Alex C. Renwick was designed in Canada, built in California, and grown in Texas. She has written dozens of short stories as Camille Alexa, including her award-nominated collection Push of the Sky
, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and was an official reading selection of Portland’s Powells Books SF Book Club.
She currently lives somewhere between Portland, Austin, Vancouver, and Montreal. You can learn more at http://alexcrenwick.com
Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?
My initial response to this is, Spock. I can think only of Spock as a fictitious character I imprinted on as a child. But he’s no heroine, and of course there were literary ones, back when I was sevenish, eightish. Since my favorite book Watership Down was particularly dude-ly (and all rabbit-ly) I’ll have to go with Scott O’Dell’sIsland of the Blue Dolphins Karana, who lived alone on an island nearly her entire life. Meg from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time would be a distant runner up.
Karana and Meg (Spock, too, actually) were all huge for me, too! Can you remember what it was these characters did or what qualities they had that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly?
Well, O’Dell’s heroine is based on Juana Maria, a Nicoleño woman left for 18 years as the lone inhabitant of San Nicolas Island off the California coast before finally being discovered in 1853. My father’s from Grenada in the West Indies, so I felt kinship for an island story (though one set off a distant coast). And I’d always rankled at the narrow Disneyfied blonde/blue-eyed version of feminine beauty. I adored a protagonista not cast in that mould, and identified far more with her than with, say, Cinderella and other dewy ladies. Of course, it was her unflagging resourcefulness and ability to survive by herself, to reason, to make do, to figure things out and take charge of her own destiny that I found so enthralling.
Meg was resourceful too, and daughter-saving-father was a nice fresh take on sons being the stars of what felt like every other written story in the universe, starting with the Bible(?). L’Engle herself suggested the reason “forty-odd” publishers passed on A Wrinkle in Time (her agent sent it back to her after 26 rejections) was that it had a female protagonist in a science fiction setting. It has now been continuously in print since first publication (in 1963), so maybe that’s useful to remember for those of us who identify as going against the grain.
How do Meg and Karana compare to the female characters in your work? Could they be listed among your characters’ literary ancestors?
Oh yes! Definitely. My fascination with writing frontier fiction in general — whether space colony SF, Paleolithic fantasy, or weird-west historical — has its roots in understanding how people might tackle certain problems in extreme circumstances and with limited resources. I guess at heart I’m really a hypothetical-realities anthropologist.
About this post: The Heroine Question is my name for a series of short interviews with female writers about their favorite characters and literary influences. Clicking the link will take you to all the other interviews, with awesome people like Charlene Challenger, Gemma Files, Caitlin Sweet, and Karen Miller.
Also about this post: As I have mentioned, writer Alex Bledsoe recently asked about my use of the gendered word, heroine, in this series. I could have gone with hero, true, or “female heroes” since I was looking for women authors’ female influences. To be honest, my initial inspiration came from my ever-mature desire to make tacky-sounding drug jokes: Gemma Files on Heroin! Oops! Heroine! That kind of thing.
The first chapter books I read (and reread, endlessly), starting when I was five going on six, were a series of history books that had belonged to my mother, all written for red-blooded American girlz. They were biographies, many of them about the childhoods of various U.S. presidents’ wives. The practice of history in these books was not exactly rigorous. Even the non-FLOTUS women’s stories were whitewashed in a way that meant, for example, Jane Addams and Julia Ward Howe’s entire lives were covered in a hundred pages, with charming anecdotes, and without a single mention of the suffrage movement.
I know. Boggle boggle boggle, right?
These were been the books that gave me the typical view of a woman’s viable career options: saint/martyr/kindling, presidential spouse, cannon loader, author, native guide, or founder of such organizations as the Red Cross or the Girl Scouts. I also remember them as having happy endings all round, for Clara Barton and Louisa May Alcott and even for Sacagawea. Though not for Joan of Arc, unless your philosophical outlook can be best summed up as Too bad about the horrifically painful execution, honey, but you got to go to a coronation, and that had to be cool. Also: yay sainthood!
(Joan’s bio was from a different-but-related series; she was the one non-U.S. citizen in the batch).
When I initially launched the Heroine Question interviews, it didn’t occur to me for a second to question whether I should be using an ungendered noun, like hero or protagonist. Or woman protagonist. Honestly I’m a sucker for a good pun, and even more of a sucker for a bad one: I have an entire pinboard full of the things.
I spent twenty minutes of my life making this.
Basically I had a vision. And that vision was a series of posts entitled “Caitlin Sweet kicks Heroine!” and “Martha Wells on her Heroine Habit” and equally questionable clicky fodder.
