I finished rereading Prince of Darkness last night. I really loved the work of Barbara Michaels, even if some of it is now really dated. She made the books very much of their time–Prince of Darkness was written during the 1960’s, so there is very subtle exploration of racism and classism, as well as the student movement of the time–but they still hold up after all this time; which was why Dr. Barbara Mertz, who wrote as both Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters, was such a great writer.
We’ve also been watching the TV series Turn, about Revolutionary War spies, which is apparently based on the nonfiction book Washington’s Spies. It, too, is very well done–in our modern day, which has deified the Revolution and all those involved, turning them all into plaster saints, we have forgotten that they were all just people, who made mistakes, had all the foibles and follies of any of us. I’ve always loved history, and I am very pleased with how accurate to history this show is.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about character; partly because I did teach the character workshop at SinC Into Great Writing last week, and I’ve done a lot of character workshops over the years. There has also been a lot of talk about the unlikable female protagonist over the last few years, beginning around the time of Gillian Flynn’s monster hit Gone Girl and working its way through The Girl on the Train and any number of other books with female main characters. There seems to be a thirst out there for these types of book (any number of people, I’ve seen, have complained about the Girl books; God save us from any more books with ‘girl’ in the title). I suppose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is credited with started The Girl trend–I am not a genre critic/journalist–but it was written by a man; Gone Girl was written by a woman, and that’s why I credit it with starting the trend (technically, Laura Lippman’s The Girl in the Green Raincoat was the first, I suppose–you see what happens when you start splitting the hair?).
The unreliable narrator is not new, nor is the concept of the female unreliable narrator new; Margaret Millar’s Beast in View did a great job with this back in the 1950’s, for example. It is a trend, nothing more; as soon as the bookstores are glutted with books with unreliable female POV’s something else will sell a gazillion copies and the market will be flooded with similar books to it (The DaVinci Code, after all, spawned a million imitators and also the Templar craze). I asked the question, awhile back, ‘is unlikable a code word for complex?’ And that is something I’ve been pondering ever since; why are complex women characters so easily dismissed as unlikable or as a bitch?
The arch-type of the bitch has long been a staple of melodrama; what would soap operas have done without the lying, manipulative seductresses who basically drove the plots of the shows? Try to imagine All My Children without Erica Kane, One Life to Live without Dorian, Dynasty without Alexis. The characters became enormously popular (the addition of Alexis to the cast of Dynasty took the show from middling ratings on the edge of cancellation to a Top 5 show for almost the entirety of its run), and often their popularity was explained away by ‘they say and do things that people wish they could; they provide some sort of wish fulfillment for the audience.’ I don’t necessarily think that’s true, and the popularity of these ‘unlikable’ women protagonists in crime novels proves me right. I’ve always felt that the ‘bitches’ were popular not only because they were fun to watch, but because they didn’t take any crap from anyone and also because they were vulnerable: Erica Kane just wanted to be loved, but was so used to not getting what she wanted that she often defeated herself because she was used to driving people away; the more husbands/lovers she lost, the more she solidified that persona of independence and strength which made it all the more difficult for her to allow anyone to see her vulnerability and therefore completely trust/give herself to anyone. If the character hadn’t been written and played that way, she would have just been another two-dimensional bitch that the audience would have tired of after a few years and she would have been written out of the show, sent away or killed off.
The best piece of writing advice (well, one of them, at any rate) I got when I was unpublished dealt with a horror short story I wrote called “Fellow Traveler” (it’s never been published, although “A Streetcar Named Death” owes a huge debt to that story), which I’d submitted to a horror magazine whose name I no longer recall. The female protagonist was unlikable; I wrote the story so that the reader would be happy when she got her comeuppance at the end. The note I got back from the editor with the rejection was, very simply, even Hitler loved his dogs. That was, simple as it was, incredibly great feedback; I cannot even begin to tell you how many times over the years I’ve passed that advice along to new writers I am either mentoring or editing. It has also evolved into the villain doesn’t think he/she is the villain.
In other words, your ‘bad characters’ have to be just as three dimensional as your ‘good characters.’ Why is Erica a bitch? What does Alexis really want?
They can’t be bad, and do bad things, simply because you need them to for the sake of the story.
When I was writing Sleeping Angel (spoiler!) I wanted to get inside the head of a bully. It would be incredibly easy to simply write the bully character as an asshole. But I wanted to know, and share with the reader, why this character was a homophobic bully. Bullying was integral to the plot of Sleeping Angel (I do think the book still has some flaws, despite its rave reviews and the awards it won), but it wouldn’t have worked as well as it did had the reader not really understood the bully, if that makes sense.
Okay, back to the spice mines with me.