Home is where the hero isn’t

This month on “How to write female characters wrong”: the nagging wife!

She isn’t always a wife. Sometimes she’s a mother, instead. Or just a woman who pretty much fills one of those roles, without the actual relationship. Whatever guise she wears, this is the female character whose role in the story seems to be to harp on domestic concerns, in such a fashion that you find yourself praying she’s going to get axed before the chapter ends.

The thing about these characters is, they rarely get depicted as sensible, intelligent people the hero might want to listen to. They’re annoying. They don’t understand that the protagonist has more important things to worry about, either because he hasn’t bothered to tell them, or because they Just Don’t Get It. They aren’t properly in the spirit of the adventure — think Susan in the Chronicles of Narnia.

But why can’t the wife be part of the adventure? Why is she a trap to be escaped, an obstacle to be removed so Our Hero can get on his heroic way? I was sadly disappointed — but not surprised — by the second Bourne movie, which hastily stuffed his girlfriend in the refrigerator; of course he couldn’t do what he has to with her around.

Do I think Ludlum or the script writers actively thought this? No. Nor their sequel-writing colleagues who have faithfully followed the same pattern, offing the love interest from the previous tale so we can return to the status quo of an unattached man doing interesting things. Maybe a few of them are self-aware enough to consciously note what they’re doing; maybe they do have a moment where they think, I need her out of the way. And maybe they do need her out of the way, because it’s pretty firmly established in our narrative culture that marriage and family are what happen at the end of the adventure. If you want your character to have more adventures, first thing you’ve gotta do is shake off the domestic chain.

The problem comes when the domestic chain = the woman. Leave home, have adventures; I’m fine with that. But consider doing it the Mr. and Mrs. Smith way, where it turns out they both hate the facade of surburban normality, and are much happier when having shootouts on the freeway. Plenty of stories manage to build their narrative around a partnership: why not make that partnership a marriage? (Because it’s harder to tell an interesting story about a marriage than about a new romance? Put on your grown-up pants and try. I know plenty of married people who would like to believe their adventures didn’t end when they said “I do.”)

And if you’re going to have a character — male or female, though they’re usually the latter — whose job in the story is to speak up for the domestic, for the love of god, don’t make them a shrew. It makes the story feel juvenile: they’re Mommy standing at the back door, shouting that it’s time to put down the toy guns and come clean your room. Maybe domesticity is the thing your hero (or heroine) yearns for but can’t have. Maybe it’s the foundation without which they couldn’t function — but then don’t shove that support off to the side; show how vital it is to the flashier stuff your hero does. Or maybe it’s the slap upside the head your hero needs, the dose of practicality that keeps him from freezing his butt off because he forgot to consider what would happen after he ran off into the wilderness.

And consider the possibility that maybe domesticity and heroism aren’t incompatible after all. Female protagonists don’t have to be anti-home in order to function, and male protagonists don’t lose a valuable part of their anatomy if you show more than a token portion of their family lives. It’s long past time we dumped the ball and chain idea, and went with a better alternative.

(P.S. — I have a Bechdel Test follow-up on my LiveJournal.)

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  1. 1. Gregory Frost

    I think the knee-jerk (and bad) tendency when assembling the narrative is to simplify the lives of characters. Make the wife a shrew to drive him away; stuff the girlfriend in the fridge (or shoot her and then drive off a bridge…sorry, rhyme scheme). Make the partner the cause for the story–”shoot my spouse and I will hunt you down”–or else make her, since we’re on about wives here, a vituperative shrew, and our hero (TM) will flee to his adventures, thereby eliminating any family complications and allowing him the freedom of a James Bond to sleep with whomever he likes along the way without the big morality question. She’s not a life-partner. She’s a catalyst. It’s far more work to deliver a Nick and Nora Charles who complement each other; far more work to complicate rather than simplify the characters–which treads dangerously upon a writing lecture on building complex characters that Maureen McHugh gives; so I’ll stop and pass the torch.

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Brennan, this is an excellent point. I just read comments by a cat that runs a movie/news site and when asked who he thought the most important person in the history of humanity was (why he’d be the one asked this I don’t know) he replied, “it’s probably somebody no one ever heard of or ever will.” I thought this a very thoughtful answer.

