Home Is Where the Hero Isn’t

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


This month on “How to write female characters wrong”: the nagging wife!

She isn’t always a wife. Sometimes she’s a mother, instead. Or just a woman who pretty much fills one of those roles, without the actual relationship. Whatever guise she wears, this is the female character whose role in the story seems to be to harp on domestic concerns, in such a fashion that you find yourself praying she’s going to get axed before the chapter ends.

The thing about these characters is, they rarely get depicted as sensible, intelligent people the hero might want to listen to. They’re annoying. They don’t understand that the protagonist has more important things to worry about, either because he hasn’t bothered to tell them, or because they Just Don’t Get It. They aren’t properly in the spirit of the adventure — think Susan in the Chronicles of Narnia.

But why can’t the wife be part of the adventure? Why is she a trap to be escaped, an obstacle to be removed so Our Hero can get on his heroic way? I was sadly disappointed — but not surprised — by the second Bourne movie, which hastily stuffed his girlfriend in the refrigerator; of course he couldn’t do what he has to with her around.

Do I think Ludlum or the script writers actively thought this? No. Nor their sequel-writing colleagues who have faithfully followed the same pattern, offing the love interest from the previous tale so we can return to the status quo of an unattached man doing interesting things. Maybe a few of them are self-aware enough to consciously note what they’re doing; maybe they do have a moment where they think, I need her out of the way. And maybe they do need her out of the way, because it’s pretty firmly established in our narrative culture that marriage and family are what happen at the end of the adventure. If you want your character to have more adventures, first thing you’ve gotta do is shake off the domestic chain.

The problem comes when the domestic chain = the woman. Leave home, have adventures; I’m fine with that. But consider doing it the Mr. and Mrs. Smith way, where it turns out they both hate the facade of surburban normality, and are much happier when having shootouts on the freeway. Plenty of stories manage to build their narrative around a partnership: why not make that partnership a marriage? (Because it’s harder to tell an interesting story about a marriage than about a new romance? Put on your grown-up pants and try. I know plenty of married people who would like to believe their adventures didn’t end when they said “I do.”)

And if you’re going to have a character — male or female, though they’re usually the latter — whose job in the story is to speak up for the domestic, for the love of god, don’t make them a shrew. It makes the story feel juvenile: they’re Mommy standing at the back door, shouting that it’s time to put down the toy guns and come clean your room. Maybe domesticity is the thing your hero (or heroine) yearns for but can’t have. Maybe it’s the foundation without which they couldn’t function — but then don’t shove that support off to the side; show how vital it is to the flashier stuff your hero does. Or maybe it’s the slap upside the head your hero needs, the dose of practicality that keeps him from freezing his butt off because he forgot to consider what would happen after he ran off into the wilderness.

And consider the possibility that maybe domesticity and heroism aren’t incompatible after all. Female protagonists don’t have to be anti-home in order to function, and male protagonists don’t lose a valuable part of their anatomy if you show more than a token portion of their family lives. It’s long past time we dumped the ball and chain idea, and went with a better alternative.