John Barlow is the author of Hope Road, the debut book in his new LS9 Crime series. John dropped by the virtual offices to discuss the challenges of writing convincing women characters. Check out what he has to say. If you are interested in learning more about Hope Road, send John an email. He has some copies to give away! Read his thought-provoking post for details.
Writing Compelling Women Characters by John Barlow, author of HOPE ROAD
I’m not a woman. In fact, I’m the complete opposite of that. And we all know what the the problem with men is… We’re not empathizers. Having never been to Venus, we’re just no good at standing outside ourselves and feeling what it’s like to be someone else. For an author, this leads to certain issues with characterisation. They say ‘write what you know’, but for any writer roughly 50% of his or her characters are going to be of the sex he or she doesn’t ‘know’ from the inside. And it’s worse for men, because we just don’t have that empathy thing going on.
Writing about women has never caused me any problems before. Having said that, perhaps the most ‘feminine’ scene in my first book, EATING MAMMALS, was the incompetent fumblings of two young lovers having their first sexual encounter, circa 1870. The problem for me as a writer was not getting into the young girl’s mind, but getting into her clothes. Quite simply, the Victorians wore a lot more layers down there, and they had buttons not zippers. By the end of the scene I felt sorry for both of them. I think we were all glad when it was over, somewhat prematurely.
Bad or unconvincing female characters: a recurring criticism of fiction written by men. And it’s a serious problem, because women buy and read well over half of all fiction sold. When I came to write HOPE ROAD, my new mystery, these issues were compounded by the genre itself: unless your detective or sleuth is a woman, crime mysteries often involve a man solving the murder of a woman. The power relationship is clear, and although many writers tamper with the formula, it’s amazing how often contemporary crime fiction opens with a murdered woman.
And my novel? Yep, it opens with a murdered woman. For a variety of reasons, this was the only way the plot would work. Meanwhile, my sleuth is a man. And that had to be the case because, well, because I’m a man. ‘Write about what you know.’ I know about being a man, so my lead character was going to be masculine. However, HOPE ROAD is a psychological mystery. It tries to explore the human consequences of criminality. Hence, I really wanted to see a woman experiencing these consequences as well as a man. What I came up with was a dynamic that would let me set a romantic relationship against the backdrop of a crime. So, my sleuth is the son of a career criminal who gets mixed up in a murder investigation, and his girlfriend is a young police detective.
Sound promising? I thought so. As I began to write, my main male character came along well, and I started to enjoy writing about him. But his girlfriend? Because the situation in which she found herself was one of emotional and professional conflict, I needed to work out how she might respond to all this shit. To begin with I just didn’t know. I ended up re-writing most of her scenes several times, re-jigging the plot to incorporate the consequences of her decisions, and generally making her emotions more and more pivotal to the story. I ended up pacing up and down, acting out her lines, trying to think like a woman, trying to strike that balance between strength and vulnerability, between someone who is tough but not hardened.
Did it work? This is where you come in. I’d really like to know what you think. I’ve got ten ebooks to give away (any format), and the only condition is that you let me know what you think of the female lead character in the book. Email me for your free copy (see website for contact details). Ladies only, please.
John Barlow was born in Leeds, England in 1967. He studied English Literature at Cambridge University and worked as a university teacher before becoming a full-time writer in 2004. His work has been published by HarperCollins, Farrar, Straus & Giroux and 4th Estate, and has been translated into six languages.
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