Sunday, March 3, 2013

5 Ways “Difficult” Women Can Energize Your Writing and Make Your Fiction Memorable

by Ruth Harris

Before there was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Lisbeth Salander, there was Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, the heroine of a novel called Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. Smilla is part Inuit and lives in Copenhagen.

According to the flap copy of the FSG edition, "she is thirty-seven, single, childless, moody, and she refuses to fit in." She is complex, thorny, obstinate, blunt, fearless, she loves clothes and, when required, she can—and does—kick ass. Like Lisbeth—who's a talented computer jock—Smilla has her tech side and sees the beauty in mathematics.

Thinking about these two "difficult" women—Lisbeth and Smilla—I began to realize that the “difficult,” unconventional female character, like Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, appears in fiction again and again in different guises. 

  • Clarice Starling, the FBI agent in Silence of the Lambs (played by Jodie Foster in the film), must face her fears—and Hannibal Lector—to solve the identity of a serial killer but she has no personal life that we know of. She's a nun, FBI-style, and she doesn’t give up until the case is solved.
  • Jane Tennison, the DI in television’s Prime Suspect, played by Hellen Mirren, is a “woman of a certain age” as they say in France. Her love life is on the gritty side, she drinks too much, she can be flinty—not flirtatious. The men she works with give her a hard time and she isn’t shy about pushing back.
  • Carrie Mathison. Cable television, quite willing to break molds, has come up with Carrie, the bi-polar CIA agent in Homeland, who has sex with the suspected terrorist. Carrie is also “single, childless, moody, and she refuses to fit in.”
  • Maya. The young CIA officer played by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, is tough-minded, focused and willing to contradict senior officers in her quest to find the al Qaeda terrorist, Osama bin Laden.
  • Nurse Ratched, in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Wikipedia describes her like this: “the ward is run by steely, unyielding Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who employs subtle humiliation, unpleasant medical treatments and a mind-numbing daily routine to suppress the patients.”
  • Annie Wilkes. And while we’re in the medical dept: Annie Wilkes, a former nurse, cuts off her favorite writer’s foot with an axe and cauterizes the wound with a blowtorch. Played by Kathy Bates in the movie, Annie is the unforgettable, over-the-top “difficult” woman in Stephen King’s bestseller, Misery.
  • Ellen Ripley. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the warrant officer in Alien, is courageous, authoritative and has no personal life that we know of. She’s a sci-fi heroine who must rely on her own guts, brains and fearlessness.
  • Mrs. Danvers, the creepy housekeeper with no first name in Rebecca, is dedicated to her dead employer, the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter. She is intimidating, manipulative and willing to drive the second Mrs. DeWinter to suicide.
  • Alex Forrest. Glenn Close plays this murderous seductress in Fatal Attraction. She lives alone, has no family that we are aware of and is psychopathically determined to get what she wants.
  • M. Judi Dench as the head of MI6 in the James Bond films. She is blunt and unmarried as far as we know although in one scene it is clear she is sleeping with a male companion. She is James Bond’s boss and does not flinch from bossing him around and dressing him down for his recklessness. 

So what do these “difficult” women have to do with you? What does the tough, determined, bossy, or downright crazy woman have to offer?

The “difficult” female character can—and will—do the shocking, the unexpected and, as a consequence, will give your story an immediate jolt of energy. She is the character who doesn’t fit the mold. She is the boss (M), the beginner (Clarice Starling), the domestic employee (Mrs. Danvers).

2. The “difficult” female character will live in the “wrong” neighborhood, drink too much, have sex with the “wrong” partners—all good ways to add sizzle and wow! plot twists.

3. She will not take her niece or nephew to Disney World but to a stock car race one day, to the ballet the next and teach him or her how to run a bulldozer, how to roast the perfect chicken and how to rob a bank.

4. She will most likely not be a secretary or a dress designer but a (believable) nuclear physicist, petroleum engineer or cat burglar. If she is a secretary or dress designer, it’s because she’s got a dramatic secret that will give your fiction a buzz.

5. She will never do the expected or the conventional: she will not give up a career or a promotion for Mr. Right. She will not fall madly in love, swoon into someone’s arms and make irrational choices although she might be an excellent and loyal lover. She can be stubborn, pathological, repellent but don’t forget the “difficult” woman: she can be the larger-than-life character who will rescue you from the plot blahs and help you break through a block.

