Category Archives: Creating Characters

Fear of Strong

I’ve been thinking about strength lately: bodily strength, mental strength, and the places where the two intersect.

All day long, I cultivate strength—my strength, particularly my body’s strength, and other peoples’ bodies’ strength. I help people find their muscles and use them, which is great fun. I can’t help but notice as I do this that finding physical muscles often results in finding mental ones, too. Finding physical strength requires attributes like discipline, determination, and will, and these qualities are the underpinnings of mental strength.

Becoming embodied—and I mean that in the sense of truly inhabiting one’s body, being in sensations—creates an independent mind. Being aware of your body makes you aware of your internal reality. I’m pretty sure that self-awareness through physical exertion was the original intention behind yoga asanas.

Although we are not surrounded by images of strong female bodies, we are all overly accustomed to the hyper-sexualized female body. You cannot escape it. You get Victoria’s Secret catalogs in the mail. There are buttocks selling thong underwear on the side of the bus, pouting lips promoting ice cream on TV, and hairless legs hawking shoes at the mall. Very few of these bodies (you can’t really call them women—that’s not what they are—they are often headless, chopped up, clearly objectified bodies) are what I would deem physically strong. In fact, just for fun, I searched through dozens of images of “beautiful” or “hot” female bodies: Victoria’s Secret advertisements, Vogue spreads, fashion layout after fashion layout, and guess what? I found a disturbing recurring theme: these women are posed in the strangest, most flimsy postures you can imagine. Hips thrust awkwardly to one side, buttocks stuck out so the back arches in parody of the lordosis I try to cure in peoples’ spines daily, and the slumping shoulders and caved-in chests in the high fashion spreads…don’t get me started. They are, in short, a mess of bad posture, weak centers, and wilting arms: the ideal woman as weak and helpless.

I only care about any of this because I think the images of women we see regularly do damaging things to women’s brains. We can’t help it; we are social creatures; we compare ourselves to each other, especially in the domain of our appearance—for better or worse. Because women compare themselves to other women, the pictures we see on billboards, in advertisements, and on television or the internet have an effect on our brains. If we look at these “idealized” images a lot, we may begin to think they are a prescription for how one should look. Then we start to try to fit that mold.

This desire to fit the mold brings me clients who say things like: “Will this exercise make my calves big? Because I don’t want to do this exercise if it will make my calves get muscular.” I’ve heard this comment (or substitute some other body part for calves) countless times. Every time I have to bite the inside of my cheek, hard. I have to coach myself to have sympathy and compassion and remind myself that I am hearing a deep insecurity about embodying strength that is the one of the curses of women in the world I live in. Even after two waves of feminism, we are still dealing with this fear of strong.

In The Velocipede Races my main character, Emmeline is a strong woman—physically and mentally strong. I wanted to explore what happens to such a woman in a world where women are expected to demonstrate physical frailty. The women of this world, bowing to social custom and aesthetic, wear corsets and are squeezed into their weakness. Women like Emmeline who wish for a different life, are thought of as freaks. But let’s face it: a really muscular woman in our world might endure similar comments to those flung at Emmeline. Comments like “You’re mannish and unfeminine. You’re too big. You take up too much space.”

But as we see from Emmeline, who rebels against the fashion dictates of her world, aesthetic originates outside of us, in the opinion or view of others. Function originates inside, with awareness of sensation. There is a lot of power in being free from others’ opinions. Emmeline gets so free from others’ opinions of her that they go to great lengths to get her to care again. Breaking the mold is not usually a popular activity.

I think it’s possible to escape the vicious head game born from seeing too many images of women’s bodies, to break out of that mold, but it takes a lot of mental strength, a willingness to swim upstream, and a contrariness that you’ll have to defend again and again. How do you get that mental strength? Physical training might be one way.

Being physically strong, as anyone who’s been there knows, makes you feel different. You are less afraid. More capable. More certain of yourself. The way you assess your possibilities is different. You say “I can” more often, and “I can’t” less. You rely more on yourself, and less on others, both for doing things (picking up that heavy box, standing on a ladder to reach for stuff in the cupboards, moving the trash cans) and for permission to do things.

By building that physical strength, a woman breaks the mold. She puts herself in a position where she has to face others’ opinions of her, whether good or bad. And then she has to say: I don’t care what you think of me. I’m going to please myself. And if lifting this weight, or climbing this hill, or running this fast is what pleases me, then I’m going to do it. Even if it makes my thighs big. Even if it means I take up more space than the world wants to give me. She, like Emmeline, places function over aesthetic, which is one of the most physically empowering things you can do for your own view about your body.


