Creating a Stand-Up Female Character

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Man-woman-PonyJPGMy wife holds a serious measuring stick against female characters created for stories. She’s an avid reader and voracious about her television mysteries, too. Her women have to be smart, plucky, generous, and have a heart ready for love. Those are all good attributes for women who appear in stories. The challenge is creating women who can be good as well as bad in a story, even while they’re heroines or protagonists.

Whatever the name of the character, I like it when their middle name is danger.

I’m working on a historical novel (Monsignor Dad), and my female protagonist is living through the turn of the century more than 100 years ago. This wasn’t a generous time for women, and it was a lot easier for them to live compliant lives, with men in charge. While that happened most of the time, there were exceptions. A sharp, daring, and headstrong woman in 1897 would be a lot more interesting to create and to read about in a book.

So, while building any character, you look for the fears and desires under the surface of their life. With so much withheld from women in the Progressive Era of history, there’s so much to yearn for, so much that’s out of my character Anna’s reach. Education in a formal setting. Control of her finances. Training for better work. Even the ability to choose her own partner in love. Creation, love, safety, the knowledge that leads to wisdom: they’re all fundamentals of a better life. Things to reach for.

So a good female character should be striving, and that striving will get her into trouble. So far, all of this applies to male characters as well, except the part where these things are withheld from them. The only thing that’s withheld from men of the Progressive Era is an easy way to express love, unless the character is a poet or an actor. Anna has better access to the expression of love. She will take chances and make mistakes trying to get all of those other things, and probably over-play her hand in the matter of love in her life.

There’s always injustice to correct, and in the era where I’m writing there’s more injustice for women to push through. Anna will also be bad, do something forbidden and do it often, all in pursuit of those fundamentals. Creating a female character who’s stand-up, rising up to her full height through taking action and agency in her life, is so much better than painting the tired picture of vamp, tramp, or bookish wallflower. This agency and action is exactly the same thing that a male character would want from his creator. And as it turns out, the desire for women to have the same things as men is a major part of the story of Monsignor Dad.

Gathering Research

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I’ve seen writers swear that research can ruin a book. Not true of historical fiction, and I’m amid the pleasure of researching the Progressive Era for my forthcoming novel Monsignor Dad.

My story takes place in Michigan and Ohio of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, so I’m in luck. There’s great documents and resources for the period. This is an era where moving pictures were taking the world’s forefront of storytelling. But the best facts and cultural color from the period is in the writing. 5,000-word articles were commonplace in periodicals of the day like McClure’s, where many a muckraking article emerged.

I have a personal connection to some of the events of Monsignor Dad. In a way I’m working on filling in characters from that period, ones who are only legend in my family. But I’m not allowing those family facts to stand in the way of a good story. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for knowing that Vicks VapoRub emerged in drugstores, or that railroads had become the dominant transportation vehicle because there were thousands scattered across Progressive America. Which leads to the trust-busting of the era led by Teddy Roosevelt and others. So there’s Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new The Bully Pulpit biography for me to enjoy. It’s a 914-page book. Something bigger than The Thorn Birds, which has passages that will tell you quite a bit about the life of a former parish priest.

Historical fiction writers, I am learning, lean on facts the way that journalists do: as needed to tell a story with authentic detail. But they’re not locked in to specifics like I was as a Central Texas reporter in the 1980s. We had a standing fine in the newsroom of the Georgetown paper in the county seat: 25 cents for misspelling a proper name. Or needing to gather a middle initial in any story about an arrest. A journalism degree has been deprecated a great deal since mine of 1981. But the fundamentals of research serve me in my work creating Monsignor Dad.