I know this because a terror named Chessie Tillman bailed me out of a dead end in Brainwashed—it’s a thriller that takes place in the sour, paranoid 1970’s of Watergate and Vietnam War. Because the book is a political thriller, I needed a politician and I had one. I thought. Except he was so stupefyingly boring he brought the plot, the book—and me—to a dead halt.

I fretted and stewed. Bitched and complained. I was blocked and couldn’t figure out what happened next or who did what to whom. Color me one very very unhappy writer. Then, popping out somewhere from the murk of my unhappiness, along came Chessie.

“Senator Chessie Tillman’s parents wanted a boy. What they got was her. She was short, dumpy, and dressed like a rag picker. She smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, swore like a sailor. She had been married three times, each husband richer and more handsome than the one before.

“A roof-rattling orator and take-no-prisoners arm-twister, Chessie Tillman had mowed down men twice her size. In a series of headline-making speeches, she expressed the nation’s disgust with the sleazy goings-on of the Watergate scandal. In Senate hearings she faced down the beribboned generals who were bullshitting the public about the alleged “progress” being made in the high-body-count, vastly expensive, and increasingly pointless war in Vietnam.

“She was blunt, fearless, and had a big mouth. When something bothered her, she didn’t give up and she didn’t give in. America had never seen a politician like her. Right now, sitting behind the desk in her shambles of an office in the Senate office building, she had a new bug up her ass.”

I hadn’t realized until then the power of the “difficult” woman. Lesson learned: When in deep writing doo-doo, she can—and will—come to your rescue.

Ruth Harris blogs here once a month. She is a New York Times bestselling author and former Big Five editor. Her latest book is The Chanel Caper: James Bond meets Nora Ephron...or is it the other way around? You can read more about her work at Ruth Harris's Blog.

This is such a great insight from Ruth! I realize I had a similar experience when Athena Roberts walked into Food of Love. All I wanted was a hairdresser for one scene. In walked this bald, 6-foot Lesbian Iraq War vet. She took no prisoners and took over the story--and energized a ho-hum ms. into an exciting thriller. 

What about you, scriveners? Who are your favorite "difficult women"? Do you write about them? Could adding one to your WIP give your book the "oomph" it needs?

Opportunity Alerts

1) BiblioPublishing is looking for submissions of out-of-print or new books for publication through their small press. This 25-year-old press (formerly called The Educational Publisher) is branching out from educational books to other nonfiction and selected fiction. They're especially looking for self-help and sci-fi. They provide cover design, formatting and distribution, but ask your ms. be pre-edited. They publish in print as well as all ebook formats

2) Memoir Writing Workshop by bestselling memorist and Emmy-winning TV producer Fern Field Brooks with frequent blog commenter Phyllis Humphries. If you're a memoirist living in SoCal, you might want to look into this seminar to be held in Palm Desert on April 4th from 1-4 PM. For details email Fern at letterstomyhusband2011(at) gmail (dot) com.

3) Interested in having your short fiction recorded for a weekly podcast?There’s no pay, but it’s fantastic publicity if your story is accepted by SMOKE AND MIRRORS. They broadcast about three stories a week. Spooky, dark tales preferred. No previous publication necessary. They judge on the story alone.

4) Cash prizes for flash fiction. The San Luis Obispo NIGHTWRITERS are holding their annual 500-word story contest. Anybody from anywhere in the world is welcome to enter. Prizes are $200, $150 and $75. This is a fantastic organization that boasts a number of bestselling authors among their members, including Jay Asher, Jeff Carlson, and moi. (Well, some sell better than others :-) ) Deadline is March 31st.


  1. I love this type of character - and I don't understand why they're called "difficult". We don't have "difficult" male characters, do we? Personally, I just think of them as "tough", "steely" and, more than likely, "awesome". Just because they're not conventionally likeable doesn't mean they have to be called "difficult".

  2. Ripley was great in Aliens as well.
    While the female lead in my second book didn't hang with the wrong crowd and that sort of thing, she was stubborn, driven, and an exceptional pilot.

  3. I don't write this kind of character, because I have been told (numerous times) that I AM this kind of character. I'm a lot like Chessie Tillman I guess, I don't take guff from anyone, speak my mind too loudly and my favorite word begins with an F.

    My female characters are all weak women to start and tend to "grow" into their strength. However, I have had a story rattling around for at least 10 years now with a strong woman lead. We'll see if she ever gets written. Sometimes I think she's just too much for me. lol

    Thanks, Ruth, for another great post.

