Uncut Heroine

I spoke earlier about difficulties I was having dealing with writing about an African-American character in a pre-Emancipation environment. I was concerned about making him a compelling character (which in itself was not difficult at all) without inadvertently resorting to characterizations about him based on
stale stereotypes about Civil War-era slaves that we’ve seen a million times in the media. I feel that I have largely succeeded, creating a character that is true to my world and the events that shaped him, but that is not a rehash or caricature of all those old concepts.

My next challenge is even more difficult and concerns women and their roles in narratives. That sounds awful, doesn’t it? Well, hold off on the pitchforks and let me explain. The entire story I am wanting to tell will most definitely not be contained within a single book. To tell the story I’m wanting to tell, I’ll be lucky if I can get it into a half-dozen books. Conceptually, I am going to have two different story arcs occurring, featuring two different protagonists. They may intersect at a distant point, but their tales are going to remain largely separate. The story I am currently writing involves a young man in Britain, a navigator and future ship captain and his involvement in events occurring largely in Europe and the Near East. My second story will involve a female character -the equivalent of a 1800’s US Marshall- and her experiences in an America that had a radically different type of civil war.

So, here’s my problem. No, it’s not my second protagonist; she’s going to be easy. Main characters are easy to imbue strength and import into; they’re the main character after all. My problem is with the primary female protagonist in my current novel. She is just a supporting character, but a very important one, a plot-pivotal character. Still, the story does not revolve around her; she is not the focus of the story for 90% of it.

This is where I’m having difficulties. Making a strong, independent female character that is ultimately subordinated in the narrative to another character. That she is a romance interest only complicates this more. I just feel that popular media relegates women to secondary roles too often; it’s one of the reasons I chose a female hero for my other story arc. That being said, I feel very strongly about this character and her importance to my main narrative. She is a societal peer to my main character and a rebellious, ideological individual who is a sharp counterpoint to my main character’s general blind faith in the status quo. They are both idealists and the interplay between them is the contrast between a bitter kind of rationalism and a blind form of patriotism. She is the primary catalyst for my main character’s transition from the character he is at the start of the novel to the type of character he will be as the story continues. I just don’t want her to be only that, a shallow lever that when pulled changes my character.

Anita Sarkessian talks about a trend in popular media for this type of female character, called the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a term originally coined by Nathan Rabin. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl is described as “that bubbly, shallow [cinematic] creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” MPDGs enable the male character’s goals without actually furthering the female character’s own goals and in the end, neither character evolves. Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown and Zooey Deschanel (in most of her movies) are often cited as examples of this type of character.

On it’s face, this description is admittedly somewhat reductive and diminutive of women. Still, my concern is that I can also see the validity of the accusation being made here. These female characters seem to exist purely as a vehicle for the main character’s transition. They are like the mythological muses, appearing to provide inspiration but having no life of their own, and then they disappear once their job is done. I definitely want to avoid that.

I feel I am addressing this decently so far. She is completely independent of -indeed is in opposition to- my protagonist. But as their narratives begin to intertwine and she begins to influence him, I’m concerned she’ll fade into the background and that seems a shame for such a promising character.

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