When I reached out to that first raft of authors who’d be doing heroine here on my blog, I had a fair expectation, based on most of them being in my age cohort, or near that vicinity, and the fiction available to us when we all were kids, about some of the answers I’d get. I’d limited the field to written works or their authors–no TV, no movies, no frickin’ Lara Croft. I figured there’d be answers within the SF and fantasy realm: an essay on Lucy of Narnia fame, maybe Alice of Wonderland, or Meg Murry of A Wrinkle in Time. (That one’s coming.) Tiger Lily from Peter Pan. I also anticipated, correctly, that someone would mention Anne of Green Gables and Jo March from Little Women.
I also thought we’d hear about Emma Woodhouse and Jane Eyre and Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins and Scout Finch. And authors: Agatha Christie, Nelly Bly and Mary Shelly. (Erma Bombeck was a surprise, but a welcome one.)
I expected my interview subjects would sometimes be picking female characters from novels not generally considered to be genre fiction, in other words. Women who weren’t engaged in universe-saving or fleet-footed-adventuring or anything remotely approaching derring-do. It didn’t, when I was coming up with this particular series, even occur to me that heroine had to mean anything other than 1) showing up to carry a given literary work; 2) inspiring a young writer-to-be.
Much of this unquestioned assumption of mine grew from the fact that heroine was the catch-all term within the educational realm for girl characters. “The heroines of Jane Austen’s novels…” is a time-honored lit crit phrase meaning Lizzie, Emma, Ann, Fanny, Katherine and that drummer whose name I can never remember. “Lucy Maud Montgomery’s hot-tempered heroine…” has long been a valid mouthful of a way to refer to PEI’s favorite redhead. You know, when you’re afraid you’ve somehow used “Anne” one too many times in an English essay.
(Pro tip: Just say Anne again. The essay’s about her… it’s cool.)
Oddly, I think if you said “Jane Austen’s heroes are…”? The answer you’d get much of the time would be Darcy. Knightly. Brandon.
Is this good? Well, no. When one looks at it squarely, it’s even, perhaps, a little queasy-making. The above three dudes aren’t world-savers and they aren’t even the protagonists of the novels they’re in. So it’s sad that some might find it easier to credit Willoughby with heroism for plucking an injured Marianne off a hillside than to bracket Anne Elliot with Tomoe Gozen when the former insists upon visiting a broke and sick old school friend, against her family’s wishes.
Does heroine still have a use, and does it lie solely within the realm of classic literature? Are there modern heroines who aren’t heroes? Should I rename this series “Girlhood heroes of …” or “Chicks we worshipped way back when…”
More importantly, if I do retitle, is there some way to get a faintly tasteless string of puns out of the deal? Extra points if you make me sorry I asked this.
Quite a few new writers embark on their first novels using first person POV. Sometimes this POV, in past or present, is indeed le choix juste. Other times, it’s less considered and more of an accident.
What causes us to bumble down this road? There are plenty of reasons, but the two I’ve seen most are these. First, if you haven’t been writing short stories or fanfic* before embarking on noveling, for example, it’s quite likely that the inside of your protagonist’s head is shockingly like the inside of yours. Their voice is a lot like your voice. So why not let them just, y’know, talk? It’s comfortable, like the things you wear on the weekend when nobody’s coming to visit.
(*Seriously, fanfic is a stupendous** way to get out of your own head and practice POV, dialog and voice if you’re just starting out. Pick a show where your knowledge is extensive and your love runs deep. Grab a favorite character, and drive around in their skin for a scene or two. Switch to the character you like least. Give them the wheel. Compare the results with whatever you’re writing now.)
(**Note to self: get the word stupendous into more heavy rotation.)
Another reason people get drawn into first person sometimes is that if you haven’t been writing for long and are going at it instinctively but without any kind of theoretical grounding (that sounds lofty, I know, but it’s less about academic snobbery and more about knowing that sticking two boards together is easier if you have a hammer and nail, or at the very least a glue gun) you may have a sense that some kind of narrative voice is… necessary. But at the same time, you may not be sure how to make it happen. Reaching for a main character named “I,” in that situation, is something of an automatic response.
So, good choice or bad, you’re in it now. First person narrator. Damn the torpedoes. How are you most likely to suck?
By making I a self-centered narcissist: The only character in the story with any degree of depth is that narrator, whom we’ll now name Vorpal. Everyone Vorpal meets in this book is onstage to be something of a flappy-armed excuse for either conversation or action. When they’re snarky, they’re clearly the one in the wrong. When they do things that intensify the conflict, they come off as a bit irrational. What drives these people? Why are they tormenting poor Vorpal? Do we even know? Can we, let’s face it, even tell them apart?
