My book club’s last selection was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I admit, I’m a fiction addict, so whenever the club makes me read non-fiction, even biography, I feel initial resistance. But this book kept me hooked – and it’s one of the few books that everyone in the club enjoyed. If you haven’t read it, check it out and see if you agree.
And yet . . . Several of us in the club are authors. And we all said, “If I wrote a heroine like that, readers would say she’s too stupid to live, and they might heave the book against the wall.” But the heroine of Wild isn’t fictional, she’s very real. Real enough that her biography caused Oprah to re-start her book club.
In romance fiction, typically our heroines (and heroes) are flawed. They’re human; they’re not perfect. If they were perfect, they wouldn’t have any growing to do. For me, the point of romance fiction is that the heroine and hero, both flawed and vulnerable individuals even if they don’t want to admit that to themselves or the world, confront some of their fears and grow to be stronger people. It happens because they start falling for each other, and that brings up issues they need to confront if they’re to deserve and win love. We writers call it character arc.
It happens in women’s fiction too, where some person or incident in a woman’s life starts her on a journey of personal growth.
But in romance and women’s fiction, we have to be careful about just how flawed our characters are. Readers may lose sympathy, think the character is unrealistic, and say she’s just too stupid to live.
Well, how about a woman who deals with her mother’s death by sabotaging her wonderful marriage, sleeping around like crazy, and using heroin? That’s not exactly smart. It’s flawed. Pretty seriously flawed. If I put a heroine like that in a romance novel, would you want to read it?
Then, let’s say I have her decide that, even though she’s really never done much hiking or camping, I’ll have her tackle one of the world’s toughest hiking trails? Alone? And in preparation, she buys a whole lot of equipment, yet she never actually puts on her new hiking boots to see if they fit, much less break them in? She never even loads her gear into her brand new pack to see if it fits – or if she can lift the pack, much less carry it for ten miles a day?
Have you heaved my novel against the wall yet? My guess is, you may well have.
But all of that’s in Cheryl Strayed’s book. As a reader, I had to marvel at her dumb and even self-destructive behavior, yet I kept turning the pages. Why? Because she was real. She might have been kind of dumb, but she clearly wasn’t “too stupid to live” because there she was, a woman who’d survived the adventures and was writing about what she’d learned.
My aim is to create contemporary characters who come alive on the pages, who could very well be real. Human, flawed, vulnerable; people who are about to be launched into painful character growth.
And so I do have to wonder, why is it that readers are tougher on fictional heroines than they are on real live women who do stupid things?