Guest Post Blog – Fabulous and Brunette

Guest Post Blog – Fabulous and Brunette

Fierce Women: Empathy Vs. Pity

When I was a little girl, my favorite game was Make Believe – essentially a child’s version of role-playing.  A persuasive child, I was able to convince my playmates that there was a better choice than those on the usual Make Believe menu of doctors and nurses, cowboys and Indians, or mommy, daddy & me.  My better choice was a family drama that featured one prominent character: the troubled teenaged daughter. I don’t know how I became aware of this stereotype when I was so young, but assume that I encountered it in television or movies, and as an emergent histrionic personality, was drawn to the dramatic possibilities written into this type of family drama.

So is it a surprise that years later, I became a legendarily Troubled Teenager?  I think not. This speaks to the power of archetypes, whether they’re drawn from real life or from any of the media with which we’re constantly bombarded.  For those of us who are readers, the archetypes we absorb unknowingly can have a tremendous influence on our identities – including, and perhaps most particularly about what makes for an appealing woman. Many writers over many decades have recognized this and shaped female protagonists from Jo March (Little Women) to Nancy Drew, to Hermoine (Harry Potter) to help girls recognize strength and independence as desirable qualities for girls. But I wonder to what extent that kind of early indoctrination stands up to a steady and very different archetype that may subtly invade and pervade our adult reading?

My favorite genre is psychological suspense.  Of course there are some intrepid female protagonists that appear in contemporary works in that genre.  But in recent years, I’ve become concerned about the number of female protagonists who are weak and unreliable, either victimized by their remembered pasts, haunted by an inability to remember them, or paralyzed by their inability to trust their own perceptions.  Typically, these women turn towards men to somehow rescue them.  Typically, there are two attractive males in the cast, one of whom may in fact, be the Bad Guy.

Of course, I recognize the utility of this kind of scenario when drawing a portrait of an unreliable narrator, which is a staple of psychological fiction.  But when I wrote Emergence, I was determined to not pander to this convention when shaping the character of my lead female protagonist, Cass.  Instead, I embedded the potential for “unreliability” in her 13-year old alter-protagonist, Xavier.  Xavier is generally truthful.  But there are some things he doesn’t understand and thus can’t reveal, and others he chooses to keep to himself as “private”.  In any case, I have imbued him with qualities which cause readers to not completely trust him.

I shaped Cass as a character the reader can trust. She is independent, physically able, determined to triumph over her fears, and emotionally resilient. Which is not to say that she is flawless.  She is obsessive, vain, anxiety-prone, and craves approval.  But she is determined to earn that approval on her own merits.  She is married to Noah, an admirably supportive man, but she does not turn to him to rescue her.  Instead, her instinct is to “protect” Noah, by not revealing the full extent of the dangers she encounters throughout Emergence.  Noah is not present when Cass eventually faces the most dramatic events in Emergence, which are confronted only by Cass, her equally independent cousin, Lori, and her three dogs.

If I were to offer any advice to other writers trying to style strong female protagonists, it’s to always opt for empathy over pity.  Pity is the purview of the victim. If you want to create a fierce woman, you need readers to feel for your girl, but to never feel sorry for her.  That means you need to analyze any general pattern or specific incident you create, with an eye to whether it has the potential to induce pity from your readers.  Of course, it is much easier to tweak a specific incident, rather than the general pattern to which it contributes.  Which I guess means that as you write, you have to conduct an ongoing audit of the pity vs. empathy spectrum. For me, that ongoing audit was great fun.  I hope it is for you, too.

Read the full post, and see an exclusive excerpt from Emergence, on Ally’s blog.

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