    My point being, would Gandhi be Gandhi without someone to make sure there was a mat for him to lay-out on after the hunger-strike? Would Dr. King be Dr. King if he had to raise/care for/parent his own children, while confronting Bull Connor? Would Saint Katherine Drexel be the same without countless sisters that made sure she ate and slept and had a clean habit while begging funds for Xavier U.

    As for Bourne, believe it (not isn’t an option) that Ludlum’s books were actually horrid in comparison to the movie. I referrence him in my writer’s group when we discuss sex-scenes. Ludlum has the Bourne love-interest raped, some rediculous number of times over the course of three books.

    In one book, Bourne teaches the love-interest’s brother how to kill with his bare hands. But somehow, he skips these lesson with his beloved. In the movies, I think the message is there is a price to pay for the choices made and the people you love pay right along with you. Or maybe that’s what I’m projecting onto the movies as I do enjoy them.

    As I come close to completing my novel, I have listened to you and others here. My protagonist isn’t saving the damsel in distress. Yon damsel, is patiently trying to save my protag from his own worst natures, as an equal if not superior. Not as an idealized Madonna, but as a mature adult.

  3. 3. heteromeles

    Gee, and so far in my story, the main nag is the guy saying, “why can’t we call the cavalry to ride in?” “They’re busy already, shut up, we’ve got to solve this ourselves!”

    Seriously, my wife nags me (very gently) about not cleaning stuff when I’m at home writing. It might be juvenile, but I think this frustration may be showing up in stories as the nagging spouse who may or may not get shoved in the fridge. (full disclosure: my wife’s a wonderful woman, and she is right that I could be a lot less messy).

    Adventures are messy, and often, to be blunt, heroes are assholes who ignore everyday tasks and needs in pursuit of something that many people in society may think is impossible, unpleasant, or even wrong. The examples above of Dr. King, Gandhi, and others are important in this regard.

    In stories, this is exacerbated by the fact that novels do best when they have only a few plot lines and one or two major protagonists. If a story is running because there is a hero, rather than a heroic couple or a heroic ensemble, then the author has a duty to get all entangling relationships out of the way somehow to make the story work.

    That said, I think we could use more heroic couples in stories, but I think that’s because of their relative rarity, rather than because they’re intrinscially better than Ms. Solitary Asskicker off saving the world, part 2,0012.

  4. 4. simon@kins

    Have you read John Irving’s latest? Last Night At Twisted River shows how everybody has a story. Every minor character, a person you only see for a paragraph or two, everybody’s got a story. Half-jokingly, I’d say he has his Anne Tyler knob turned up to 11.

    The problem with most projects, be they moving pictures or text, is the use of plot coupons to get their characters moving. Makes you wish that you could exchange plot coupons and endow the project like it was improv. Instead of Dead Girl In The Fridge, what if Bourne had found Dead Jay Leno In The Fridge? Yeah, something to think about. Or Charles Bronson in all those Death Wish movies, working out his revenge fantasy ‘cos his family gets murdered and/or raped. Imagine if he did it ‘cos he had too much to drink, or did it on whim. He’d rightly be deemed an asshole. But the plot coupon let’s the protag be a Justifiable Asshole. And that, I believe, is the ultimate recourse of dimbulb behaviour: look what you made me do. Such puerile excuses.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Gregory — I think you’re right, and it makes me realize that I disagree with any narrative philosophy that begins with “eliminate complications.” :-) Complications are the fun part!

    Elias — it’s a point raised in some branches of historical study, I know: the way that certain Genius Men were free to do their genius-ing only because they had a wife making sure food, clothing, and bathwater appeared when needed. (And sometimes acting as their secretaries/research assistants/etc.) Which is a particular iteration of the whole notion of “specialized labor;” being a good stonemason comes at the cost of knowing how to hunt, and the hunter being out in the woods all the time doesn’t have time to make his own bread, and so on. Generally speaking, an individual’s awesomeness is necessarily facilitated by the work of many other people, taking care of the jobs the Awesome One neglects. Which isn’t a bad thing — it’s how societal advances happen — but it is bad when all that necessary work is devalued.

