My Female Protagonists

I mentioned in an earlier post that three out of my last five novels have had women as the lead character. I’d like to talk about how that came about.

First I should say that I’ve written more than five novels. If you count the earlier ones found in what I’ve categorized as Minor Works (some of them short), the total is higher, plus a couple of unfinished, untyped ones sitting in the same cardboard box as my first piece of writing, Hank’s Orange Crate Folly. I hope to talk about these minor works later, but the point here is that virtually all my novels until the last three have had male protagonists. After all, I’m a man and I think I know men pretty well.

In the very early writing, I think I gave women less credit than they deserved (and men too, except for the hero), maybe because I lost the love of my life at age nineteen to a shallow and uninspiring guy with a Corvette and a “future.” Later, being unemployed or underemployed didn’t afford me the opportunity to meet and spend time with the cream of the crop women-wise, so to speak, so the narrowness and quality of my field probably contributed to my placement of women as second fiddles in my fiction. That changed as time went on (and I got a little wiser), and by the time I wrote Three Days at Albemarle and its sequel, Refugees From Albemarle, female characters were incredibly strong and vital, and in the case of Refugees, Meelahnee the Native American woman was probably the shining exemplar of high ideals in that book—even more so than the protagonist Ben, who I saw as terribly flawed (though all the more human for it, I hoped).

I became wonderfully at ease with Meelahnee—her courage, her insight, her warmth, her sensuality, her good judgment—to the point that I’d like to have married her myself. I knew her, I admired her, and it occurred to me that if I liked and understood her so well, why couldn’t I write an entire book about a woman? But frankly, I found the proposition daunting, because in effect I’d be saying, “I know how a woman thinks and feels,” something nearly all men (including Freud!) found impossible to do. Not one to shy away from a challenge, though, I conjured up Jennifer Knox, a successful Chicago lawyer who wanted to reform the law (starting with the Patriot Act), and I said to myself, “Well, there she is; let’s run with her!”

It turned out to be less difficult than I thought—maybe because by then I’d had plenty of experience writing (secondary) female characters; I was mature enough to appreciate women on a deeper level and recognize the many qualities they possess; I felt buoyed by my success with (and feeling for) Meelahnee; and finally, maybe because so much of my writing is subconscious, the feminine side of my psyche (my anima) was able to flow through.

By the time I got to Robin in Land of Fleurs, it was even easier (writing a woman, not writing the book) because I really thought I knew what I was doing. So much so that I felt comfortable enough to gamble and make her not just a woman, but the feminine side of a man. I was writing an anima!

This seems to raise the question—how much of Meelahnee, Jennifer or Robin was really me? Or was just that part of me we call the “feminine side” of men? Or was it neither of these but just me imagining what the feminine must be? Who can say? A more fitting question might be, how much of myself did I see in them? I think just the fact that I was speaking through them (or more accurately, they were speaking through me) leads me to believe that I had consciously or unconsciously turned off the filter distinguishing what was masculine and what was feminine in myself and let whatever Meelahnee, Jennifer or Robin would say or do pour out onto the page naturally.

One can only wonder, then, where these feminine voices came from. What complicates it, at least for me, is that no women (or men, for that matter) have read these books, so I get no feedback about whether I’ve created real women or just my own conception of women. All I can say is, they feel like real women to me. That’s all I have to go on.

A final complication is that I may have created more or less authentic women (that is, correctly understood the essence of womanhood) but lack the skill as a writer to put that essence onto the page. I’ve never felt that I lacked skill, but with such a difficult proposition as this, I’ve certainly wondered at times if I had enough skill to do women justice on the page. I suppose only women who read my recent work would have the answer to that—and so far there have been none. And I’m not the type to go to friends and acquaintances and ask, “Will you read this novel and tell me if I got the woman right?” There’d be no point—I’ve already given it my all, not as a craftsman who might steadily improve his technique with more practice but as a mature artist whose talent has reached a fullness and equilibrium (as I see it) that probably will change very little in the future.

Of course, I can always learn more—I do all the time, believe me, and still pore over the many facets of life ravenously—but I doubt that I’ll ever be able to feel more than I do right now and understand those feelings, and that’s what the writing’s based on. I’ve run the gamut, believe me. So I don’t think I’ll ever get any closer to understanding what a woman feels than I do right now. I may pick up tidbits, but as far as essence is concerned, I’ve either got it down or I don’t.

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