Writing Strong Women – Kaaron Warren

I have a number of books I love to read and read again, and while thinking about who I’d like to talk about for this blog bit, I realized that at least four of them have very strong, very odd, far from perfect female characters.

There’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, (Ken Kesey) which makes me cry from the first line, “They’re out there.” Nurse Ratched is so powerful, so determined, she threatens to take over the novel as well as the lives of the men in her ward.

‘Rebecca’ (Daphne du Maurier) , to me, has two strong women. Well, three, but Mrs Danvers is such a parasite on Rebecca’s energy I don’t want to count her. Rebecca, never seen, still fills me with the desire to be like her; that long hair she tosses back carelessly, the freedom of her decisions, and the way she truly doesn’t care what the world thinks. The narrator, never named, while appearing weak, is truly strong. She doesn’t falter in her love for Maxim (I love that name!), nor does she change in her character as she learns more about the power of Rebecca.

And there’s Vera Claythorn, of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None.’ This novel is a bit of a departure for Christie, I always think. It’s very different to many of her others, and doesn’t have one central detective. I first read it when I was about 13, and Vera to me was such a remarkable woman. She killed a child to try to win over a man, which is so horrendous it gives me an awful feeling in my stomach, but my God, to have the power of your convictions like that! To actually act on such a plan. I admired her because she was wild, she had a lover, and she was beautiful. It doesn’t end well for her; after one last brave act of self-preservation, it doesn’t end well. I hate that that happened, but I also admire Christie for seeing her story through.

Finally, ‘Like Being Killed’ (Ellen Miller) has Ilyana Meyerovich. I read this novel well after I wrote ‘Slights’, otherwise I would say I was influenced by it. Ilyana is similar to Stevie from ‘Slights’ in some ways. She’s funny, she’s abusive and she’s self-harming. Why do I like reading about her then? Because her voice is so strong, and her character so definite.

That’s what I like in my characters.

Creating the character of Stevie took a reasonable amount of letting go on my part. While I’ve always created unlikeable characters, this one was unlikeable for 100,000 words. At the same time, I knew I wanted there to be some empathy for her, or at least interest in her life and where it would lead her. So I didn’t want her to be single-faceted.

The details of her life are partly a collection of things I’ve heard and seen over the years. Things that have upset or offended me, or made me feel pity. I wanted her to epitomize loneliness, and that feeling of being left out of something you can hear happening; the party next door, the group of people in the office across the hallway.

I also wanted her to be strong, and to be very sure of herself.

The letting go part came in the things she does and says. I had to stop myself from censoring her, and from having her make the kinds of choices PEOPLE make. She doesn’t make those choices. It was hard; there is a scene where I have her terrify a group of children and it seemed very, very wrong. It is very wrong, but I had to do it. It was what she would have done, and it led to a couple of vital plot developments.

At the same time, it was a lot of fun. She and her sister-in-law have a very adversarial relationship, and Stevie enjoys stirring Maria up.

Stevie is the sort of person you’re happy you don’t know, but I think I would have been friends with her.

Kaaron Warren’s short story collection The Grinding House (CSFG Publishing) won the ACT Writers’ and Publishers’ Fiction Award and two Ditmar Awards. Her second collection, Dead Sea Fruit is published by Ticonderoga Books. Her critically acclaimed novel Slights (Angry Robot Books) was nominated for an Aurealis Award, made the preliminary ballot for the Stoker Awards, was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly First Novel Award and won the Australian Shadows Award fiction, the Ditmar Award and the Canberra Critics’ Award for Fiction.

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19 Responses to Writing Strong Women – Kaaron Warren

  1. You’re right Kaaron – there’s a strength in just letting the character be who they really are, even if that’s a terrible, horrible awful person. It’s easy to think of heroes and good and right and what makes those things strong but in the end, strength comes from being unapologetically who you really are.

    • Kaaron Warren says:

      Hi Nicole

      I think the strong character can be apologetic, and perhaps change over the course of the story, but they do have to be true to who they are. I’m talking from the creator’s point of view; you have to let them take the actions they would take, and not the ones you would take yourself! That can be difficult at times! But it’s good also to have that character very separate to yourself. It’s like you say about some of the comments you’ve had about scenes in your books. You’ve said, “People, this didn’t happen to me! I made it up!”

      • MaryV says:

        I entirely agree Kaaron – change is a good indicator of strength. A character without growth and development always feels a little flat, no matter how scary, strong or different to begin with.

