Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Thorny, fearless, well-dressed" — and she kicks butt.

We all know how memorable an OTT character like Hannibal Lector is. But OTT female characters can be equally memorable.

Before there was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Lisbeth Salander, there was Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, the heroine of a novel called Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg.  Smilla is part Inuit and lives in Copenhagen.  

According to the flap copy of the FSG edition, "she is thirty-seven, single,  childless, moody, and she refuses to fit in."  She is complex, thorny, obstinate, blunt, fearless, she loves clothes and, when required, she can—and does—kick ass.  Like Lisbeth who's a talented computer jock, Smilla has her tech side and sees the beauty in mathematics.

Thinking about Lisbeth and Smilla, I began to realize that the unconventional female character, like Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, appears in fiction again and again in different guises. 
  • Clarice Starling, the FBI agent in Silence of the Lambs (played by Jodie Foster in the film), must face her fears—and Hannibal Lector—to solve the identity of a serial killer but she has no personal life that we know of.  She's a nun, FBI-style, and she doesn’t give up until the case is solved.
  • Jane Tennison, the DI in television’s Prime Suspect, played by Hellen Mirren, is a “woman of a certain age” as they say in France. Her love life is on the gritty side, she drinks too much, she can be flinty—not flirtatious. The men she works with give her a hard time and she isn’t shy about pushing back.
  • Cable television, always quite willing to break molds, has come up with Carrie Mathison, the bi-polar CIA agent in Homeland, who has sex with the suspected terrorist. Carrie is also “single,  childless, moody, and she refuses to fit in.”
  • The young CIA officer, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, is tough-minded, focused and willing to contradict senior officers in her quest to find the al Qaeda terrorist, Osama bin Laden.
  • Nurse Ratched, in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Wikipedia describes her like this: “the ward is run by steely, unyielding Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who employs subtle humiliation, unpleasant medical treatments and a mind-numbing daily routine to suppress the patients.”
  • And while we’re in the medical dept: Annie Wilkes, a former nurse, cuts off her favorite writer’s foot with an axe and cauterizes the wound with a blowtorch. Played by  Cathy Bates in the movie, Annie is the unforgettable, unconventional woman in Stephen King’s bestseller, Misery.
  • Sigourney Weaver as Riley, the warrant officer in Alien, is courageous, authoritative and has no personal life that we know of. She’s a sci-fi heroine who must rely on her own guts, brains and fearlessness.
  • Mrs. Danvers, the creepy housekeeper with no first name in Rebecca, is dedicated to her dead employer, the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter. She is intimidating, manipulative and willing to drive the second Mrs. DeWinter to suicide.
  • Glenn Close, the murderous seductress in Fatal Attraction lives alone, has no family that we are aware of and is psychopathically determined to get what she wants.
  • Judi Dench as M is the head of MI6. She is blunt, unmarried as far as we know although in one scene it is clear she is sleeping with a male companion. She is James Bond’s boss and does not flinch from bossing him around and dressing him down for his recklessness.  
So what do these women have to do with you? What does the tough, determined, bossy, or downright crazy woman have to offer?

  • The “difficult” female character can—and will—do the shocking, the unexpected and, as a consequence, will give your story an immediate jolt of energy. She is the character who doesn’t fit the mold. She is the boss (M), the beginner (Clarice Starling), the domestic employee (Mrs. Danvers).
  • The “difficult” female character will live in the “wrong” neighborhood, drink too much, have sex with the “wrong” partners—all good ways to add sizzle and wow! plot twists.
  • She will not take her niece or nephew to Disney World but to a stock car race one day, to the ballet the next and teach him or her how to run a bulldozer, how to roast the perfect chicken and how to rob a bank. 
  • She will most likely not be a secretary or a dress designer but a (believable) nuclear physicist,  petroleum engineer or cat burglar. If she is a secretary or dress designer, it’s because she’s got a dramatic secret that will give your fiction a buzz.
  • She will never do the expected or the conventional: she will not give up a career or a promotion for Mr. Right. She will not fall madly in love, swoon into someone’s arms and make irrational choices although she might be an excellent and loyal lover. She can be stubborn, pathological, repellent but she can—and will— rescue you from the plot blahs and help you break through a block.

