Monday, July 24, 2006

Isn't She Lovely?

How bitchy is too bitchy?

I had the divine good fortune recently to preview the first draft of a science fiction romance novel--it was excellent--and the author asked me an interesting question: did I feel the female protagonist was too bitchy?

My immediate thoughts were 1) I recognized the character had a strong personality at the outset and 2) what's wrong with being bitchy? Okay, don't jump all over me. I know what's wrong with being bitchy. Bitchy, in the true sense, defines someone complaining loudly and forcefully out of proportion to the problem.

That wasn't really the issue here. What we had was a female protagonist who, at the outset of the book (save for the first few pages when she's in a psychiatric ward), takes no crap from nobody. No way. No how. Because she realizes she's a dead woman and she's trying to survive any way she can--and rightfully suspicious as hell of those who are trying to help her.

Would we ask if a male protagonist was too forceful? Would we ask if he was too direct, too pushy, too aggressive in an action-oriented plot?

So how far can we go when we write strong woman in science fiction romance? Whether they be human or alien, how far can we push them before we lose our audience? Is this even something authors should worry about?

I do worry about synchronizing motivation when I write a character. Most authors do. So I'm not looking for the obvious answer of "as long as everything the character does makes sense, it's okay." I'm looking for something deeper. Science Fiction romance that takes on the kinds of action our books do, that explores the kinds of issues our books do, that opens the kinds of doors our books do is, by it's very nature, a genre that pushes the envelope. And science fiction and fantasy has long been the genre of larger than life characters.
But can we get bitchy?

In trying to answer this author's question to me, I thought of my Gabriel's Ghost. Another female protagonist who, at the outset, is threatened, both with rape and death. Her rescuer is the last person she'd nominate for the job; he's even a former enemy. It's a lesser of the two evils situation--much like the author's set-up with her character, Jax, in the psychiatric ward: do I stay here and let the shrinks mentally torture me to death or do I go with this total stranger who offers rescue for no salient reason?

Chaz's response--like Jax's--is to take that lesser of two evils but to do so with one hand on her weapon, her eyes wide open and her brain full of questions. And those questions do come out in the opening chapter, and not in the most polite of ways. So is Chaz too bitchy?

I've heard from a few readers who've said that Chaz Bergren in Gabriel's Ghost was their least favorite of all my characters, and some intimated she was "too military" (ie: forceful?) for them. Perhaps too alpha?

So I wonder--are we not yet to the place in science fiction romance where we can have a take-charge, kick-butt female protagonist? Or do we need to have more of them, so readers can experience and understand the loveliness of the bitch? If you find the strong, forceful female character bothersome (and tell me why you would), what would make her more palatable to you as a reader?

Inquiring minds want to know.


  1. Anonymous3:46 PM EDT

    Wow great question Linnea!Can a forceful bitchy female protagonist be accepted...even liked? Is today's society and readers ready to embrace a bitch?

    I think so. I think we like forceful, not taking any crap kind of women. But I think writers need to make sure they dont over-masculine-ize their heroine. Keep some aspect of feminity in her...some softness. It's the same with the alpha hero...readers dont want them TOO alpha but prefer when the hero shows some gentleness or tenderness around those weaker than him ie women and children.

    So can we love the bitch? Yes I think long as the bitch shows some tenderness is isnt totally without a heart ;)


  2. I personally buy books, with forceful females in all genre that I read. If they aren't forceful they shouldn't be in charge. Being a leader is going to effect everything they do even in recreational activities. To appear weak in a social situation is to take the chance of losing respect on the job.

    A woman who needed to decide in an instant whether to go with someone like Gabriel when all other choices would be worse would not last until the end of the first chapter if the author was being realistic.

    I like your differentiating between being forceful and being whiny.


  3. I am torn by the whole alpha female heroine thing.

    What I like to read in a character -- hero, heroine or villian -- is complexity, surprises and authenticity. And to be complex, suprising and authentic, I believe a character has to reveal a certain amount of ambiguity and doubt.

    Ambiguity and doubt do not often fit into readers' expectations of the current kick ass heroine.

    Several critiques of my WIP, by both other authors and industry pros, balked at bit at a ballsy heroine doing a physically and emotionally dangerous job (therapist to a psychopath) while also revealing uncertainty and doubt and making missteps. The thread underlying all critiques was that she didn't come off strong enough, intelligent enough, because of my willingness to show her having doubts and ambiguities.

    I know this will come as a shocking surprise to many, but I don't much care for the perfect virgin heroine, for whom purity of thought and deed result in happy endings. Similarly, I am off-put by the kick-ass heroine who in the peculiar purity of her own thoughts and deeds wins her happy ending.

    I guess that too perfect a virgin or too perfect a bitch is just too much perfect for my taste.

