5 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Writing a Novel with a Female Protagonist

by Chris Roy

1. I wish I had known the difficulties in writing first-person vs. third-person POV, female.

The very first female character I created was in a collection of short stories titled By Hook or Crook: the criminal ventures of Razor and Blondie. The point of view was third-person, with Razor as the main protagonist. His observations, thoughts, and feelings were more prominent in the narration than hers. I had never studied the craft of fiction writing before penning Crook, had zero experience. So I wasn’t aware anything was missing for her character. Strangely, writing a female in first-person POV made me aware of several things that improved my third-person stories.

Shocking Circumstances was my first full-length novel. After reading L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker, I wanted my first novel to feature a strong, edgy female protagonist. Books on writing and publications such as Psychology Today were a staple of my daily routine at that point. I thought I could pull off a compelling story told by a female. I enjoy a good challenge and knew this project would be difficult. But, damn…

You have to be bold, I told myself. So I introduced the Shocker… in first-person. As the story progressed and her character developed, the scenes placed her in situations that increased in physical difficulty, each circumstance tougher than the last to explain how a female would overcome it. I remember laughing as I realized her physical difficulties increased my mental difficulties.

Four chapters in, I realized “getting into character” was not the way to write a female character. Not for me. I’m not an actor. I did a lot of brainstorming. A lot of pacing, and used my friends as idea sounding boards that bordered on abuse before determining a new approach.

Don’t be the actor. Be the cameraman. “Watch” her through a kind of mental camera lens.

This way of thinking worked for me. I could disassociate and still observe her in first-person. I re-wrote the beginning chapters, confidence returning. The discomfort had eased. Then I attempted a sex scene.

2. I wish I had known how to write sex scenes.

My characters can find humor in just about any situation, even when facing certain death. They banter and flirt and can be sexy. They even have sex. But detailed sex scenes? I attempted one in the first draft of Shocking Circumstances Book I. As I mentioned earlier, it’s in first-person. And you have to consider that I’ve been in prison since I was 18, known for my physical abilities. My masculine physical abilities. My test readers were other convicts. There was no way in hell I was going to let any of them read that scene. I didn’t even tell anyone I wrote it. I recall feeling extreme embarrassment… in my cell by myself. It was the weirdest thing. I definitely didn’t think that through when I noted it on the chapter outline.

The scene takes place after Shocker’s final professional fight when she and her husband arrive at their home and she’s in emotional turmoil. Sex was the remedy. I was able to disassociate and be the cameraman, though couldn’t shake a feeling of embarrassment – from worrying about my reputation as a convict once others read and talked about it. While I edited it, I told myself, This is a crime thriller, not a romance novel. I spent far too much time trying to write an explicit sex scene before deciding it didn’t fit my style. The trick that works for me is to construct it so the reader’s imagination fills in the details.

If you have a steamy scene planned for your (hopefully) breakout novel, I highly recommend studying sex scenes in the bestselling books of your genre. See how they are done successfully, then experiment with a couple drafts. A sex scene can zap interest if it’s cheesy or cliche.

This is the first time I’ve told anyone other than my wife about writing a detailed lovemaking scene from a female POV. The guys in here don’t know. Keep this between us, okay?

3. I wish I had known how to write better emotional descriptions.

Every time I read a novel by Jim Butcher or Eric Van Lustbader I’m like, Damn, my descriptions of emotions suck! Those guys are masters at it, and made me seek out books that specifically teach a writer how to show and not tell readers how their character is feeling.

Every character is different. Though if you use the same emotional cues for all of them, they won’t be very different. How do you portray mild emotional responses? Extreme ones? The more powerful they are, the more physical they are. Mild ones need subtly. But how do you show readers the emotion of a character if there’s no dialogue or “beat’ or movement at all? Those are just a few examples of questions that arise when you begin to learn the intricacies of expressing the limbic system.

I give myself quizzes like that when composing particularly difficult situations for my female characters. The more questions you ask yourself, the better the character will show readers what they are feeling. It’s more challenging for male writers intent on showing the emotions of a female in all states, from beautifully proud to raw homicidal beast.

Be sure to answer your questions. If you don’t… you’re a lazy writer and need to find something you’ll be good at because it won’t be writing books that sell.

There’s a vast array of emotions. Each one can be described through action, dialogue, internal monologue and more. More characters multiply options. Adding gender makes it nearly unlimited. If you keep using the same emotional descriptions, you are not doing your job and studying as you go, can’t afford books on writing (you must sacrifice everything else!), or, you are in solitary confinement without books.

Next, to a great dictionary, an emotion thesaurus is probably the best tool a fiction writer can have – especially a dude creating female protagonists!

4. I wish I had known more female psychology.

There is a popular belief that women make decisions based on their emotions, and men are more objective. I’ve found this isn’t necessarily true.

