Thursday, January 15, 2015

Writing Beyond Your Self

By Art Taylor

Spurred on by a very generous Christmas gift from my wife, I've just started rereading Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley—part of a New Year's resolution to read the entire Ripliad (four more novels) over the course of the year. In his introduction to this boxed set of the first three books, John Banville writes:
Patricia Highsmith identified closely with her creation. Almost all her friends commented on the intense and intimate manner in which she used to speak of him, as if he were really alive somewhere in the world, and on a least one occasion she inscribed one of her books "from Tom (Pat)." This sense of duality runs throughout her life like a crack athwart a mirror. Commenting in her journal on a dream she had, in which she set fire to a young woman who had yet survived the flames and whom she thought must represent herself, she wrote: "In that case I had two identities: the victim and the murderer."

This week's question on Criminal Minds—"Most male authors create male protagonists and women create female protagonists. Have you ever tried to write a main character of a different sex?"—called both Highsmith and that passage above to mind, and not just because Highsmith's greatest creation is of the opposite sex or because she identifies so clearly with him (her version of Flaubert's famous "Madame Bovary, c'est moi"). Equally interesting to me—equally appropriate—is that last part about being both the victim and the murderer.

The question about writing on the other side of gender lines seems to be a common one, as if writing from the perspective of someone whom you're not is a struggle at best, a no-no at worst. But isn't that a bigger question than just sex or gender. How could a law-abiding author inhabit the thoughts and decisions of a cold-blooded criminal? How could a civilian author accurately recount the musings and actions of a police officer, a military agent, a government spy? Much of this seems to be simply the very nature of what we do—inhabiting the perspective of someone other than ourselves: different sex or gender, different race, different occupation, different political persuasion, different moral compass, whatever.

To answer the question more directly, however, I'll not only say "yes" but also add that my most successful stories have, in fact, been the ones whose protagonists are women, usually stories told at least in part from those characters' perspectives. "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants"—which won last year's Agatha and Macavity Awards and was a finalist for the Anthony—alternates between three third-person perspectives, including the woman at the center of the love triangle driving the plot. "When Duty Calls," a finalist for the previous year's Agatha and Macavity, follows the perspective of a young woman who's become a caretaker for an aging veteran. And among my three most recent stories, "Premonition" (from the latest Chesapeake Crimes anthology) embodies the dreams, fears, and perhaps overactive imagination of a woman waking up on a stressful Halloween night, while one of the two narrators in "Precision" (from the latest issue of Gargoyle) is a woman with a hidden past and secret plans for dark moves in the near future. Looking further ahead, my novel-in-stories On the Road with Del and Louise, due out in September from Henery Press, is told exclusively from Louise's point of view.

I'm not sure why I fall back so frequently on women protagonists or female perspectives, and I certainly can't comment objectively on whether I pull it off well or not. Answering the former would likely be a much longer post; answering the latter would fall on the readers to decide, of course. I'll just hope that my characters—both the ones I've mentioned above and all of them really—are ultimately judged not just on whether the gender is a match or a successful mimic but instead on whether they come across as real and compelling and multi-dimensional, projections not of myself but reflections of the wider world, the wider cast of folks within it.


Paul D. Marks said...

I think you hit the nail on the head, Art, when you talk about how a law abiding author can write from a criminal pov, etc. That's what we do. So whether it's writing a profession or type of person we are not or someone of the opposite gender, we put ourselves in their heads and do the best we can.

Alan Orloff said...

Good points, Art. I agree with you and Paul. The tricky part is getting inside of someone else's mind, be they man or woman, adult or child, villain or hero, human or alien.

Susan C Shea said...

You haven't read Ripley? I envy you the experience, then. There's one later one - the 4th or 5th - that falls short, imo, but I agree that her gender didn't inhibit or compromise Highsmith's ability to get inside the head of a sociopathic man. I have to say I've read some female characters written by men that aren't much more believable than the cover of a pulp magazine, however!