    Does that make sense? lol

  4. Anonymous10:02 PM EDT

    Ummm. One of my favorite re-reads, and the one I hold up to my librarian peers as a great example of kick-butt heroines who are NOT in the usual mold, is Linda Howard's TO DIE FOR. Have you read it? It's told in the first person, like GABRIEL'S GHOST, because there's really no other way to adequately convey the strength and complexity of Blair's character. She's cheerfully and unapologetically self-centered, vain, and gutsy, and woe to anyone who does her wrong. She's picked herself up after her ex betrayed her - with her 17-year-old sister! - and gone after a nice divorce settlement, and she plays on her cheerleader image along with her cute blonde good looks to get what she wants, every time. She has no paramilitary training, she isn't on the run from a mob of killers, she's just going about her daily life when she witnesses a murder and is taken into police protection. By the lieutenant who dumped her two years ago. And boy is she out to get him for that. Bitchy? He sure thinks so. Why can't she just fall into his lap now that he's made up his mind they belong together? To which she says (and I heartily agree!) PFFFFFFFT! and takes off for the beach, ignoring his calls on her cell phone and his dire warnings for her not to leave town. Now, this isn't SFR, it's straight romantic suspense, but it's also a laugh a minute. And whenever Blair is out to get her way, she's totally upfront about it.

    And there's a great deal of truth to be found in the rejoinder, "Bitchy? You say that like there's something wrong with it ..." teehee

    But I digress. I think, along with Mo and Ray, that it depends on how it's presented. Blair was likeable even when she was in a snit, because we came to know her as she knew herself - and she accepted all of herself, not just the lovely parts. Chaz was a total person, not just a tough career soldier, and the book explored many facets of her personality - how she could hold it together when necessary, only to quietly fall apart later. Some authors can't manage that, and their characters come off as one-sided and whiny. I don't like any of the characters I read about, to be cardboard caricatures. Even the villains should have some humanizing elements, or I feel like I'm watching re-runs of Mr. Magoo, and not enjoying it.

    Becoming forceful and assertive in standing up for what's right should never be confused with pejoratives meant to keep any certain class of persons "in their place" as determined by the person employing the insult ...

    Stepping down off my soapbox now ~

  5. Anonymous10:44 PM EDT

    I guess I'd have to see an example of the definition before I could say, but I haven't run into any heroines who were TOO bitchy. Not yet, anyway. And actually, if the protag's gripes are legit, then is it really being bitchy? Chazz for example is a former fleet captain -- a genuine leader, not a figurehead. She's going to be plenty vocal if she sees something she doesn't like, either in a situation or a suggested plan of action. That ain't bitchy in my book, especially if she can offer an alternative, which Chazz probably would. Anyway, that's my two cents worth.

  6. In my current novel making the rounds, there have been a few comments that maybe the heroine isn't nice enough. Too catty, too bitchy, not empathetic, what have you. It's not sf, though, and I think you can write stronger, less immediately likeable females in sf than you can in romance.

    How bitchy is too bitchy? When I don't want her to get an HEA! I am reminded of one example, the main character in the Shopaholic books (also not sf, but...) Anyway, the character did all sorts of TSTL and selfish stuff with no learning curve and wound up with a happy ending. On the other hand, in CONFESSIONS OF A SOCIOPATHIC SOCIAL CLIMBER, the heroine was a total cat and her ending, while SHE didn't realize it was not stellar, was satisfying for me as a reader.

    Granted, these are chick lit, but I guess I want, in any fiction, for people to get what's coming to them since they hardly ever do in real life. If the heroine in an sf novel is a butthole, for no reason other than "angsty past" or "because she's supposed to kick ass", then yeah, that isn't a good read for me.

    And it also depends on your definition of "bitch". q

  7. It occurs to me that in this context "bitchy" actually means "edgy" which is admired and sells big time in Hollywood these days.

    By "edgy" they mean situations that drive a character "over the edge" or "outside the box" -- into an emotional state where they do not behave in a rational, measured, and reasonable fashion but do the right thing with EXTREME energy, out of the core of being, not rational thought.

    At least I think that's what it means.

    At any rate, one person's "disproportionate response" is another person's rational solution to a problem.

    Remember, when everyone else is losing their head over something, it's wise to ask what do they know that I don't know?

    And as women, we all know that we must exert far more force on the world to achieve change than any man ever would.

    So, no, I don't think there's a limit to how "bitchy" a female protagonist can be in SFR -- I think it behooves the male protagonist to examine the situation from her point of view.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  8. I think there's a difference between a strong female character and a bitch. You can have a strong man, and he can be written as an obnoxious ass. I've read female characters written 'bitchy' by writers who are trying to create a powerful female and equate it with bitch. I see it as the difference between assertiveness and agression. Bitchy heroines have a nasal whine, and appear to have underlying confidence issues when presented with conflict. They may also evidence 'snappy dialogue' that is really mean spirited or diatribe. A strong female character that is not a bitch comes across clean, as strong. I think the trick is in the action scenes and how the character generates and handles conflict. Your male coutnerpart to the bitch evidences the same traits, they come across as childish, or churlish. As to the too military, that's an interesting comment. My guess, the reader has military in the family or her past, and had a difficult experience dealing with them.

  9. Oooh, I got blogged about! I don't think I'll be ratcheting Jax down any, unless it's at the behest of the editor who buys the book. Otherwise, she is what she is, take her or leave her.