Writing Strong Women – Blake Charlton

Let me tell you the stories of three women.

Or, to be more precise, the stories of a dead woman, a living girl, an imaginary girl.

The dead woman’s story—as I witnessed it—starts when she was alive.

It’s my first year of medical school, and we’re learning biochemistry, the molecular basis of disease and medication. Not. so. lively. Then, one day we’re treated to an interview between Dr. Gilbert Chu, a famous oncologist, and a vivacious octogenarian, whom I’ll name Helen (not her real name).  In her late sixties, Helen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and begun on chemotherapy. At a hospital outside of my academic center, her chemotherapy regimen was confused, and she was accidentally given a medication called Cisplatin. It’s a platinum molecule turned biological weapon: it crossbinds DNA, crumpling up genes like a hand wadding up a sheet of newspaper. In very small doses, cisplatin is highly effective against certain types of cancer. Helen was supposed to receive a lot more of a milder drug, but she was given cisplatin at the dosage for a milder drug. Technically, Helen was given a ‘massive overdose.”

The horrors of routine chemotherapy are well-known: hair loss, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, etc. Cisplatin is notorious for sudden, violent side effects. So much so that oncology nurses sometimes refer to it as “cis-flatten’em.” Helen’s massive overdose pushed her beyond what was well known and into blindness, deafness, grand mal seizures, kidney failure. At this point, Helen was transferred to my hospital. Under the direction of Dr. Chu, a technological effort worthy of a medical TV drama was begun. Helen just barely survived, but she was rendered nearly deaf. Her vision was drastically decreased for more than a year, and she required a kidney transplant.

And yet…and yet…her character suffered no damage. During the interview, it became apparent that she had a personality bigger than the whole hospital. She was cracking jokes with and about the famous oncologist. When she overheard a few of the female med students talking about the upcoming med student formal dance, she told a few of the male medical students in the front row (included me) that she was single. My class loved her. She was incandescent. That’s just who she was. It wasn’t surprising when we learned that one of the doctors caring for her (not Dr. Chu) fell in love with her; after her recovery, they were married and lived well until his death decades later.

It boggled my mind. Where was her anger at the medical establishment? Where was the bitterness I would have felt if I had been put through such an ordeal? When she answered questions from the audience, I asked exactly that. She grew serious and said something like, “I was angry and bitter. But when you’re alone and in the dark, and you’re blind and deaf, when you’re trapped, you have to find a way to go on. You don’t immediately realize there’s a choice of how you go on. And somehow I went on in a way so that I could talk to you all, here, much later.”

That ended Helen’s lecture. I didn’t suppose ever to see her again. A few weeks later, I encountered the story of the living girl.

I met Angela (not her real name) shortly after she lost her heart. And both her lungs. The surgeons cut down the center of her chest and took out all three of the concerned organs and replaced them with those of a donor. She had a very rare disease of unknown cause. She was 16 years old. I was assigned to her in a big sib / little sib program between medical students and children with chronic disease. This was our first meeting and she was only 5 days post op. No one yet knew if her body would reject the transplanted organs: a result that would put her in mortal danger. As I sat there, on the flimsy hospital chair, she looked me over and—in the tone unique to an exasperated young woman—said, “Well…this is awkward.” A week later, she texted me “OMG, I’m holding my heart in my hands.” I had been in histology lecture, but afterwards I stopped by her room. She was holding a dilated and plasticized bit of muscle. “Why the hell do they give us these things back?” she asked.  And, really, I don’t know why they gave her heart back to her. It’s…odd. Anyway, Angela didn’t reject her transplants. I would sit with her when she had to come into the hospital, or wait for an appointment in clinic. Sometimes she was bitter. She would wonder “why me?” Not an uncommon feeling for a 16 year old; even for those 16 year olds possessing all of their original internal organs.  But Anglia is tough. Nowadays, she’s doing well, going to college. Occasionally, she texts me during her more tedious lectures.

But before Angela got to college, there was the story of the imaginary girl.

Her name is Stephanie. That’s her real name. To the extent that she’s real. She’s a teenage brain cancer patient who discovers she’s in a hospital for the dead. Things get weirder and more science fictional as the story goes on. You can read it here. Or, if you’re the listening type, you can hear it on an Escape Pod podcast. I wrote that story briefly after meeting Helen and Angela. In fact, Stephanie is the composite of Helen and Angela’s characters jammed into a plot I dreamt up during a boring neuroscience lecture. I was also drawing upon my experiences from the year I spent with my father after his diagnosis of a very dangerous type of cancer. (Dad’s, miraculously, fine now.) When I learned that story was going to be published in the Seeds of Change anthology I was thrilled. It was my first publication.

