Creating Strong Female Characters
The old rule of thumb is that you should have your females talking about something other than men. I’ve never had a problem with this; if anything, it’s been hard to make them talk about men at all. I enjoy writing strong women. Many of the main characters in my books have been like June Cryer, the hero of ‘Plastic’, who goes from downtrodden housewife to vigilante – they’re easier to take on a journey than men, who tend to be a bit intransigent.
Dickens was the master of strong female characters who didn’t talk about men (for which reason I’m temporarily discounting books like ‘Sense & Sensibility’ and the husband-hunting genre) , but in the present day as most crime novels are bought by women you’d think there would be more in crime literature, or that they would be demanded.
I faced a six-year struggle getting ‘Plastic’ published, and then it appeared to an almost total lack of reviews. Part of this was my determination to go with a good independent publisher rather than one of the Big Five. I’m doing it again with ‘Nyctophobia’, a haunted house novel with a strong female protagonist. Considering the female dominance of the book market, it’s shocking how few female reviewers there are. You simply don’t get through the critical selection process.
When I sold the film rights to ‘Roofworld’, the producers tried to turn my lead character from a black female to a white male – they were quite open about it. ‘She won’t help sell the book’. I stuck to my guns and Rose remained a West Indian female.
A good example of writing a tough female role is to do what Billy Wilder did when having the lead character of ‘His Girl Friday’ changed from male to female. Ben Hecht hardly changed the dialogue at all, resulting in Rosalind Russell’s extraordinary performance as the go-getting reporter Hildy Johnson. He even left the name.
I often write a character as a male then change halfway through, but it’s easier for me because I don’t write books that explore male/female relationships – they are enough of those about already.The problem is that male writers obsess about female looks – WS Gilbert notoriously wrote ‘She may very well pass for 43 in the dusk with the light behind her.’ Many simply give up and don’t include women at all other than set-dressing.
And yet the best fun to be had is in creating scenes for two women. I loved writing the scene where Lou and June get drunk in ‘Plastic’ because it felt very real to me (having sat in on too many evenings when friends have done it).
One problem for female visibility has arisen in films. In the past we had Kathleen Turner and Angelina Jolie leading the way as strong, mature women. ‘You’re not too smart, are you?’ said Turner in Body Heat. ‘I like that in a man.’ There was always something slightly crazy and dangerous about Turner.
Why has there never been a female James Bond? (‘Modesty Blaize flopped.) The argument against a female Dr Who – that she would remind boys of their mothers – is spurious at best. Now that so many films are geared around teen franchises, we’re stuck with Kristen Stewart and other pouty teens. Apart from Jennifer Lawrence, who looks as if she can play any age, where are the strong women?