        I have to say I am loving the character of Lillah in ‘Walking the Tree’. So strong and naive at the same time. I’m watching her progress with interest…

        • Kaaron Warren says:

          Glad you like Lillah! She is very different from Stevie in ‘Slights’, in that most of what she does is help others. She is a very different sort of strong women. I think women who nurture are strong as well. You have to call on so much inner strength to keep it together.
          One of the things I had to stay aware of in ‘Walking the Tree’ was that the sense of leaving your family and your place of birth behind would be a less traumatic experience than it would be in my life because it is the standard cultural behaviour. So that being stoic on leaving isn’t necessarily being strong, it’s acting as other have acted in that circumstance.

          • MaryV says:

            It makes sense also because they’ve already left once, as schoolchildren, right? And have a habit of moving house even while living in the Order. So home is many places.

            Nurturing women are incredibly strong and so often overlooked as templates because ‘too traditional’. I think Lillah would survive in tough situations where some leather-jacket-wearing, modern urban heroine would flounder and die an ugly death, despite the capacity to deliver karate kicks.

            • Kaaron Warren says:

              Yes, the idea of ‘leaving’ is there from an early age. Home is where ‘you’ are. Not even where your family is, or your childhood friends.
              I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘place’, having lived overseas for three years. Home was there, but that sense of real belonging remains here in Australia. But, if we were posted for the next 20 years, home would no longer be here. Home would be wherever we are. We saw it in lots of expats who’d moved around the world a lot. They have that sense of place within themselves. That’s a bit of what I wanted to capture in ‘Walking the Tree’.
              Nurturing women can be overlooked, I agree! Do you think there is a belief that caring for other people makes you weaker? That you have to be totally selfish to be very strong? I wonder.

              • MaryV says:

                I think that erroneous belief that selfishness = strength is very prevalent (and very macho.) It’s beyond me how so many cultures can hold women to be weak – these people who bear child after child, toil in fields, hold communities together and endure untold hardship, uncomplainingly, every day.

                Now here we are as modern women writers, dressing up our female characters with traditionally male attributes (fighting skills, lack of emotion, individual rather than collective cares) and calling them ‘strong’… it rather ticks me off, actually. (I speak of the two-dimensional kickass heroine of course, not those with some more depth. But there are unfortunately so many of these cookie cutter, karate chop heroines around.)

                • Kaaron Warren says:

                  That ticks me off, too. The idea that women can only be strong if they are ‘like men’. It ticks me off because men deserve far more credit as well as women!
                  One thing I find interesting In Real Life is the women you meet who think that dressing well (which usually means anything beyond track suit pants and an old t shirt with a faded band name on it) means you are weaker. I’ve had women look me up and down, and I can see them taking IQ points off me, because I’m wearing a dress rather than more ‘masculine’ clothing. As if dressing ‘like a man’ makes you stronger and smarter.

                  • MaryV says:

                    Oh, that ‘tracksuit mentality’ is an Aussie/NZ thing I’ve noticed, too. Doesn’t happen quite so much in other countries I’ve lived in – the French have practically the opposite problem, ie, if you’re not dressed smartly you must be an idiot. 😉

                    Whichever way it rolls I tend to fail the clothes test – too lackadaisical for Europe and too bohemian for the antipodes. Feh to all that.

                    The underlying assumption that ‘femininity’ = weakness – whether expressed in clothes, occupation, personality type or whatever it happens to be – is one that drives me seriously nuts, however.

                    I’ll be caring, nurturing and wear flowery dresses if I damn well want to, and don’t dare call me woos for it. (At this point the mother hen turns into a snarling green dragon, still wearing that flowery dress)

      • yeah. Particularly the sex scenes… 🙂

        Learning to step out of my characters way is one of the most valuable lessons I learned as a writer.

        • Kaaron Warren says:

          It is a very good lesson. And vitally important, I think, if you’re going to write more than one book. Otherwise it’s the same book over and over again.
          I’ve always worked hard to take myself out of it, but sometimes you read back and see that bits have crept in. Does that happen to anyone else? I guess in a way it’s because I use things I’ve seen and heard to build the story, and sometimes it’s my impression of an event which comes across. If I was hungry when I witnessed the event (one small example; an old man with very, very thick socks, thicker than his pants. I still remember seeing him in Canberra city. I was holding a baguette at the time!) then that sense of hunger might sneak into the story. If I notice it, I’ll remove it!

  2. Helen Lowe says:

    I am intrigued–looking forward to trying both “Slights” and “Walking the Tree.”

  3. Gillian says:

    I’m glad you brought Daphne du Maurier into the discussion. She writes women forced into postiions where being weak would be easier and she manages to play a lot of standard tropes while not letting her books get dull or her women weak.

    • Kaaron Warren says:

      Her women could be misunderstood as weak, couldn’t they? Especially the narrator of Rebecca, who is so led by people’s opinions, and of what she thinks Maxim wants. But still within it she is powerfully strong.

      • Gillian says:

        That’s the thing – the weakness is interpretable into it, but they’re strong. Which about reflected the public view of what women had to be in du Maurier’s formative years.

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