I asked Angela if she wanted a copy of the anthology. She didn’t like sci-fi. And that’s cool. But I was pretty sure Helen would like a book. Even if she didn’t read the story; she’d like knowing she was part of the book. I kept meaning to ask our famous professor to make a book hand off to Helen. But one thing led to another. I was busy. Medical students usually are. I decided to wait until the next year; Helen would come in to give her lecture to the new class of first years. However, when I was taking a spring-quarter autopsy elective, the pathologists brought in Helen’s body. She’d died suddenly; the pathologists were supposed to find out why. It felt like a kick in the gut, like I wanted to vomit or cry. I didn’t do either. I turned away before they opened Helen up; I left the room. So far that has been the only sight in medical training I have turned away from.

And I’ll never forget Helen’s character.

And that brings me to my only contribution of advice for this wonderful series on writing strong women: Take note of extraordinary women, try to feel what about them moves you, combine aspects of different extraordinary women (if needed), and then run them through the labyrinth of your plot.

For writers, I don’t think it’s helpful to think about character. Female or male. Plot, sure, think about plot long and hard. Think about what your reader will think about the plot. The labyrinth, the puzzle, misdirect your reader so you’re always one step ahead. Cat and mouse, cloak and dagger. It’s like that.

But character is harder, in my opinion. No amount of thinking is going to get you there. You have to find the characters. Female or male.  The protagonists of my first novel, Spellwright, are lifted from the characters—mostly boys—I witnessed when I was a learning disabled student in special ed. The protag of my second novel, Spellbound, is inspired by several female surgeons. (Coincidentally, surgeons are often interesting people. It’s a male dominated field, so many of the women—especially those who broke into the field years ago—are especially interesting.)

But extraordinary patients and surgeons are just the crowd I fell in with. I’ve no doubt you find womenjust as extraordinary in a law firm, sandwich shop, or nuclear submarine. You just have to look for them.

So that’s it. My only bit of advice. It’s a simple idea really. If you want to write extraordinary women or men, don’t think about them, go out and talk to them.

Blake Charlton’s severe dyslexia kept him from reading fluently until he began sneaking fantasy novels into special ed study hall in the seventh grade. He has been an English teacher, a biomedical technical writer, a learning disability tutor, and a JV football coach. He presently attends Stanford University School of Medicine. Spellbound, the sequel to Spellwright, is his second novel and the second book in the Spellwright Trilogy.

You can find Blake at www.blakecharlton.com

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13 Responses to Writing Strong Women – Blake Charlton

  1. Helen Lowe says:

    Great post, Blake–very thoughtful. Thank you for sharing.

  2. MaryV says:

    I love this post, and agree 100% that to write strong women, you simply need to go out and observe them. Emotional truth and a firm grounding in human reality are the qualities that make a fictional character of any genre ‘jump off the page’. Strength of character is not some dry list of traits, but an accumulation of responses, attitudes, decisions observed and retold… It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about tea parties in Devon or dragon-riding in Pern, so long as those observations about character are dead on. 🙂

  3. Thank you both very kindly. It was a pleasure to contribute to this wonderful and very important series.

  4. Gillian says:

    The trick is looking, isn’t it? Actually noticing people who are different to ourselves, who don’t have the camouflage and who might challenge our safe reality. Walking a very special tightrope. And then the next trick is writing about them without a safety net. Not transforming them into smaller souls.

    • i think you’re exactly right, and the image of tightrope walking is a perfect one. there is the need to balance writing genuinely from one’s self and writing characters who are very different from the writer’s self. one issue i ignored in the above post (partially because i struggle w/ it so much) is the need to let characters develop away from their inspirations. sometimes i come across a story that would be better if a character were different. then i struggle with the fact that i can’t imagine the character being any _other_ way. usually, i can make the change but not after lots of moaning, groaning and (theoretical) hair pulling. 🙂

  5. Bahiyyih says:

    This is the most luminous piece of prose I have read in weeks, months, years. Thank you, beyond words.

  6. Bahiyyih says:

    There has been a great deal of time spent in the course of this unceasingly fascinating series of posts on male/female stereotypes. There has also been considerable energy expended on the issue of character vs plot. But it is a rare writer that enables a reader to forget both these in an instant and leaves him/her in possession of the human soul instead. You did it, Blake. Is that the mystery at the core of this discussion, in the last analysis? Are we not all simply searching for ways of conveying most convincingly and in writing that curious and unnameable spark of life that rises from the soil of sex and place and time and transcends character and plot simultaneously?

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  8. Beautifully put and absolutely right. Thanks for getting the nuts and bolts of character down so succinctly.

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