender was about the ninth most important factor motivating her actions. It reminded me of a bumper sticker a buddy of mine has: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
And, really, that’s all she was. Not a female protagonist but, rather, a protagonist who happened to be female.
By the end of the book, Melanie had already become one of my all-time favourite characters: a woman who was smart, resilient, and self-reliant. I absolutely loved writing her. And I hope you enjoy reading her just as much.
Just, whatever you do, please don’t refer to her as a strong female character.