  4. Charley—Thanks! You nailed it: aka the double standard. "He" does xyz & he's a hero. "She" does xyz & she's a misfit, a problem, a PITA.

    Annoying as hell. To put it mildly. Particularly for those of us who love this kind of character. Fact is, like them or not, they're the characters people remember.

    Alex—"stubborn, driven, and an exceptional pilot." Now you're talking!!! :-)

  5. Anne—You're like Chessie? You—shall we say—employ the f-word? You're my kind of girl!!!

    Why don't you write your strong female lead? Writing Chessie was a ball so I will only encourage you.

  6. Thanks for this great post, Ruth! The lead in one of my urban fantasy novels is a "difficult" woman who doesn't take crap from anyone. She's steely, determined, and will fight to the bloody death, but it's a delicate balance in urban fantasy that I find a lot of authors go too over-the-top with in terms of thinking that the more typically masculine attributes they give the female lead, the better, which is not always the case, and can: a) annoy the reader, b) make it impossible for them to sympathize with the main character, c) reduce the believability of the character, d) and generally be seen as "trying too hard."

    As with all things, I think balance and moderation are key. The examples of "difficult" women characters you've provided in this post are great ones, and we can learn much from studying them.


  7. Anita—Thank you for the kind words & for making an important point. Just slapping "masculine" characteristics on a woman is far from creating a credible, memorable character. A writer who makes that mistake still has a lot to learn.

    All the female characters I cite are written as believable human beings...not freaks and not lists of "guy stuff" thrown together.

  8. Fantastic post. I aspire to be that difficult aunt and to write difficult female characters as life would be boring without them. I think Georgette Heyer does a great job with this.

  9. Tasha—Thank you for the flattering words. Life would definitely be plain vanilla without aunts—and writers—like you!

  10. Ruth: I loved the idea of writing a "difficult" character and plan to try it.

    Anne: Thanks for the plug about the Memoir Workshop.

  11. Hmmm... Loved this post, but I think you've presented two different female character types here: (1) difficult but heroic and (2) demented but intriguing. I don't see a relationship between, say, Jane Tennison and Annie Wilkes.

    I'm more attracted to difficult, heroic women, but the over-the-top actions of the demented, intriguing ones can make for a great plot twist if done well.

  12. "Difficult"? I call them "Independent". The world tends to call them less nice things. *grins*

    Man I love these types of girls, and rarely write one that doesn't have some sort of grit. From the bastard daughter of the King who goes on a quest to find more about her mother's family before she marries her knight in shining armor to the saucy sexy spacer 'itch whose nympho tendencies and tempers make it a wonder shes never been killed... probably helps that she runs her own one gal cargo ship, while taking down evil governments one at a time....

    *giggles* I love my gals. I can't write anything but them, because I come from a long line OF them.

    :} Cathryn Leigh

  13. I agree with Debra, Ruth. I didn't see the relationship between some of them ... and honestly ... I hated Nurse Rachett. I think she didn't represent a difficult woman, but a mean rotten bith and if I got his take right ... she was the image of American women :)

    That being said, who doesn't love a woman who can kick ass? A really powerful woman who can take charge and not need to give up her identity to find happiness. Yeah, that's my kind of gal. My fav of those you mentioned was Tennison of course ... and what made that truly special is that she was based on a real live copper :)

  14. Phyllis—Thank you! You'll have fun thinking her up & the writing her! Enjoy!

    Debra—Glad you loved the post! My point was that both the "difficult" and the "demented" are powerful figures. They provide the blast of energy that can propel a book and lift it out of the ordinary/predictable. Readers remember both.

    Cathryn—Yay for you! And for the long line of "independent" women you're descended from! Someone's gotta fight evil!

    Fios—You hated her but you remember her. ;-) Mean rotten bitches have lots & lots of energy and people remember them. Don't forget lots of people root for the villain.

    Ditto the Helen Mirren/Tennison cop—people love her, they remember her & they root for her, too, despite her dark side and her flaws.

    My goal in this post was to point out that creating the extraordinary over-the-top character—whether she's "good" or "bad"—can make your book extraordinary.

  15. I love a unique character who doesn't fit a mold, as long as the difficult doesn't become a cliche. Thought-provoking article.

    And thanks for sharing all the writing opportunities!

