One thing that I’ve realized as I’ve done more writing over the past several years, probably very obvious to others, is how fiction writing styles can vary as much as paintings. Some are abstract, stylized, bearing little resemblance to what we recognize as real life (though I would argue that the characters need to be recognizable to us for us as readers to engage with the novel), while on the other extreme are novels so realistic they resemble those paintings which we keep approaching, coming closer and closer until we can distinguish the brush strokes, so much do they resemble photographs.
I’m glad I see this now, because it helps me recognize and accept my own writing style. I’m NOT one of those hyper-realistic authors. I’m somewhere in the middle. I hope my characters speak to my readers, but I’m not strictly presenting “life,” and maybe I never will, and that’s probably okay, because I hope I’ll have readers out there who want to read my type of fiction, with the gloss I put on it.
This knowledge has also tweaked my experience as a reader. Case in point: I’ve just finished a book, by a very highly-regarded author, and it’s probably a book I should have put down partway through. And here’s why: I didn’t relate to his main female character. On the surface she seems well-rounded, but underneath? As I kept progressing from page to page, I tried to pinpoint what was “wrong.” It was sort of what she focused on, what she decided to tell, whom she did, and did not, associate with. And, ultimately, it was her fate. What rankled was the fact that this author’s name and “realism” have been coupled by book reviewers. Not that this is really his fault. And then I recalled a book I read earlier this year, by another literary giant, which left me feeling the same way, worse even. The female characters in both of these books seem to revel in being apologetic, focus a good deal on the sexual prowess of their men, are quite beautiful, and, ultimately, are dumped, duped, or (worse) absolved by their lovers. These are women I might recognize in bits and pieces, but these are not women I relate to in the end. Because I didn’t buy the characters, I didn’t end up caring much about the plots either. I started feeling that everything was rather cardboard, despite the admittedly lovely writing.
In no way do I want to imply this is my usual response to novels by men. Earlier this week I finished Canada by Richard Ford. He can make you believe that the individuals in his books could walk up and meet you at any time, male or female. He is a master of characterization and description. Truly a phenomenal writer. I will read anything he writes and bet I’ll never have a reaction such as the one I described above.
It all comes down to this, then. I write mainly for women, and I think this is probably good. Women will most likely identify with my male characters, because they’ll recognize the men. Men maybe not so much, because I’m not a man and I’m not Richard Ford. The difference is, I’m not going to pretend I know all about being a man and have portrayed him exactly, when in actuality he’s a veiled stereotype.
This also means I’ll be more astute when I choose books, or feel comfortable with the idea of not finishing something that doesn’t sit right with me. I now know there’s a (perhaps small) sub-genre of literary fiction that I want to stay away from, that will masquerade as something I’d want to read, but that will leave me disappointed and unengaged. The female characters in these books did not speak to me, are not truly meant for me. It was my mistake to believe they would be more than they turned out to be.
What an interesting post. I’m hoping your last sentence was ironic! If not: the lack was in the writing, not you.
Hello Isabel, thanks so much for your comment and glad you found the post interesting. You’re correct that there could be a trace of irony (!) in the last sentence. However, reading these books (which, granted, possess some of the more blatant examples of unrealistic female characters I’ve come across in a long time), made me question how I, as a woman, would know whether I had fully and accurately portrayed a male character. I may feel I had, but a man might see the results quite differently. Still, I hope I never fashion a male character that will insult men.
Jane Isaac said:
Hi Kristin. What an insightful post! I agree that I need to find characters believeable and deep in order to enjoy a novel, even if I don’t like them. I found your comment about writing for women interesting. I thought I wrote for women and have been flabbergasted by the amount of men who have read and seemingly enjoyed my book. I think you may be surprised! Keep up the good work. Jane x
Well hello there Jane, thanks for your lovely comment, and your encouraging words! I would be very pleased if men enjoyed my novels as well as women. What I guess I want to keep in mind is not assuming that just because a character looks “whole” to me it will look that way to everyone. The genders are quite different in substantial ways! I would venture to guess that the male writers I wrote about in the post believe their female characters are fully realized. And they would be wrong.
I totally agree! And it’s okay, I think. Books are a lot like food –not every kind is going to appeal to everyone (Um.. anchovies? Yuck). But that’s one of the wonderful things in life: variety.
As a writer, I write for myself and for readers who like to read what I read. I write the books that I would want to read myself. I know when writing that a LOT of people won’t like my work –but I’m not writing for them –I’m writing for people who read in my genre. Perhaps as a fantasy writer I am particularly aware of this.
I think if you realize what you like and try to create work in the genres you like, then that’s awesome. Write what you love and stay true to yourself!
Hi and thanks for the lovely comment, Erin. You’re right that as writers we certainly can’t be all things to all people. We all have our own voices, after all (I’ve finally begun to recognize mine after several years!). And congratulations on winning NaNo this year – way to go!