    (Also, I have no trouble believing Ludlum’s books are worse. His genre is not exactly known for its nuanced handling of relationships, particularly of the marital or romantic variety.)

    heteromeles — heh, good point. I wonder how many of the writers who do this are subconsciously venting their irritation that their work doesn’t exempt them from having to take out the trash. :-) I don’t necessarily mean that it has to be a heroic couple or ensemble, though; even if you’re focusing only on one protagonist, that doesn’t mean the domestic side of his life has to be treated as an obstacle. A wife who’s a good supporting character, rather than a shrew or a candidate for refrigeration, would be a nice change of pace.

    Simon — No, haven’t read the Irving. But I wholeheartedly endorse a Mad Libs-style rewrite of some of these stories. :-)

  6. 6. Elias McClellan

    I really liked Gordon’s wife slapping the sho-nuff out of Gary Oldman in “Dark Knight.” That was a real, ‘how dare you moment.’ I like that he is Mr Tough Guy Cop who drives like Mad Max but (unlike Max) has to answer to the Mrs for falling down as a partner. B/C truly, all excuses aside, that’s what he did.

    It’s why I don’t like the insistence on kings, queens, princes, princessessesses, barons, dukes, duches, etc in fatasy. I really and truly aspire to write a prolitariate fantasy, where all are equals in endeavors.

  7. 7. Jaws

    Ah, yes. The perfidy of Ludlum and Hollywood –

    First, using the second Bourne film as an example of stuffing the female in the fridge probably isn’t a good example; Marie was originally intended to have a much greater role in the film, but scheduling and health problems limited Franke Potenta’s availability and they had to redo the script. That said:

    Nobody who has any experience around (let alone with or in) covert ops likes Ludlum’s books. It’s not just that Marie in the books ends up getting abused (and more than just sexually); it’s that in the first book, she’s so annoying that readers are busy imagining refrigerators to stuff her into. The same goes for all of Ludlum’s (or, for that matter, “Van Lustbader”‘s) female characters — virtually none of whom, independent of resonances from the films, are anything other than motile MacGuffins at best, and usually just targets.

    Sadly, this seems very much an assumption built into covert ops/spy/thriller fiction’s publishing meme; even purportedly female leads (e.g., Le Carre’s wretched The Little Drummer Girl) just get their testosterone from other than the normal male locus. They seldom bother to think their way into situations, let along through or out of them… and almost never with any appreciation of context. Kris Smith’s Jani Killian books are remarkable for being an exception to that; but they’re definitely orthogonal.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Elias — it would be nice if more writers understood that royalty and nobility didn’t actually have Get Out of Jail Free cards anyway; they might not be answerable to Joe the Peasant Farmer, but they sure as hell were answerable to their superiors, their peers, and all those merchants they were probably in debt to . . . .

    Jaws — I didn’t know that about Franka Potente; thanks. Anyway, sub in various other franchises for the “mysteriously disappearing girlfriend” phenomenon. It was kind of refreshing that The Dark Knight actually kept Rachel Dawes around as a character, rather than having her exit stage left (or be gacked in the first ten minutes). Granted, she isn’t Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, nor is she his symbol of the home life, but still.

  9. 9. Elias McClellan

    @8, Yeah, in “Poland,” Mitchner, (believe me this is fantasy) begins talking about how much the Poles loved ‘their Jews,’ then over the course of the novel, we see just how the history bore-out. The ‘nobles,’ or petty ‘nobles’ recklessly barrowed money from Jewish merchants and then executed pograms rather than repay them with legal land ownership.

    In ‘Braveheart,’ (yeah, as a history major, I consider this fantasy as well) Wm Wallace talks about rallying Scotland for freedom. In the next breath/scene, he’s rallying Robert the Bruce to take the dom role over the Scotish rable. So, in essence, you’re trading one ‘noble’ for another while you’re digging a living out of the sh!t.

