We all know those women, the kind who live amazing lives, take startling risks and break ground … in small ways. I’m not talking about Dian Fossey with her gorilla friends, or Amelia Earhart with her charts, I’m talking about your mother, grandmother, aunts or nieces. I’m talking about women in our own lives who daily, quietly, pave the way for the future and manage to keep body, soul and family together while doing it – the heroine next door who unfailingly serves Thanksgiving dinner at the shelter every year, and the lady in accounting who works long hours and organizes the Special Olympic fundraising events.
The more real these women are, the more intriguing their stories. I once knew a mother of two who taught the fifth grade English by day, and was a stripper/bartender under another name at night. She did it because her husband became seriously disabled and she was determined not to lose their house. In my eyes, she was a heroine, no different than the frontier woman who helped their men carve a life out of the wilderness. I also knew an elderly woman who lived so simply, all I really recall about her was the blue tint of her hair, her shabby little house with sparkling clean windows … and the massive endowment she left to the Humane Society after she passed away.
Oh the amazing women I’ve known! Women who shifted their whole lives for deep rooted spirituality, women who turned their families upside down for love of the wrong man, woman who stepped apart from convention to follow their own drummer. Brave women. Giving women. Secretive woman. The kind of women whose real lives are so remarkable in so many ways, it feels like fiction. These are the main and supporting characters in really good Contemporary Fiction, exquisite Women’s Fiction and dynamic Fictionalized Memoir. These are the kind of characters I look for in a submission to Panoptic Books, and when I don’t see it, feel it or taste it in the writing, I wonder if the author has really stepped back to take a look at the women around them.
Sometimes we think that being female makes writing great women easier. Being a woman and trying to write a wonderful female character can actually be a detriment, because a major element of being a woman is becoming part survivor/part explorer. It’s a rather self focused existence at times. Did I give the kids’ lunch money? Did I thaw the chicken for dinner? Am I wearing the same sweater I wore yesterday? How can I get to work faster? Should I go back to school for my master’s degree? Did I collect enough canned goods for the Food Bank? The most unfortunate part of all this is, by being part survivor/part explorer, we forget to notice that it’s all heroic. To us, it’s normal. Some of the most powerful female characters I’ve read were actually written by men – the kind of men who didn’t imagine what a strong woman was like, they observed the strong women around them. It’s never stated in the writing, it’s all in the color and depth of the characters they create.
Men or women, whoever writes a powerful woman character into a great piece of fiction is a true witness of life’s crimes and triumphs. Like anything else in fiction, no matter how fantastical the surroundings or how dynamic the plot, strong characters come from real life.
I invite you to take a good long look at your mother, your aunts, and your daughters. It’s not a fictional curiosity that great women are developing and buzzing all around us, it’s a fictional curiosity when a writer doesn’t notice or use the rich wealth of research sitting at their side. Like a great cookie recipe, there’s always a secret ingredient.