You know her. She’s slender and gangly, with flyaway hair that refuses to be tamed, and large, staring eyes. She’s a little shy, with a cute nervous tic; she picks her nails and bites her lip. Her best friend is gorgeous, kind, confident and accomplished, but always overlooked, somehow, in favour of her mousier allure. Her first impression is arresting in the quietest way – it’s not the subtlety of her best qualities so much as a non-existent charm you are forced to notice. She’s not traditionally good looking. It’s just that, no matter how you describe her, she winds up sounding pretty gorgeous (must be all that inner beauty).
You do know her, don’t you? Or someone rather like her?
Oh, sorry, I forgot this woman doesn’t exist.
I found her in the ‘beach reads’ section. I love ‘beach reads’. I’m attracted by the promise of interior design porn and endless descriptions of soft fabric (I try to abstain, but all those adjectives are a great way to relax). I only wish I got along better with our Standard Female Character. She’s charmingly haphazard, charmingly disorganised and charmingly running her quaint start-up business with the vaguest understanding of economics and some practical skills that include being nervous, fluttering and writing a screenplay, probably.
I love Bridget Jones as much as the next person, but damnit Bridget if you didn’t screw us all over when you went off with Mark Darcy. A million Clumsy Female Characters filled the Bridget-shaped gap in our lives, riding on the coattails of her genuine, graceless charisma. They were desperate not to intimidate their readership, keen to relate to us, so they chose never to display any sort of skill or ability to function. As we all know, women who read are a crazy, jealous band of bitches, and as soon as we see or hear of another vagina-wielding person-beast experiencing success (even fictional success), we have to hunt her down, shave her head and tear out her ovaries in our envious rage. A Woman-Human may only succeed with our support if we can watch her blossom from lopsided duckling with no social skills into a magnificent, dependent Mrs Swan. This is, apparently, what rings true to us. We love to be endlessly told of the incompetence of our gender, because that doesn’t happen enough already.
Well I always thought writing started with observation. I think of the variety of women in my life and I see capability, first and foremost. They have their foibles, like all people, but whether they’re nervous about asking for directions, terrible at cooking, rude and abrasive, or they text their boyfriends every time they pee, the common trait is still pretty much always an ability to tie their own shoelaces, then stride into the unknown.
I feel, judging from my shameless perusal of all the romantic fiction I can get my hands on for cheaps, that this is a quality about 97% of heroines lack. Clumsiness and ‘cute’ ineptitude are not substitutes for a personality.
Of course we don’t want to read about perfection; none of us can identify with it. But my gosh, if the standard of basic human ability isn’t low in Female Characters right now, I don’t know what is. I have a friend who’s working as a translator in Paris. A few months ago she crapped herself in the middle of Rome, one hot afternoon due to food poisoning. Another friend, who travels the world perfecting the art of living, recently got a tampon lodged so far up her Lady Jane, having forgotten about it and engaged in hanky panky, that she had to go to her (religious, celibate) doctor and have it pulled out with forceps. This is the tip of an iceberg of shame. Yet these women are human, thus they do what humans do: balance out socially unacceptable behaviour with the simple science of existing as an otherwise functional person. They hold down jobs; they nurture loving relationships; they don’t let their evident lack of control over their bodily functions hold them back.
Women are so much more unpredictable (and disgusting) than their Female Character counterparts. So why do we get these ladies-lite: women for whom ultimate humiliation is slipping in a puddle in front of their crush, and success is invariably working from home and nabbing a boyfriend? Don’t write me a character whose lack of conventional beauty is a key feature, then tell me she’s slender, big-eyed and pouty with a mane of long hair. It’s a pretty cruel way of writing unattractive women out of the story. God forbid anyone should think that a woman’s value isn’t in the way she looks!
I read a great (trash) novel that I got free on Amazon about a middle aged lady with a rubbish ex-husband who has a sexy love-affair, propels her career forward and generally exudes vim, vigour and any other qualities you might want in someone you’re reading about. In my experience, fictional ladies in the 40+ age category tend to be all about the gumption. Ladies in the 20 – 35 bracket, not so much. Only when we’ve established that Mr Right wasn’t all that, by means of the divorce/separation that sparks off basically every 40+ novel, are we free to focus on our careers, our interests, ourselves.
It takes 300 pages to nab a man who, in Volume II, lets us all down dramatically for a younger model. I’m beginning to wonder if these cardboard cut-out men are worth the reading time (spoiler alert: they’re not). If Female Characters are cartoonish, Hot Male Leads are a disaster, but that’s another article for another time. For now, I’ll just say this: I don’t think anyone benefits from the ‘if you love someone, CHANGE THEM’ trope. Especially not Society At Large.
So here we are, in the holiday reading section of the bookshop, and we’re surrounded by women who can’t dress themselves without becoming hopelessly entangled in their own clothes, and the men who obligingly choose them. Such a narrow range of stories are told; you can join the woman-club if you’re hot, neurotic and middle class. We’ll pair you up with a boring suit who wears a man. No wonder romantic fiction has a bad reputation. No wonder you get men railing about feeling pressure to pay for dates, when they see bookshops inundated with ‘shopping and sex’ books. No bloody wonder heaps of fantastic female writers aren’t taken seriously when the market’s flooded with dross. And I find I can’t read this crap any more.
Below are the blurbs for my upcoming series of romance novels, Fictional Women Who Are At Least Mildly Entertaining:
The Pubic Triangle
The French monarchy have re-emerged, hidden for centuries since the Revolution, and scrappy airline pilot Carlotta is on a mission: to fly the dashing Prince Antoine out of danger from the rioting land of cheese and wine. When they hit a magnetic storm and disappear into the Bermuda Triangle, they look to one another for emotional, and physical, support. Will Carlotta manage to fly them safely to land? Will she fall for a prince with no land or power? Can she even speak French?
Delia is a mother of four with a flagging sex life. A family holiday to Cornwall shakes up the rut she’s been living in, as she and her husband engage in a series of unexpected devil’s threesomes with a handsome college boy they meet on the beach. With illustrations.
Dancing with Danger
Rhona is familiar with failure. Her new cupcake business has folded, because she has no business acumen and the market is already flooded with over priced, amateur confectionary. But Rhona is no ordinary woman, and her dark history with the Russian ballet leaves her well-qualified to take a position volunteering at the local hospital, where she teaches the geriatric ward to dance their cares away. But who is the mysterious female doctor who patrols the ward at night? Are they going to go on a date? Are they going to go on lots and lots of dates?
Yo, Wooden Ho
Mary is the figurehead of a much-feared pirate ship. She strikes up an unorthodox relationship with the new cabin boy, after his order to give her a polish takes a strange turn.