Monday 11 July 2022

Phoebe Wynne on Writing Tricky & Unlikeable Heroines

Credit Josephine Cronk
Credit @Josephine Gronk

 When reaching for my next book to read I have a terrible habit of ignoring my TBR and rereading Jane Eyre. Until last year, when my first novel was published, and I devoured as many contemporary novels as I could. In those acclaimed bestsellers I discovered a wealth of spunky and funky heroines, who in their own various and brilliant ways seemed to have no flaws at all.

 Every protagonist is the main character of her story, the one that makes decisions and faces the significant obstacles within the plot. In my studies of writing, I have always understood that a heroine can do one of two things: be the driver that propels the action forwards and changes the world around her, or the reactor to the action that moves around her within her world. The gothic novel – the genre within I write – prefers the latter. In its simplest form, picture this: a young woman, hair streaming, standing in front of a doomed-looking castle, the victim of her circumstance, a desperate damsel in distress, a captive desperate to escape her fate. Her deepest desires tend to be different from her actual needs, but we as readers cheer her on and champion her as she makes dreadful mistakes and stumbles towards her inevitable fate.

I have seen a downward trend in this type of heroine. It is a shame, because we need her, because we are her. We cannot all be Katniss Everdene.

 A real woman is messy, complicated, tricky, moody, and surely more interesting. As a reader I am thrilled by particularly darkly lit characters that are morally problematic. Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne is a perfect example of this, as she reveals a third of the way through the novel that she is not only alive and well but had planned the whole thing. Her ‘anti-cool-girl’ declaration lit up almost every woman I know as we each recognised her furious logic glowing through the novel’s narrative. One friend of mine, though, threw the book on the floor in disgust and refused to read any further. We are not friends anymore.

 The protagonists of my two gothic novels are a troubled teacher in her mid-twenties, and a bratty young girl on holiday with her wealthy parents. In MADAM my first is an everywoman introduced into a monstrous boarding school world, in THE RUINS my second is a little girl that becomes a monster in response to the oppressive collective she is forced to live inside. Both find themselves on the edge of the world they inhabit, both struggle to properly interact with the other members of their society, and both find every day a challenge. In the end, these characters find what they need in a very messy, destructive, and beautiful way. My young women are brutal and brutalised – too much perhaps, for many readers. But they have come from an ordinary place, and they make themselves extraordinary by what they do and by what has been done to them.

There are gentler and more expert versions of this – Jo March of Little Women, Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, even Jane in Jane Eyre. Every one of them loved, adored, and celebrated even today – because they are versions of ourselves: foolish, loving, muddled, passionate, desperately happy and unhappy, both wrong and right. I would love to meet another one of these complicated heroines in contemporary novels, but I have not.

It might be because fundamentally, as a reader I am drawn to the real heroines – the ancient ones. Women in classical mythology suffered more viscerally and lived lives more colourfully outside of our regimented modern societies. These women have shouted loud at me from a young age, and as a result, I have based many of my characters on ancient women. There is a current trend to pick these characters up and guide them towards a warmly reimagined version of their story – and in almost every example they become more likeable. But I say, let them be. Let women be horrible if their story needs them to be horrible. Medea kills her children to save them from a disastrous future, to punish her husband, and to ensure a secure future for herself. Agrippina poisons the Roman emperor, her uncle, in order to place her own son on the throne and is tormented and assassinated as a result. There is little of this in today’s storytelling – but perhaps we need it. Let female characters be angry, unhappy, and violent if it is true to them. Let them scream and cry and fight back, while male characters rush horribly through their own stories as ever, like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Humbert Humbert in Lolita, and even Patrick Bateman in the American Psycho. I say, bring back our tricky and unlikeable heroines. Let us be rid of the superhero woman and allow ourselves to revel in the flawed everywoman.

 The Ruins by Phoebe Wynne (Published by Quercus Publishing) Out Now

Amidst the glamour of the French Riviera lies the crumbling facade of Chateau de Setes, a small slice of France still held by the British aristocracy. But this long since abandoned chateau is now up for sale, and two people are desperate to get their hands on it despite its terrible history.  Summer, 1985: Ruby has stayed at the chateau with her family every summer of her twelve years. It was her favourite place to be, away from the strictures of her formal childhood, but this year uninvited guests have descended, and everything is about to change...  As the intense August heat cloaks the chateau, the adults within start to lose sight of themselves. Old disputes are thrown back and forth, tempers rise, morals loosen, and darkness begins to creep around them all. Ruby and her two young friends soon discover it is best not to be seen or heard as the summer spirals down to one fateful night and an incident that can never be undone...  Summer, 2010: One of the three young girls, now grown and newly widowed, returns to the chateau, and in her fight to free herself from its grip, she uncovers what truly happened that long, dark summer.  With riveting psychological complexity, The Ruins captures the glittering allure of the Mediterranean, and the dark shadows that wait beneath the surface.

 More information about the author and her work can be found on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter @phoebewynne and on Instagram @phoebewynnewrites




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