Writing Mary

In December of 2010 I played Mary Bennet and Charlotte Lucas in a community theatre production of Pride and Prejudice. At first I was disappointed because I reeeeaaallly wanted to play Elizabeth. But when I got (mostly) over my desire to be the leading lady and (more or less) embraced my character actor self, I began to fall in love with Mary, though not as much with Charlotte. During the course of the production’s run, the actor playing Wickham and I developed a story about how Wickham tried to ingratiate himself with the whole family and gave Mary a book: The Mysteries of Udolpho, a popular novel that Jane Austen herself makes fun of in Northanger Abbey. I was reading it at the time because, well, that’s just the kind of method-y thing I like to do, a little like Daniel Day Lewis insisting that he kill all of his food while filming Last of the Mohicans, except that I should have been reading Fordyce’s Sermons. It became our little back stage joke. And it grew. One night during the scene when Lydia brings Captain Wickham home after eloping with him, I found myself smiling like an idiot at Wickham. Mary, it seems, had fallen in love with her sister’s dashing husband. Had the director seen that, she probably would have told me to stop. She didn’t see it, so by the time the run ended, Captain Wickham couldn’t look my way because of my increasingly maniacal grin. But then the show closed, the cast party ended, and I said goodbye to Mary and Charlotte.

A year later I was sitting in a cafe in San Rafael writing a very short story. I called it, creatively enough, “A Story About a Girl Named Mary Bennet.” It turns out that she had never really left me. I don’t know why that surprised me—except for one character who shall remain nameless because I don’t want to think about her, they never do leave. The story was a tiny thing—maybe five handwritten pages—in which Mary finds a mysterious magic book and has an adventure. It had a rather raunchy ending, which surprised the hell out of me as I meant to head into something like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe territory. Instead I ended up somewhere just short of what I understand to be the main thrust of Fifty Shades of Grey. When I finished writing, I was flushed and a little breathless. With that bodice-ripping scene I had set my own heart to pounding. And Mary, well, she has a saucy streak in her, I suppose. I always thought there was something more to her than what she presents to the world.

I readily admit that it was a silly little story, but it was the only thing I had to give Emily when we started our writing group. She liked it and gave me lots of notes. So I went to work on it, wondering where it might take me. Over the next months the story grew. Mary’s adventure took her to London and then back to Hertfordshire. She learned some spells, discovered an aptitude for magic, and got wrapped up in a battle of good versus evil. Eventually the raunchy sex scene was replaced with a sweet moment. (There is a sex scene that I wrote just for fun—bawdy and ridiculous. I read it to my sister over the phone and she laughed for ten minutes—at least. One of these days I’ll get the courage to post it.) I finished the draft and let it simmer.

When I finally sat down to do the revisions (or in this case the massive re-writing), I needed to find a way to capture Jane Austen’s voice as best as I could. To that end, I re-read all of her books. But it turns out that just reading her words wasn’t enough. So I began each writing day by transcribing passages from Pride and Prejudice into a Word file. It turns out that if you want to evoke someone’s style, it’s best to copy her words for a while. Eventually the rhythm and vocabulary made it into my fingers and I could get to work.

Slowly, chapter by chapter, the next drafts grew. The backstage joke I shared with Craig Neibaur made it into the story around the second draft, which thrills me to no end since it represents the coming together of disparate parts of my life. As I worked, I learned more and more about the enormous community of Jane Austen lovers and the shocking number of “sequels” to her books that are being written as I type this post. I also found this marvelous website—a Jane Austen thesaurus—that was so helpful during the sentence-by-sentence revisions.

I also learned a lot about my writing process, which involves working on fragments then stitching them together. Kind of like knitting a sweater. Having begun my dissertation by writing the final chapter first, this makes sense to me, as does something I plan to write about later: the importance of dilatory time in the creation of anything. Sometimes things just need to simmer for a while before they make sense. That’s why the whole process ended up taking a little more than eighteen months.

I worked in the shadow of not one but two wonderful writers. From Jane I get the Bennets and their neighborhood. For the magic I turned to J. K. Rowling and the rich world of Harry Potter. Some of Mr. A. H.’s ideas about spell casting arose out of my efforts to steal something of Ms. Rowling’s and make it my own. And though it was tempting to write Hogwarts and Diagon Alley into my story, in the end I landed more on the side of Austen sequel than Harry Potter fan fiction.

