More than ten years later, my tenth grade English teacher’s stern words still echo in my memory: “Charles Dickens just wasn’t good at writing women.”
Her harsh indictment of someone revered as one of the greatest writers of all time scared the crap out of me. If Dickens could bungle Madame Defarge’s characterization so colossally, what hope did I, a young aspiring novelist, have at ever escaping this kind of criticism?
I’m not immune to criticism, of course, but I’m much less petrified of it now than I was when I was fifteen.
Most of my protagonists have a lot in common with me. They’re all male, they’re all approximately my age, and they tend not to be overly macho. But I’m interested in branching out. I don’t want my work to be populated solely with nerdy straight white American males. There is so much variety in the world and while I think it’s important for me to keep my writing grounded by writing about what I know, at a certain point too much me becomes boring and exclusionary. I’ve written characters who were women, or gay, or not white (although I guess I need to work on the international thing, as I don’t recall any foreigners), but they’ve never been the central focus of the story. That’s why I was so excited when I was recently struck with some promising inspiration for a future story that would be centered on…wait for it…a woman.
My biggest concern with having a female protagonist is becoming guilty of implicit or accidental sexism. I generally write first-person narratives, but I’ve never been a woman. How do I narrate from the point of view of something I’ve never been? I’m worried that in my efforts to make my protagonist convincingly female, I may inadvertently exaggerate her attributes in ways that will make her seem like a caricature more than an actual person. One small section of my first book was narrated by my protagonist’s love interest and it was surprisingly difficult to make the writing a little more feminine without making it sound like I was trying too hard to sound feminine. I haven’t heard any complaints about that section being offensively girly or anything, so hopefully I was successful.
When I start working on this female-narrated project, I expect that I’ll simply need to make sure I have my protagonist’s characteristics carefully worked out beforehand. If I go in thinking, “crap, she’s a woman, I need to make sure she sounds womanish,” I’m doomed to failure. If I familiarize myself with her as a more complete character with plenty of traits and problems and motivations and habits that exist independently of her gender, I can go in thinking, “She’s Sarah, I need to make sure she sounds like Sarah.”
Except I really doubt her name will be Sarah.
If anything, this will be a fun challenge.