Everyone’s decision process is different, no matter your gender. For female characters, I didn’t want to use cliches or stereotypes as references for highly emotional moments. Describing the thought process of a woman that has lost her family, home, and businesses is quite a task. Then there are those tricky behavioral traits like a maternal instinct that pull her in different directions… My brows have a permanent crease from writing that character.

And I’m a prisoner, in Parchman, with no females around I’d like to base protagonists on. So I had to be careful if I wanted to write a story women will believe and possibly relate to.

I’ve always been a reader of psychology. Articles on mental health, family and child psychology, marriage, even industrial and biopsychology – I enjoy it all. Through reading, I have internalized plenty of material about females in general. But it’s one thing to read about women and quite another to directly interact, have relationships that involve more than letters and phone calls, and experience how different women are from each other and how utterly alien they are compared to the convicts I live with.

5. I wish I had based my female protagonist on a real woman.

Characters are more believable, more real when they are based on real people. Clarice “Shocker” Ares isn’t based on a real person. I created her, made her real, by imagining if I had a twin sister, one that shared common interests but was far more talented at them. Then I applied feminine traits. But not too many that she became melodramatic and ruined the spell cast on readers.

Dozens of convicts have read the Shocker’s story. I am surprised by how many ask me if she was someone I knew. That’s the kind of response you want your protagonist to get, I tell myself after, mentally buffing my nails on my shirt. Elated beyond words!

It is incredibly satisfying to know running my neurons ragged and earning my permanent thought-wrinkle has entertained guys in here (by the way, a huge percentage of convicts are avid readers, have dozens to hundreds of novels to their credit, and aren’t shy about voicing their dislike of terrible books). In prison, having an avenue of escape, freeing yourself from the bleak reality of dinosaur time in maximum security, is a gift that can’t be assessed in value.

You wonderful folks out there reading this likely do it for the same reasons, a temporary reprieve from the worries of life. To delve into a more exciting, emboldened existence where you can share the courage and strength, actually feel it right there with the characters, and put down the book with an enlivened drive you want to apply to your own affairs.

Well. That’s what happens when I read a good one.

Convince readers your fiction is fact. That is the take home message. It begins with finding someone to study, research, interview, etc., as a reference for your main character.

For me, being convincing, successful, in the creation of that one character doesn’t mean I’ll be able to do it again. Penning another character as bold and overachieving as she is, without a living reference, is a permanent face-wrinkle job I won’t tackle without first compiling a foot or two of notes. I want to write another dynamic, athletic female story, though, in the near future. I think I’ll wait until the entire Shocker trilogy is out before deciding. Readers may want more of her. Damn, I hope so…

I continue to learn about what it takes to write good fiction. It’s been five years since the creation of Shocker. That experience taught me so many Do’s and Don’t’s about developing compelling characters, and not just female ones. I’ve learned my limitations, and how to get around them. Most of them, anyway. Discovering my limitations earlier would have saved me a ton of work in re-writes. It also would have been impossible; I didn’t have the benefit of a teacher or creative writing classes. I had trouble writing letters when I came to prison. I’ve gone through a few pens and sheets of paper since.

I recently finished the first draft of a novella titled Her Name is Mercie. This story features a female protagonist that manifested as a sort of doppelganger to a person I know well. She lives a sheltered, antisocial life and is victimized by society in general. Hard times follow tragedy, and adapting to the changes is a struggle most people don’t survive without becoming a Thorazine patient.

The real person reference is always at the forefront of my mind, a mental thumbnail when I’m working on it. She has just enough traits from the real person to make her believable, and plenty of fictitious ones to form an identity unique to her. And, because I’m going to avoid getting too immersed in this real person’s big-hearted, sometimes-sadistic psyche, Mercie is in third-person POV.

© 2017, Chris Roy. All rights reserved.

Chris Roy

Chris Roy was raised in a south Mississippi trailerhood in the midst of ugly Gulf Coast beaches and spectacular muddy bayous, roaming the towns and wilds of the rich and poor, thieving and thinking without a curfew.
Until 1999, Chris lived comfortably with the modest criminal ventures of his youth. But a fistfight ended tragically, his opponent died, resulting in a life sentence for Chris, which he started serving in the Mississippi Department of Corrections from January 2000.
Hard knocks are the best teachers - the author learned this almost too late, though he did rid himself of drugs and violence. Chris' institutional record hasn't been marred by a single fight or involvement in drugs - an incredible feat, considering the brutally challenging prison environment he lives in.
Nowadays he lives his life of crime vicariously, through the edgy characters and fast-paced stories he pens, hoping to entertain readers. When he isn't writing, he's reading, drawing or looking for prospects to train in boxing.

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One Response to 5 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Writing a Novel with a Female Protagonist

  1. Henry Roi says:

    Laura,

    This is outstanding. I’ll be in touch to propose more authors and guest posts.

    Respectfully,

    Henry
    PR Manager, Crime Whave Press

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