A thing about first person as a narrative choice is that you are always going to see Vorpal’s perspective most clearly… and so the characterization of everyone else has to be filtered through their perceptions. In exchange for an intense and intimate portrait of one person, you get an entire cast of other characters who can only be drawn from the outside. And that’s hard! So you can make your narrator cool and capable, a top neurosurgeon-type who designs Prada-quality bags in their spare time, and also has recorded a hit song for the new Buckaroo Banzai reboot… but if Vorpal is also an insensitive blockhead–someone who doesn’t notice things about the other characters or occasionally try to empathize with them–chances are great that your story will fall flat.
I verb, I verb, I verb. It is the truth universally acknowledged that new writers will often fall into a pattern of describing action with a long string of sentences that open with a character name and then an action.
I walked down the street and got the paper. I opened it up, and immediately saw the Wanted poster for Danny McGrew. Then I ran back home to tell Mom.
“Vorpal,” I heard her say, as she flapped her arms in surprise, “How do you find time to run down fugitives between your neurosurgery practice and Fashion Week?”
I replied, “I’ve just coded the most stupendous time management app ever!”
This is a habit to break no matter what POV you’re writing in. Obviously. Varied sentence structure = good, okay? But an additional effect of a passage like this when written in first person is that the reader’s ear picks up on the sound of someone endlessly yakking about themselves. Which is alienating – it can make us dislike even a pretty great character.
The surging oceans of inner turmoil are just gonna make us seasick. One of those two-dimensional crazy-ass supporting characters has just stormed off-stage, after giving Vorpal shit they probably did not deserve. And now, we get the unmitigated treat of three pages of: “How could they say that? Don’t they know my heart is forever theirs, and also I’m busy performing the Twelve Labors of Hercules here, on a budget I might add, and maybe this is a good time to mention again that I have post traumatic stress disorder and to launch a long flashback to the Maiming Fields of Kansasland. I felt so betrayed…”
Not only can this verge perilously close to whining–another thing that can drain a reader’s sympathy well–but it is the sort of thing that can happen without giving us a single sensory image. We might as will be in a dark room listening to a monologue. Action stops. The gnash of a broken heart is everything.
Contortionist fail. Meanwhile, halfway through the book, it suddenly occurs to you that Vorpal really cannot be present to witness the pivotal sex scene between their cheating life partner and their fellow stage magician, Burn the Magnificent. Can you fudge it with “Vorpal knew…?” No, we see what you did there. How many times can you get away with them eavesdropping on the other characters? Get off that windowledge, Vorpal, they deserve their privacy and you don’t want them calling the cops or, Chaos forbid, shooting at you. After Kansasland, you can’t really blame Burn for carrying that rifle around.
Can Vorpal pose as the hotel videographer? No.
Maybe no one will notice if you just dash behind the curtain, switch into third person for a minute, and let Burn take the mic. But are they a fully-realized and intriguingly voiced Burn, or just a 3rd person Burn who sounds a lot like Vorpal, right down to the accent, class, and education? It doesn’t matter, does it? Burn never takes center stage again. Hey, at least they got laid.
And indeed, maybe no one will notice.***
I’m just saying: sometimes these things are less glaring if you’ve thought them through earlier in the novel.
(***Actually, I’m just being polite. We’ll notice.)
The stuff Vorpal doesn’t know is way too important to share. Here your plot is headed in a super-mysterious direction, but nobody will tell poor Vorpal what’s going on. Because Vorpal’s probably pretty smart, right? If the other characters just ante up the info, obviously we’re all going to beeline to the end of the book. So instead you have the other characters swan onstage, make a few murky pronouncements, and then hightail it. Your narrator is confused and so are we. That’ll keep us hanging in for the middle ten chapters, right?
Or maybe not. Maybe you’re just being obscure, denying Vorpal their agency, and generally failing, as Kelly puts it, to get in there with the monkeys.
Now it is true that a lot of these pitfalls can arise with any POV. But first person is especially pitiless. It’s not a large cast opera, where the soprano spells off the tenor, and then they fall in love and the servants have to gossip pianissimo for it for awhile, and then a long bass versus bass smackdown breaks out, and anyway it’s opera so nobody expects the plot to make sense. First person POV is a solo concert: one point of view and the spotlight glaring down, hot enough to fry an egg. If we aren’t fascinated by Vorpal or at the very least inclined to like them as a person, we have nothing else–no other voice, no other perspectives, nothing but that hot Burn sex scene–to look forward to as the story unfolds.
If there’s one behind-the-scenes element of writing that you should know–one technical issue you ought to understand going in–my belief if that it’s this: point of view. Go with first person, but don’t fall into it by mistake. Choose wisely, and story well. Vorpal will thank you for it.