It is both marvelous and terrifying to write a book with characters whose lives were invented by someone else. I had plenty to work with, but I also felt a duty to the characters as drawn by their author. I walked a particularly thin line with Mary. When I played her, I stepped away from the interpretation that was obvious—uptight, prudish, and judgmental. My Mary was a geek. She had an adenoid problem, and she simply didn’t know how to relate to the other characters. I think that’s why I fell in love with her and why I wanted to give the poor girl an adventure. I flatter myself by thinking that the Mary I’ve written stays a little closer to Miss Austen’s. I’ve tried to explain some of her annoying behavior in a way that makes her more sympathetic. I think that works. But while I am fond of Mary, as I am of those characters I invented such as Mr. Huntley and Mr. Hartbustle, I must confess that Mr. Bennet is my favorite, in part because I can still see Alex Ross who played him in the production I did. Alex reminds me powerfully of my own father, whom I adore. And he seemed to channel Mr. Bennet perfectly. So Mr. Bennet wrote himself, amusing me to no end and astonishing me more than once, especially as I was finishing the book. One day I was revising the last bits of the last chapter when Mr. Bennet said something that I had not anticipated. I wrote the sentence and then said “Really, Mr. Bennet?” He insisted. So there it is. You’ll have to read the book to find out what I mean.

A Rebel Inside

I like to think about what it would have been like to live in a different era in time and place. There are so many layers to this imaginary game: what would you wear, what would you eat, what would everyday life be like? What would you fear? What would you believe about how the world worked? I’m curious about all the details—how is food prepared and produced, how do people get from point A to B, what do women do about their menstrual cycle, what happened to people who rebelled against customs, social rules, and stated laws?

But that’s just the superficial layer of my interest. What I’m really fascinated by is how an external world intersects with an internal world. So often it feels as if we are almost entirely determined by our circumstances—we are whatever we are born into—the world around us shapes everything from our opportunities to our beliefs to our aspirations. It can feel unimaginable to consider something beyond that—some internal essence that is eternal, out of time and place. I like to give my characters that internal space. I don’t even know what to call it. Confidence? No, although that’s part of it. An iconoclastic bent? Yes, but. A rebellious nature? Closer. It has to do with an awareness of being the driver in one’s own life, an awareness of being able to choose one’s path.

That’s not to say that external circumstances have no determining force. They always do, and time and place have all kind of ramifications about the choices available to a character. But I’m interested in the point of friction between the outside and the inside, how that internal space rubs into the expectations of time and place. This can play out in so many ways: the rejection of God or family, the internal resistance against oppressive forces, the casting off of limiting notions of beauty or femininity or sexuality, and of course, transgressions in action—theft, sin, and murder. The friction itself is what makes it interesting, but without that internal core of strength inside a character, there isn’t any psychological depth to the rebellion.

I’m also interested in the acquiescence to these external pressures, the knowing surrender—I do it because they tell me to do it. I do it because I am afraid. I do it because I cannot stand the idea of the consequences if I don’t. Or, my all time favorite, I do it because I want to be loved. This would be the character who chooses the easy, proscribed path because they are concerned with pleasing others: they want their family to approve of them, or they want to win the love of an idealized other. Ultimately, if the character has the internal essence—and they always do, or we wouldn’t be reading about them—they get into conflict between pleasing self and pleasing others, and we get all kinds of interesting fallout.

This comes up because I’m writing a story about a rebellious girl in a stifling culture. It’s actually not that far off from the social circumstances most women lived in before the Feminist movements of the Twentieth Century, and many women in less forward-thinking places continue to live in today. Women in my constructed world can’t own property, vote, or participate in politics, athletics, or any public sphere. They are largely confined to the home, and their primary value in society is as a means for men to exchange wealth or power in marriage brokering.

My heroine has a very modern mind, a mind that doesn’t accept the idea that her only worth is as a wife, mother, and housekeeper. This is one reason this story is set in a fantasy world. I felt her way of thinking was almost impossible to set in Regency or Victorian London. There just wouldn’t have been the possibility of her being this iconoclastic. She wouldn’t have had any concept of the freedoms she needed to think belonged to her by right. So I made up my own city for her to live in, because I wanted her to have this strength inside her, this refusal to accept what the culture she lives in proscribes for her. The results have been entertaining, for me, at least. The book is called The Velocipede Races, and should be released by Luminous Creatures in Fall 2013.