    As for “Dark Knight,” I like the fact that Rachel Dawes knows Bruce can’t drop his fetish gear and sado-bear role, (with the Joker as crazy twink?) as much as he may pay lip service to wanting to. But again, the Gordon/wife dynamic is the most accessible relationship in the movie. He’s the hero we’re closest to being and he agonizes over picking between his children or his wife when confronted by the lunacy of revenge.

    The movie also show cases how ultimately destructive revenge, by anyone for anyone, truly is. Oh and Chirstian Bale’s ear-deelies don’t jiggle like George Cloony’s did.

  10. 10. heteromeles

    We can also blame Joseph Campbell, while we’re at it. Does this sound familiar? “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (if you don’t recognize that from Hero with a Thousand Faces…)

    The refrigerator problem comes from that very first phrase, “the hero ventures forth from the world of common day….” If you’re doing a variation on Campbell’s monomyth, you’ve got to separate the everyday from the hero. And if everyday gets slashed up and stuffed into a refrigerator, then you’ve also got a motive for the hero, so it’s even efficient. Originality…that’s what’s lacking.

    It’s like a stock romance. If you’re doing a monomyth, the fundamental plot is not original. The originality (if any) is in the characterization, the setting, themes, and so forth.

    BTW, don’t assume that I’m advocating this type of story as the only, the best, or whatever. I’d do the same analysis for why MacDonald’s does well.

    Of course, you could invert the whole damn trope. How about story where the girlfriend gets massacred, stuffed in the fridge, the comes back as a vampire to wreak vengeance, not only on the bad guys who did it, but also on the boyfriend who was so stupidly heroic as to get her axed in the first place. Call it Love, Prey, Eat or something.

  11. 11. Meredith Schwartz

    The Tommy and Tuppence/ Nick and Nora approach is cool and, I agree, underused, but there’s still that pesky question of children. Once you pop ‘em out *somebody’s* got to feed them and change them and teach them not to play in traffic, so eventually you still end up with the domesticity versus adventure dichotomy, even if you can at least spring your womenfolk from the thankless task of representing it.

    Also I don’t want to completely lose the quiet heroism of waiting in fear for your loved one who is risking their life, or the insistence that a home life and personal obligations have value and meaning as much as, if differently than, Big Principles That Make You Blow Things Up. I’d just love to see it done well, and sometimes even by a guy.

  12. 12. Jodi

    New to the site and I really like what everyone has to say. I’m so glad to see that so many agree that stereotypical characters are irritating and predictable. I’m constantly in the process of character development and being aware of all the pitfalls of gender stereotyping is a real eye opener. My current challenge is a man woman partnership and how they handle day to day situations. That is, when they are not magically saving the world. The crux of the story rotates around the depth of their centuries old relationship and what happens when it is threatened. Now I know to be extra careful not to let their characters slip into type casts.

  13. 13. Elias McClellan

    @12 Wait ’til you see how irritating and predictable our comments can be.

    All jokes(?) aside, the benefit of this site is just what your expressing. I’m wrestling with a relationship dynamic in the backdrop of my salient plot. Dealing with real relationship issues through believeable depictions without slipping into gender-cliches and stereotype is a struggle.

    I think I’d rather write a 2D character minus the family/significant other, rather than write a shrewish and/or victim. The problem is the abscence of growth of the character, I think, indicates an abscence of growth in the author. So this is an important struggle to undertake. Reading that you, like others here, consider and also address these issues, is both challenging and helpful.

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    heteromeles — I actually have a piece I’m working on, adapted from a grad school paper, about what “originality” means in the context of a tale type (in this case, the standard Tolkien-clone quest fantasy). As you say, it’s in the characterizaton, etc.

    Meredith — That quiet heroism is part of what I’m advocating for. Let’s have more stories that show how it’s important, rather than treating the home front as dead weight the hero has to drag around or get rid of.

    Jodi — showing depth of time in a relationship is hard, yeah. Good luck!

  15. 15. OtterB

    Late coming to this discussion. As I was reading it, I was thinking about Eve Dallas and Roarke in the J. D. Robb books. They certainly have a strong ongoing partnership, but for the most part neither of them is dealing with the domestic details. The role of domestic shrew is played, to some extent, by Summerset. Kind of interesting thinking of it that way.


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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



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