If you have read Julie K.Rose’s book Dido’s Crown you’ll see she is a master at creating a flawed heroine that we can all love. So naturally, when I asked her to do a guest post for me I wanted it to be on this topic.
Why do we write? Why do we read? Well, there are as many answers as there are people, I suppose, but one important result of writing and reading keeps coming up over and over: many studies* have concluded that reading fiction can make you more empathetic.
In August 2014, Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, gave a lecture titled “Fiction and Its Relation to Real-World Empathy, Cognition, and Behavior,” at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention.
In his lecture, Mar discussed how exposure to narrative fiction can improve theory of mind and someone’s ability to understand what other people are thinking, feeling, and doing.
Mar explained that when you are engaged in reading a story that your brain automatically puts you in the character’s shoes. Throughout the process of reading narrative fiction, the reader learns life lessons from how he or she personally experiences the journey of the protagonist and other characters in the story.
Art, in general, is an empathy engine, a way for people to expand their mind and their heart beyond their own worldview. So what does empathy have to do with creating flawed heroines?
There was a movement many years ago to make heroines Strong — kick-ass women who are smart and resourceful, women who can take care of themselves and any bad guy that comes their way (be it actual bad guys, or Fate). And I love those characters. We need heroines to look up to, we need to know what it’s like to be in the shoes of a kick-ass woman so we can remember what they did and how they felt when our time comes to kick ass.
But we’re not perfect like those characters. And that’s why flawed heroines are so important – because they’re like us. We’re messy and contradictory, annoying and flawed, beautiful and cruel. Reading about the life of a heroine that feels familiar helps us see what’s possible – even for someone as screwed up as us (e.g., all of us).
Flawed heroines, from a writer’s perspective, also give you the chance to provide more depth in their interactions with other characters. Relationships are messy, because people are inconsistent and fighting their own battles under the surface, every day.
And reading a flawed heroine’s eventual victory (Pyrrhic or not) is, to me, more satisfying because they’ve not only had to overcome the external odds stacked against them – they’ve had to overcome themselves. What could be more relatable?
From a reader’s perspective, it’s important that we allow female protagonists to be just as flawed as male protagonists. A flawed hero is often seen as attractive, and their complications evoke sympathy, while the flawed heroine is often criticized — or even hated. There must be room for women to be kick-ass and strong, but also flawed and weak and sometimes annoying, because that’s a reflection of the truth of women’s lives.
Mary Wilson MacPherson, in my novel Dido’s Crown, is most definitely flawed. She is selfish, sarcastic**, inconsistent, willfully self-deceiving, and has a terrible tendency to file her emotions away in different boxes so she can manage them, so she can feel a sense of control. And yet, in the face of external danger and trouble, she manages to rise to the occasion, even if she’s not particularly nice and definitely not perfect while she does it.
We don’t all have to fight Nazis like Mary did (although, lately…), but we do have to fight our own personal battles while dealing with the inevitable challenges of life. And perhaps reading about characters like Mary will give us more empathy for the struggles of the people around us – and for our own struggles.
* A summary of a 2014 study, along with links to many others, can be found in this Psychology Today article. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201412/can-reading-fictional-story-make-you-more-empathetic
** I actually think this is a positive character trait, but your mileage may vary.
Come meet Julie at Boca de Oro, Saturday, March 4th in Santa Ana