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Writing the Authentic Modern Woman (especially if you’re a man)

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This is one of those topics that’s sticky and tricky and I have to admit, I had my qualms about posting it. In the end, it seemed too important a topic NOT to post. Important in today’s climate and mostly, important to those of us who want to be the best fiction writers we can be. (I also thank Therese Walsh, who quietly nudged me to be brave.)

Recently, I worked on three different client manuscripts written by male writers. One of the writers in particular, showed very skillful writing. It was gripping, well-paced, and had interesting metaphors. In fact, I was happily reading along with few comments until about page eight when something happened in the narrative that made me realize—oh, crap, THIS CHARACTER IS A FEMALE. I scratched my head, trying to figure out what was missing. The character was a little rougher around the edges, an anti-princess if you will, which was great. I love a rough-and-tumble female character with a side of badass, so this wasn’t the problem. I started reading from the beginning again, looking for clues. How had I missed this?

And then it hit me, on my second read. This protagonist, in fact, all three protags from the client books I mention above, were missing the same thing. A fundamental piece of being a woman was absent.

The protagonists lacked both body and spatial awareness.

What does that even mean, spatial awareness? Being proud/ashamed of your body and/or your physical skills is certainly a part of spatial awareness, but it extends far beyond this. It’s something that is deeply programmed in our psyches, as women. A message that grows louder as we gain experiences, most of them negative, but some good, too.

And then there’s our relationship to men, and how it relates to this awareness.

It doesn’t matter the male’s size, shape, or ethnicity, his clothing or social status. A male’s age might matter some, but that’s about it. When confronted with men they do not know and in an exposed situation, most, if not all, women feel like a rabbit hopping through a field littered with foxes and coyotes and hawks and eagles. The predators may look different, but they ALL want to chase that rabbit. Rabbits are food for many species after all. Some rabbits are wily and escape, some are just plain fast and get away, and some have strong hind legs and kick the crap out of the predator to fend them off. None of these things change the simple fact that women are still rabbits. They are the prey.

Maybe this is a silly analogy. Certainly, there are wonderful people and horrible people out there, weak and strong, regardless of their sexual orientation, and great and weak writers regardless of their gender. There are also many wonderful men. This is not a male-bashing post, not at all. That’s not my point. Neither is my point that it’s always the men whose female characters lack this body and spatial awareness in their stories—though it’s much more common, and I’ve got a stack of edited manuscripts to prove it.

My point is about craft.

Do your characters reflect this body and spatial awareness? We writers need to take note of these concepts to create the most believable, effective, unforgettable characters we can, so let’s look at some tips to help with this.

Body Awareness

Spatial awareness

Even in my quaint, wooded little town, I keep my front door locked when my husband isn’t home, and I don’t answer the door when a male I don’t know rings the bell. When the lawn guys are around the neighborhood, I’m keenly aware of where they are and how close they are to the house. If I’m out at night or walking through a parking garage, I tend to find someone to walk with at a distance, or I have my phone at the ready and literally dart to my destination, walking as fast as I can without appearing like a total spazz.

Women are always at risk. We are extremely aware of who and what is around us and the minute we stop paying attention could not only be dangerous, it could be LIFE-THREATENING.  

I can’t emphasize this enough. Your female protagonist, therefore, will not walk through a dark parking lot without listening for footsteps or looking over her shoulder, or at least taking stock of the environment around her. If your female protagonist gets into a car with a strange man, or goes home with a strange man from a bar, etc, be careful how you depict her motivations. She must be very naïve or drunk or have a death wish because of pain in her past that has heavily damaged her self-worth to do such a thing. Or maybe she’s a cop or an assassin and knows she can take down anyone. There has to be a strong motivation that is valid, because we’re not buying it. Most women know they must watch their backs at all times.

Disclaimer Note:  I need to add in an important note here. Gender is an incredibly nuanced social and biological construct, and as society grapples with accepting all kinds of people (at last!), some of these “expectations” or “normalities” are shifting. Sure, men can feel like prey as well, in particular if they have been a victim of assault or trauma, but for men it isn’t a constant, and it’s less likely, whereas it never changes for women. Not ever.

Regardless of what gender our protagonist is, it’s our job as novelists to burrow deeply into our characters’ minds and hearts. A large part of this involves their view of the world and how they move through it, and not just as a reaction to what has happened to them in the past, but through their programming as males, females, transgender, or gender neutral. This a complex issue, but an important one to analyze and apply.

Time to talk. You may have a different opinion on writing authentic women. You may have seen other shortcomings, and have your own observations. I’d like to hear all of that, but please let’s take extra care to be respectful about how our opinions are conveyed. There are no villains here, only observations from this field called Life. Over to you.

About Heather Webb [1]

Heather Webb is the international bestselling and award-winning author of 6 historical novels set in France, including her latest Meet Me in Monaco and Ribbons of Scarlet. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was a Goodread’s Top Pick, and in 2018, Last Christmas in Paris won the Women's Fiction STAR Award. To date, Heather’s books have sold in over a dozen countries worldwide and received national starred reviews. As a freelance editor, Heather has helped over two dozen writers sign with agents, and go on to sell at market. When not writing, Heather feeds her cookbook addiction, geeks out on history and pop culture, and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world.