Tripping Over Tropes in Women’s Fiction

Continuing the discussion from two weeks ago, I started a post about tropes in another genre near to my heart: women’s fiction. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t seem to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t hurt the feelings of certain people whose feelings I did not want to hurt. It ultimately boiled down to my critical thoughts about a certain world view.

No, not politics—I’m talking about issues like victimhood, agency, self-advocacy, passivity, resilience. I couldn’t express my frustration with certain types of female protagonists without coming across as dismissive of women who’d suffered greatly at the hands of others, and that was not my intention—so into the trash can that post went.

Instead, as an exercise in positivity, I compiled a list of what I do want to find in a novel I read. This also serves as a checklist for my own writing.

  • For me, realism and believability are key. This doesn’t exclude magical, made-up worlds: I’ve read historical and fantasy fiction where I completely bought into the actions and motivations of the characters. Likewise, I’ve read contemporary fiction where I’ve thrown down the book in disgust, exclaiming, “No way anyone would say/do that!”
  • a protagonist who’s brave, audacious, resilient, creative, flamboyant, funny, smart
  • a protagonist I’d want to spend time with. She needs to be passionate about something other than just a guy, her kids, shopping, a corporate job. Not that family and jobs aren’t important, but I want to see substance beyond those basics.
  • a protag who thinks before she acts. If she makes an obviously bad decision, I want to see her reasons as she decides, and they’d better make sense in the moment. If later she learns something that reveals her reasons to be invalid, that’s okay. But if she allows herself to be buffeted about by strong emotions with no thought to consequences–meh.
  • sparkling, funny, biting dialogue
  • sensory description that allows me to peer over the characters’ shoulders and experience the scene as if I were there.
  • lots of scenes. Yes, narrative summary has its place, but I most enjoy stories I can experience as if I were watching a movie, but with a great sound system, vibrating seats, and Smell-o-rama.
  • Lots of riveting plot action but—and this is tricky—a minimum of obvious, formulaic manipulation. If every scene ends with a melodramatic cliffhanger, I feel like I’m watching a badly-written TV show. I like a break every now and then, a funny or reflective scene that lets me catch my breath.
  • This one is especially important for me to remember as a writer: a character who learns something about herself and/or others as a result of the plot events.
  • Of course, recipes are a plus.

How about you? Do the items above resonate with you? Care to add an essential of your own to the list?

4 thoughts on “Tripping Over Tropes in Women’s Fiction

  1. Stephanie Faris

    I think the character arc is important in any work of fiction (even non-fiction, I’d dare say!). People want to see how someone grew from an experience. The tough part is creating a character that’s likable but flawed in the beginning so that they have room for that growth. You may have a spoiled princess, for instance, but if she’s TOO spoiled, readers will set the book aside.

    1. admin Post author

      I agree, Stephanie. Where some authors lose me is when the protagonist begins as such a muddled mess from the get-go that I’m not invested in her growth. I’m only one reader, but I don’t enjoy a book in which the main emotion I’m feeling for the protag is pity. I want to admire her gumption, creativity–and then I’ll be willing to cry along with her in the sad or frustrating moments. I also avoid real-life people who play the victim card too heavily. I’m working on that balance in my own work, and it’s not easy.

  2. Mandy

    This is a great post and I totally agree with everything you said here. Specifically #4 is the worst for me. Nothing irritates me more than seeing a protagonist that acts mindlessly without considering the consequences. Like how did you not see this coming??!?!


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