  16. Thanks Ruth. I'm getting ready to introduce the antagonist in my current YA (or she is just about ready to introduce herself to me)who is going to be a conniving, controlling, deceptive woman. I am looking forward to the writing and just might use some of the images you invoked with your list.

  17. Now you made me want to write a difficult woman.

    As an aside: I can't put my finger down where, but in Skyfall, M said something that had me thinking: "Oh. She's a widow now." I JUST can't remember what it had been. But I think it's in the scene where Bond goes back to London.

  18. Ruth, when I read your post this morning, I became very angry. Angry enough that I had to walk away for an hour before I commented.

    My problem is your use of the word "difficult" to describe interesting, independent woman. "Difficult" is often used in a derogatory, patronizing way to describe a woman who won't conform. While women may use it in regards to another woman, it's most often used by men as an insult.

    I wish you had addressed these characters as something other than "difficult". Many of the other commenters have come up with excellent adjectives. But by using "difficult" (which in my experience is usually followed by the term "bitch"), I feel you are perpetuating a stereotype that has no place in 21st-century culture.

  19. Suzan--I hope you'll note that Ruth put the word "difficult" in quotes. This is for a reason. She means it ironically. For the extremely literal reader, it might have been more accurate to say "women who have traditionally been called difficult by mainstream culture" but that wouldn't have fit in the header. :-)

  20. Julie—Oh, horrors! A cliché? Better not be anywhere around here! lol

    Christine—"Conniving, controlling, deceptive" sure sounds like a great character! I bet she'll do a great job energizing your book!

    Misha—I don't recall the scene you're referring to in Skyfall but you may well be right. Maybe the guy she was in bed with in the earlier movies was her DH. Then again, maybe she was having a hot affair. ;-)

    Have fun with your difficult woman!

    Suzan—I didn't see your comment until after Anne replied but she explained my use of the word "difficult" clearly & succinctly. I agree with you about the way the term is often used—that was the point.

  21. "'He' does xyz & he's a hero. 'She' does xyz & she's a misfit, a problem, a PITA."

    Yes, there is an unfortunate double standard here...but it works both ways. "She" sits around being a victim and she's "lovable." "He" refuses to hurt people and he's "boring." The decent man is the sidekick, the gay best friend, the doomed Love Interest #2. Have you ever seen a romance novel titled He Treated Me with Respect and Stopped When I Said No?

    There's also a second, more insidious double standard for "difficult" women like this--they get away with a lot that they shouldn't. Sure, "he" can do XYZ to other male characters, but heroes never hit women. Ever. Lisbeth, on the other hand, can kidnap men, bind and torture them, and steal from them all she wants, yet she's still The Victim because she has a vagina. Scenes of her shoving things up where the sun don't shine are "awesome" because it's "justice." Can you imagine people cheering if a male hero did the same to a woman? Of course not.

    Women being excessively violent against men is not only acceptable, it's even supposed to be funny. You have movies like Wedding Crashers with scenes of sexpot women tying helpless men to beds for laughs, because woman-on-man rape is Comedy Gold. In the first Stephanie Plum book, our intrepid heroine runs over Morelli, who had dumped her three years before, with her father's car. When he tells her his leg is broken, she says "Good" and drives off. Hilarious...until you reverse the roles and imagine a man doing that to his ex-girlfriend because she never called.

    I would never write a female protagonist like this because I would never write a male protagonist like this. If a behavior is wrong for one gender, it's wrong for the other--we don't get to say that men abusing women is awful but women abusing men is great fun.

  22. Wonderful post, Ruth, really enjoyed it! Difficult women, yeah, love them! But I also like - nay, love - difficult men! Actually, these characters that are strong-willed and won't stop at anything will energize just about any book and its author...Let's drink to that, to the difficult characters of this world!

  23. Tamara—Thanks for taking the time to comment & for pointing out yet another double standard. Of course you shouldn't write a character you don't want to. No writer should.

    Claude—Thanks for the kind words. I'll definitely toast the difficult men, too. Not that I've ever known any. ;-)

  24. the "difficult" and the "demented" are powerful figures.

    I love this line. It is so true. These are the characters, both male and female that I remember.

  25. Barbara—Thanks for the flattering words. It occurs to me reading your comment that the word "powerful" can almost be taken literally: it's the energy (power) of these characters that drive so much memorable fiction/films.

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