I know this because a holy terror named Chessie Tillman bailed me out of a dead end in Brainwashed, a thriller that takes place in the bleak, paranoid 1970’s of Watergate and Vietnam War. Because the book is a political thriller, I needed a politician and I had one. I thought. Except he was way too realistic, so stupefyingly boring he brought the plot, the book—and me—to a dead halt.

I fretted and stewed. Bitched and complained. I was blocked and couldn’t figure out what happened next or who did what to whom. Color me miserable.  Then, popping out unexpectedly from the murk of my despair and desperation, along came Chessie:

“Senator Chessie Tillman’s parents wanted a boy. What they got was her. She was short, dumpy, and dressed like a rag picker. She smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, swore like a sailor. She had been married three times, each husband richer and more handsome than the one before.
“A roof-rattling orator and take-no-prisoners arm-twister, Chessie Tillman had mowed down men twice her size. In a series of headline-making speeches, she expressed the nation’s disgust with the sleazy goings-on of the Watergate scandal. In Senate hearings she faced down the beribboned generals who were bullshitting the public about the alleged “progress” being made in the high-body-count, vastly expensive, and increasingly pointless war in Vietnam.
“She was blunt, fearless, and had a big mouth. When something bothered her, she didn’t give up and she didn’t give in. America had never seen a politician like her. Right now, sitting behind the desk in her shambles of an office in the Senate office building, she had a new bug up her ass.”

I hadn’t realized until then the power of the OTT female character. Lesson learned: When in deep writing doo-doo, she can—and will—come to your rescue.

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  1. When it comes to show-stealing female characters your reference to Judy Dench in the Bond movies (the next one has already lost its charm now they've killed off the Judy Dench M) brought to mind the most famous Bond girl of all, Lotte Lenya, as Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love.

    Though Ian Fleming never came up with a line as good as "she had a new bug up her ass.”

    1. D'accord! Why oh why did they kill off Judy/M? They better come up with a ferocious new female characters or I'm done with JB movies.

      Rosa Klebb is a fabulous, fantastic, perfect name—an example of how even a character's name can add power to a story.

      Thanks for the compliment re: "she had a new bug up her ass.” I wrote those paragraphs as fast I could type. Came straight from my subconscious to the keyboard, no thinking required.

      BUT, the break thru came only after several miserable, frustrating days of trying (and failing) to "fix" the male Senator or come up with some other solution to the problem. The real work obviously went on in a mental area beneath my consciousness, something I need to remember and keep forgetting!

  2. Yep, thinking time is an essential part of the creative process.

    When I read about writers who run off a finished novel at one sitting (or as close as) I just know it's going to be formulaic drivel that requires no more thought to read than it did to write. Something to do after a pre-frontal lobotomy, perhaps.

    But we don't need books for that. That's what television was invented for.

    1. LOL Now there's a great quote: "The perfect book to read after a pre-frontal lobotomy!"

      NetworkTV sucks but Cable is where the action is now. Even more than the movies because the good writers are there and given the freedom to do quality creative work.

  3. I love it when a character stomps in and hijacks/rescues a book the way Chessie did for you. Mark is right that when you're dashing off one of those pulp novellas that everybody's telling us to write, you can't let that kind of serendipity and creativity get in the way of your need to adhere to formula.

    Let's hear it for the "difficult" character. They're the ones the reader will remember.

  4. The thing is, some pulp books are actually good because the speed with which they're written frees lots of writers. Sometimes not thinking can be a big plus! I certainly didn't "think" about creating Chessie; she was the unintended by-product of my frustration.

    I do love the "difficult" character! In fiction, tho. IRL? Not so much.