by Savannah J. Foley
One of my articles on Sassiness not indicating a strong character got a great response, and provoked a lot of thought about trends, gender roles, and tropes. The discussion reminded me of the topic I’d like to talk about today.
At the time I was writing that article, I was also writing the part in my Sleeping Beauty retelling where the character describes how she looks (or in this case sees herself for the first time after waking up with no memory of her former life). Here’s what she said about her body:
I discovered I had solid limbs with muscles lying dormant beneath slightly freckled skin. My breasts were small but not completely flat, my belly pooched out slightly, and I had what I felt were very masculine feet, but then again there was nothing to compare them to.
Let’s recap: thick limbs, imperfect skin, small breasts, tummy, masculine feet. And this character is still going to kick ass and be beautiful because of who she is.
Not because I’m a feminist or an equalist, but because I’m a stubborn, irreverent contrarian, and I think you should be, too.
When I write, I want to show you characters that are as real as I can make them. That means they don’t look like book cover models (okay, Nameless is an exception because all the men are pretty, but that’s because they’re biologically engineered that way so it doesn’t count). They’ve got stretchmarks and acne, and they hate their noses. They get greasy hair and they stink sometimes. In a genre filled with descriptions of ‘icy blue ‘or ‘startling green’ eyes, I give most of my characters brown eyes. And they’re still, I hope, people you want to be because of what they have inside.
But like I said, that’s not because I’m on some moral high horse. I just happen to have that annoying condition (I can’t help it!) where I dislike what everyone else likes simply because everyone else likes it.
When I was in elementary school, I refused to talk to my friends on the phone because that’s what girls my age were expected to do. I wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt to school EVERY DAY because I was expected to wear cute clothes and jewelry.
When we had to write screenplays in Drama class and the teacher told us they had to start with ‘once upon a time,’ I asked if my story could start, ‘a time upon a once.’ Just, because, you know… I’m a contrarian. *facepalm*
Not always and not on all issues, but a lot of the times I am, and nowhere is this more obvious than in my writing.
Physical characteristics aside, I have a tendency to write YA characters who have a lot of responsibility or maturity for their age, which has created some problems for me. I’ve had to rewrite characters to make them ‘sound younger’, and change plots so that they face more ‘teen-like problems.’ I don’t quite know what to make of this. On one hand, I know that I was always way more adult-thinking than was normal for my age group, but surely I’m not the only one. Where are the readers who want to read about teens with immense leadership responsibilities and making long-term life decisions? Surely there’s a market for that, right?
Pretty much my worst fear is getting a review on one of my books where the reviewer says the characters are either stereotypical or too perfect to be real. There’s a lot of pressure in the industry to write a book that will appeal to a lot of teen readers, but the truth is that in real life individual personalities don’t appeal to everyone.
So how do we balance that?
I’m not blinded by my contrarianism. I understand that you can’t have a germaphobic agoraphobe go on this epic adventure and have it be realistic, no matter how brilliant the character’s creation is. Instead, I fit my desire for ‘real characters’ in the details of characters who have the type of personality that can carry the plot.
For example, on the side I’m currently working on a YA story about a girl trying to escape her high school during the zombie apocalypse. To propel the plot, I needed a girl who could be brave and resourceful, and who is motivated to escape not only out of a sense of self-preservation, but also through the desire to rescue her little brother.
Here’s a typical character who could fit that role (and who I think we see a lot of these days): pretty, athletic, semi-popular (she has a BF and a BFF at least), middle-class, white.
But here’s who cropped up: Milani, a half-Hawaiian, half-white, culturally displaced teen who hates tourists, coping with the potential death of her parents and living in a foster home in Texas after Hawaii collapsed under the zombie infection.
Milani is filled with guilt, hate, confusion, and love, and I find her infinitely more fascinating than Mary Sue, the midwest soccer player.
This blog has talked a lot about Mary Sues. Susan (whose main character in SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY displays some contrarianism herself) did an article about self-indulgent fantasy, and Biljana did one about how Mary Sues are good (in the beginning).
Today I guess the point of this article is just to ask that we all have a little more contrarianism while writing. The world does not need another book about a girl who doesn’t realize she’s pretty until everyone starts telling her so. We don’t need someone who is ‘special’ or has some hidden talent that makes them Important.
Who is more interesting: the girl who was born with a special power that transforms her into being totally kickass over the course of a chapter, or the girl that has to struggle and fight her way to the top in order to achieve that same level of kickassness? Who is going to be the most realistic role model for teens today?
I think we need more real characters, characters that people can relate to through their flaws. Today I encourage you to add detail to your characters that make them more unique, more flawed, and more realistic as human beings. Seek out alternatives, and find the individuality in your characters.
Provided it doesn’t interfere with your plot, of course. (That’s a whole other article about self-indulgence).
When have you been exhibited contrarianism in your writing?
Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Nameless (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Her website and blog is at www.savannahjfoley.com. She is currently working with her agent to sell a sleeping beauty retelling about a girl who wakes up after a hundred years with no memory of her former life. You can read excerpts from her stories here.