Posted in books, characters, creative writing, reading, romance, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Writing strong females characters: behaviors vs. personality traits

Strong female characters have not only been a topic of discussion quite frequently over the last few years, they’ve been steadily becoming better as readers and writers both recognize what that phrase means to them and why it’s being talked about.

Beautiful bright makeup woman with long curly hair looking sexyOne of the key elements in writing strong female characters (and this applies to writing strong characters of any gender), is understanding the difference between behaviors and personality traits. Behaviors are things a character does (what we do), while a personality trait is how a character behaves, thinks, and feels (what we are). Personality traits are difficult or impossible to alter, while behaviors can be changed.

For too long, “strong female characters” were based on behaviors such as fighting, sarcasm, sexual activity, shunning femininity, using her body for manipulation of others, etc. The personality traits behind these behaviors are much different than the behaviors themselves and are what readers will connect with on a deeper level when they are fully brought into the story.

Consider the list of behaviors above and what personality traits caused or impact the behaviors, and what the sources of the behaviors might be:

MMA Fighter PunchFighting: perhaps the character grew up in a rough home life and had to defend herself from a family member, bully, gangs, etc. Perhaps she was a victim and learned to fight for protection.

Sarcasm: sarcasm may come from insecurities about self, status, a pessimistic worldview, or a sense of humor. It may limit their ability to make friends or have deep relationships.

Sexual activity: This may come from a place of confidence and freedom or a need to please and fill emotional holes. Is it self-destructive or empowering? Does this this affect relationships or self-image?

Shunning femininity: Consider what caused this shunning. It my come from sexual orientation or gender issues, having been victimized and made to feel vulnerable, growing up with masculine role models, insecurity about being seen as feminine or weak, or a genuine dislike for typically feminine activities or looks.

Using the body to manipulate: This may speak to the time/setting and the character’s status in her community or social structure. I may be a learned behavior from a role model, or developed out of survival instinct. A woman could also see this type of a manipulation as a useful tool she sees no problem in utilizing, and possibly even see it as a equalizer with men.

These are only a few considerations, examples, and questions brought up by these behaviors, but they highlight how much more interesting and engaging the personality trait is than the behavior. Readers want to uncover why a character says, does, and thinks the way they do. Developing personality traits rather than only behaviors leads to opportunities for deep backstories and character growth and development.

Any time a character does something, ask why, and integrate the answer into the story and character arc.

Posted in books, classic literature, lessons learned, reading, writing, writing advice

Lessons Learned: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I’ve been on a quest to read some of the classics I should have read by now. Actually, I listen to them on audiobook while I run, but same difference. I wanted to read classics not just so I know what people are talking about when these books come up, but because reading is one of the best ways to improve your writing, so why not learn from the masters?

As Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I’ve got the writing a lot part down, but I’ve neglected reading lately, particularly classic literature.

stephen-king-read-a-lot-quoteIn 2017 I’ll continue my quest, and share you all what I’m learning along the way.

So, on to Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

2017-01-03-03-58-11This was a different type of book than I’d normally pick up, but my friend Denise recommended it so I thought I’d give it a try. This is a coming of age story, but it doesn’t really have a focused plot. The reader simply follows the characters’ lives for a certain period of time. I have to admit, it wasn’t one of my favorite books for that reason. I like a clear-cut storyline I can follow.

However, I found the book absolutely fascinating from a historical perspective. If you want to know what early 20th century life in Brooklyn was like, read this book! I don’t write historical fiction because it is way too much work. I’m not willing to put in the research, time, and effort to do it justice, so I leave it to those more capable. If I were ever going to write historical fiction, though, I’d use this book as a guide.

Aside from the careful attention to detail in this book that made it so fascinating, one of the most poignant lessons I learned from this book was the importance of writing realistic characters, and I mean realistic to the point of almost being painful. Because this is a historical fiction novel meant to capture the great difficulty most poor Brooklynites faced in the first few decades of the 1900s, it truly delves into the awful situations of the time.

***Spoilers head***

There were times the family has so little food, they would play a game pretending they were explores at the North Pole waiting for supplies to arrive-slowly starving in the mean time. Sometimes the rescue didn’t come quickly.

The mother, Katie, admits not only that she loves her son more than her daughter because he is an easier child and different enough from her that she can understand him, but also that her marriage choice has left her facing a bleak future of staying with her drunkard husband and carrying the family largely on her own.

Francie, the main character, is often told by others that she’s barely pretty enough to be considered passable. It breaks your heart when she falls for the first guy willing to dote on her and ends up bitterly heartbroken when she realizes how cruel people can be.

The handsome, charming Johnny, a young man teen girls dream of being swept off their feet by doesn’t turn out to be Prince Charming at all. He’s a drunk who folds under pressure, never wanted the children he has, and despite loving his family is incapable of being the father or husband his family needs and deserves, and dies young and penniless.

The early 1900s in Brooklyn were a harsh time period. Betty Smith doesn’t sugarcoat it to give readers a nice, feel-good story. She highlights the unfair struggles real people face, the crushing mistakes they make, the regret they face over unrealistic or selfish choices, and the often bleak hope they hold onto that things will get better.

Lesson learned: If you’re goal is to tell a realistic story, develop characters who are deeply flawed, make choices they regret, face unfair situations, and are sometimes unlikable. In other words, write real realistic characters.