Writing Expectations by Robert E. Dunn

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Expectations for writers. Expectations for characters. It’s something I’ve touched on a few times when writing about writing. The first assumption that I break, is choosing to write books with women as main characters. The odd thing about that is my tendency to write books filled with adventure, physical hardship, and sometimes, violence. That’s to say, I’ve become a crime writer. I’m not saying that I’m a first. There have obviously been many great mystery/thrillers with women running the show. But the books I love, and that I read the most, are a bit grittier. Noir is not the most obvious place to look for women in the lead role.

Something else. The kind of noir I and my characters are drawn to, tends to the rural, outdoorsy, modern western kind of stories. In those books, the strong, self-reliant-to-a-fault, usually with a checkered or damaging past, man overcomes impossible odds. We’ve seen it a million times before. No one reads it because it hasn’t been done. They read, and write it, because it is a rich mine of conflict and character. I had an idea brewing in my head after years of reading the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke, the Longmire books by Craig Johnson. By the way, you should try the border noir thrillers by my friend, J. Todd Scott. The thing is, I sometimes thought the women in the books were underplayed. Strike that. I often think it. Let’s face it, the tough guys usually make the women, not much more than a frame. The female characters are a way to see the men or to stand for the sane world. They are often no more than the person who needs saving or protecting. Expectations.

So I wondered what would happen if that strong character with issues, a past, and the drive to protect, was a woman. If you’re writing the character who plays by their own rules why not break the rules to do it?

Now there is a funny thing about expectations. People tend to like them satisfied. Predictability is comforting and, well, predictable.

Writing is one of the few artistic or business areas truly dominated by women. Even the genres traditionally dominated by men, horror, adventure, science fiction, etc. are changing. For the better you better believe. Aside from writing the books, most agents and editors are women. I think, part of the reason that the book world is so open to women is that you can’t hide behind gender or bluster or tradition when you literally have your words doing the talking for you.

You would think that helps me and my books, right? Maybe it does. My main characters are women, judged by women gatekeepers and readers. I hope I do a good job. The response had been overwhelmingly positive. But…

There have been times that the main female characters in my books, the ones who are carrying the load of the story—the heroes—have been described to me as, not feminine. The really strange thing about it is that those same characters also get a lot of attention, from readers and reviewers, as true people. Readers respond well to the characters aside from gender.

When I really took a look at the criticism my characters were getting I noticed something. It was not about the women. It was about their role. All of my female main characters defy gender expectations. In my Katrina (Hurricane) Williams series, the main character is a female sheriff’s detective, a former military police officer, who has issues with PTSD, drinking, and violence. Yeah, I don’t write damsels in distress. I took a traditional male literary trope and put a woman in the same situations. And what I encounter are two general criticisms. That my women are not feminine. Or that they are too feminine.

You’re right, there is no way to please everyone.

But…

Defying expectations. That’s what the criticisms are really about. Don’t think I’m saying my writing or my characters deserve no criticism. No writer can support that. But it is important, for the writer, to recognize the difference between criticizing the art and criticizing the expectation. It’s not just for writers. We see it every day, and hear it played out on the TV news almost every night now. People who like things—just so—like to define things as normal. They like to say things like, smile more, no sleeveless tops on the house floor, if it was true she would have said something years ago…

I’m an old guy. Simply by writing women characters I have seen a bit of what it means to be a women—that someone is always willing to tell you what it means and how to do it. Well I’m an old guy with daughters. I don’t want anyone telling them how to be feminine. I want them to be able to define it for themselves. They are doing great at it by the way.

So, if you read my books, or meet my daughters, remember, they may not be your kind of feminine. But let them be their own kind. You will enjoy the story more and maybe, in small gestures, make the world better for the women you know.