Saturday, March 7, 2015

Learning Emotional Complexity from Women Writers

March is Women’s History Month. When I found this out on that great well of information known as the internet, it got me to thinking about the great women authors who have influenced my writing over the years. Maybe it was because I attended an all-girls school, but as I look back on my literary education, it’s mostly classic authoresses, like Jane Austen, the Bront√ęs, Emily Dickinson, and Harper Lee, who loom large in my imagination.

Jane Austen - Image courtesy of Wikicommons
There’s something about the unique emotional complexity of some of the great female authors that I believe all writers should study and try to emulate. In many cases, the worlds that women write about are far closer and more intimate than the worlds of their male counterparts. Jane Austen was something of a revolutionary for writing about the necessity of a good marriage and what the lack of one meant for women at the time she was writing. Harper Lee took on the injustices she saw around her through the eyes of innocence and feeling. I’m sure you can think of dozens of other examples of women who wrote about the emotional truths of the world through the lens of their own experience and the experiences of their contemporaries.

Emotional complexity is what separates the great characters from the cardboard cut-outs in our prose. It’s easy, as an author, to fall into the trap of wanting to make your main characters the clear-cut heroines and heroes of your story, giving them simple motivations and impeccable morality. But characters that do everything they should tend to fall flat. One thing all of my favorite classic woman authors have taught me is that heroines with feet of clay often have the best character arcs. L. M. Montgomery might not make everyone’s list of Great Women Authors, but for me, reading about an impertinent red-head with a quick temper and her head in the clouds taught me more about creating wonderful characters that are remembered by millions a hundred years later than just about anything else. And when you look into Anne’s history and the emotional battleground that was her childhood, you begin to see how Montgomery subtly deals with the plight of orphans and the abuses they were subject to in her time. But she does it through an intimate portrayal of one girl and the way her life was turned around rather than examining the big picture of the problem, like Dickens did in Oliver Twist. Both books have impact, but the Anne books touch a whole different level of affection in us, and spend more time showing us how everything turned out okay in the end rather than dwelling on the darkness.

L.M. Montgomery - courtesy of Wikicommons
In the Romance world, where I do my writing, editors will quite frequently tell their authors to dig deeper into the emotions behind the characters’ actions. Characters and their relationships and what makes them tick are the heart of a good Romance. At the same time, the larger literary world often dismisses Romance as exaggerated and unrealistic. Needless to say, this irritates me to no end. I also wonder if it would annoy some of these great ladies of literature. The very thing that set them apart from so many of their contemporaries and made them notable falls under attack too often, even now. In some ways, I feel like we’ve taken a step backwards in terms of writing about emotions, particularly in Romance, where Erotica is the flavor of the day. But I could write an entire post about those trends. I’ll spare you for now.

So as you craft your story, whatever the genre and theme, take some time to consider the emotional complexity of your characters. Learn from the shining examples of women writers who have managed to reach a deeper level in the hearts of readers through the unique perspective they provide.

Merry Farmer is a history nerd, a hopeless romantic, and an award-winning author of thirteen novels. She is passionate about blogging and knitting, and lives in suburban Philadelphia with her two cats, Butterfly and Torpedo. Connect with Merry at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.


  1. That is why I assign every character a personality type and develop their backstory to learn who they are. Try sitting down and having your character tell you their life story. Interesting things can grow from that interview.

  2. For me, it's always about the characters. Unlike Diana, though, I don't bother with an interview. I wait until I need to know how a character would respond and then I can figure out why. If I tried it beforehand, I'd never get around to the book. If he needs to be an only child for the story, or have a passel of sibs, or come from the foster care system, I find that out as I need it for the story. Doesn't work for everyone, but it keeps me going.

  3. I do detailed sketches of main characters before jumping into the actual writing, which definitely helps to keep me on track. Info includes everything thing from height and weight to food likes and dislikes; positive and negative attitudes; pet peeves; parents, grandparents, siblings, and other relevant relatives; clothing preferences; education; prejudices; traumas and dramas in their lives prior to the beginning of the story; and anything else that shapes the unique character who will reach up from the page to invite the reader into the story. This also helps me to get to know them as people and to appreciate (or not) their virtues and vices. For me to feel what the character feels and to convey that emotion to readers, I need more than a superficial knowledge of him or her.

    Another writer from the past whose works I enjoy is Louisa May Alcott. I can definitely relate to Jo March on an emotional level.

  4. Indeed, even though Jo March, Anne Shirley, Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood, and Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith) are all characters who lived before my time, I very much relate to their hopes and fears. They're excellent reminders that it is in the close examination of human relationships and the drama posed by the huge obstacles we all face in ordinary life that a story becomes universal and timeless. Even when I read or watch thrillers, it is those emotional human moments that invest me in the characters. Thanks for a great post, Merry!


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