Spineless

Battered by the latest round of rejections, a writer friend of mine, who happens to be much acclaimed for her Y/A fiction, complained it was all because of the wretched F-word.

The F-Word? Well couldn't she just scrub it out, and replace it with 'O sugar' or 'Flipping Ada!' or something? No, she said, raising her eyes heavenwards, 'not that F-Word. I mean 'Feisty.'

Feisty? Yes, said she, they're all complaining that my heroine isn't feisty enough, and I'm sick of hearing the word.

I sympathized. I recently stumbled upon a book blog where the blogger regularly slammed novels for their spineless heroines. This, according to her, was the worst sin a writer could commit, to create a heroine minus a backbone.

You can see her point. A simpering female victim is as much a stereotype as the spirited gal who vaults over every obstacle in her path. That said, I find the F-Word scenario worrying for all sorts of reasons.

It's our job as writers to breathe life into all our characters, to think ourselves under their skin as real psychologically complex individuals. Real people don't conform to type. You can't buy them off the peg: I'll take the blue-eyed blond with freckles and make her feisty please. Real people may be feisty one day and shrinking violets the next. Much depends on events, on moods, on other people's behaviour, even on the weather.

There are even, dare I suggest, people who are naturally timid and introverted yet remain interesting. If they're well drawn, readers will understand and empathize with their fears. One example that springs to mind is the heroine in Mary Costello's wonderful debut novel, 'Academy Street.' Costello's heroine, Tess, is the very antithesis of the strong, fearless female protagonist. Traumatized by her mother's death at an early age, she turns inward upon herself and is so cut off from others that she's unable even to speak. Eventually she does find her tongue, but never quite loosens it enough to communicate freely. Even when she leaves her native Ireland to join family in New York, she remains isolated, painfully shy and lonely throughout her life.

Perhaps the blogger I came across would call her 'spineless.' Maybe she is. But she's also the most intriguing and emotionally compelling character of any novel I've read in a long time.

Don't think I'm averse to strong women in fiction. We all love to cheer on the cowering wreck who grows through adversity and discovers her inner Joan of Arc. But maybe it's worth remembering as we struggle to fit our heroines into a fictional corset, that real people come in all shapes and sizes and psychological types.