Showing the magic in everyday women – Brooke Magnanti

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By Brooke Magnanti

The last few years have been a boon to women characters in fiction. Or so we’re told. It’s meant to be a good thing that women in the crime fiction and thriller genres can now be psychopaths and anti-heroes as well as perkily perfect Lara Crofts. But is that a good thing? While people mooned over Amazing Amy skewering cool girls in Gone Girl, I couldn’t wholeheartedly get on board.♥

Because here’s the thing. The flipside of the cool, not-like-the-other-girls woman? Is just another woman who also never puts a foot wrong and doesn’t have other women in her life.

Face it, while a straight swap of cool girls for bad girls might seem edgy, over and again women characters are still isolated islands of femaleness in a man’s world. Being able to scheme and swindle, kick and punch their way through it doesn’t actually make them necessarily Better For Women.

And in thrillers this is especially noticeable.

You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test, a kind of game for films that asks whether there are two women in a work who talk to each other about something other than a man. While strong and even bad women might be all the rage right now, surprisingly few books even pass this low bar.

9781409100850More often, we get the gritty, quirky loner who is not like other women (so much so that she crops up about 95% of the time) and who miraculously survives or solves a crime because of her not-like-the-other-women-ness. It’s a trope that’s been done so often, and rarely as well as the originals like Jane Tennyson and VI Warshawski.

This character was perfectly parodied in Irish comedian Tara Flynn’s YouTube sketch, Tits Blind. “Forget about me,” growls the female detective, right before she strongarms the main man into a clinch. Oh she’s not-like-the-other-women all right. I laughed, but cringed a bit too, because it is so familiar.

Which is why I’m calling for more real women. Not every woman has to be amazing to be a hero. Over and again fiction delivers characters whose only flaw is that they are too much of a perfectionist, or some other job interview-worthy cringer. Real people get things wrong from time to time (or in my case, all the time) and yet life manages to go on. Cases get solved, crises averted, even without having genius-level IQ or a background in teaching Krav Maga to ninjas.

For example in The Turning Tide, I wanted a lock picking scene, but knew that these are almost never portrayed accurately. You can be a very smart person indeed but the ability to efficiently pick a lock requires specialist tools and training. Not that you’d know that from how it’s typically depicted in books, films, or television! Even Murder She Wrote got it wrong, and who would dare cross Jessica Fletcher?

After consulting with locksport experts, I was able to write scenes that ring true for amateurs trying to pick locks the first few times. Without that input, it would have been too tempting to make characters into Mary Sues – the author’s perfected self, a kind of fictional wish fulfilment.

From Brooklyn Nine-Nine to Mindy Kaling, fallible women surrounded by other women just figuring stuff out are a staple of comedy, because they are nuanced and relatable. Even strong women have neuroses, past lives, and regrets, and nearly all strong women have great women around them. Orange is the New Black gives us the full range of emotions from laughter to tears in an almost all-female environment. Why can’t characters this satisfying jump the fence into thrillers too?

As novelists, we have all the time and space in the world to discuss how and why our characters do, or don’t, know something. We can discuss their learning process, their failures as well as their triumphs. It isn’t a failure if a character is someone you could be sitting next to on the bus and never notice; it’s a triumph. Showing the magic in the everyday is kind of what we’re here to do.

Brooke Magnanti received a Ph.D. in Forensic Pathology from the University of Sheffield, where she studied in the Medico Legal Centre and specialised in the identification of decomposed human remains. She later worked for the NHS in child health research and cancer epidemiology, before being revealed in 2009 as the anonymous author of the award-winning blog Belle de Jour and bestselling Secret Diary of a Call Girl series of books. She lives on the West Coast of Scotland with her husband and hardly ever sees dead people any more.

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