WRITING THE FEMALE CHARACTER
OR, FICTION IS WRITTEN BY THE VICTORS
© 2020 Christine Lajewski
The statuesque woman sat in a chair placed in a circle of desks in the classroom. Her closely cropped dark hair was flecked with gray. She wore boots and cargo pants that suggested she’d been hanging out with some Central American guerilla squad. Six men of varied ages filed into the room, clutching tablets or composition books, and chose seats. The professor took attendance, then cleared her throat and began:
“Good evening, gentlemen. I’m not into titles, so please just call me Ellen. I’d like to welcome you to Writing the Female Character in Horror. I’m sure you’ve all read the syllabus and came prepared to present your ideas for female killers—serial killers, supernatural creatures or monsters. I want to hear her back story and motivation. I’ll go down the class list and call your name. Art’s not here, so let’s start with Dave.”
Dave flipped open a notebook and read: “My character is Meghan, an alluring, you might even say sexy, serial killer who seduces and murders men.”
“And what’s her motivation?”
“She’s filled with crazy rage. She was kidnapped, held hostage and raped.”
“Okay. Irwin, what have you got for us?”
“The youngest member of a coven of Salem witches goes on a rampage,” Irwin said, “conjuring up horrific spells against the farmers and merchants in town. Each curse is more grotesque and gruesome than the last, indicating she has a warped imagination. Her reign of terror leads to the Salem Witch Trials.”
“Why did she go on a rampage?”
“The other members of her coven were raped and slaughtered.”
Ellen’s face betrayed just a hint of a scowl as she read the next name on the class list. “Jeffrey, tell us about your character.”
“I’m writing about a vengeful spirit. She’s able to move objects or scare her victims so they run right into situations where they die horrible deaths.”
“How did she become a spirit and why is she vengeful?” Ellen asked, wincing at what she knew was coming.
Jeffrey shifted nervously in his seat. “Um, she was raped and murdered.”
The classroom door opened, and a tall arthropod shambled into class. His segmented body was armored with glossy black scales, and an intimidating scorpion tail flexed over his head. He found an empty desk and spent several minutes trying to comfortably seat himself, a task complicated by his long, spiked tail. He settled for sitting sideways with the appendage draped over the back of the seat.
“Art, I remember you from my comp class. Welcome back,” Ellen said. “I see you still have a penchant for tardiness and dramatic entrances.”
“Sorry,” Art replied. “No one would give me ride.”
“There’s a Green Line stop in front of the campus,” Dave said.
“Yeah, I know. They wouldn’t stop for me,” Art said. He sounded testy and the men seated next to him edged their desks, ever so slightly, away from his.
“Talk to me after class, Art,” the professor said. “I’ll see what I can do. Moving on. Let’s hear from Russel.”
“I’m doing a twist on the vengeful female killer,” Russel said.
“She wasn’t raped. She wasn’t murdered. She wasn’t held hostage. She took a job in an assisted living community.”
“A medical setting. Is she a poisoner?””
“Not exactly. She follows some of the staff members home and hacks them to pieces. See, her father was a helpless Alzheimer’s patient. Someone suffocated him with a pillow.”
Art interrupted. “Was he raped?”
“You said you have a twist. Is the twist she didn’t get raped but her old man did?”
“No. No. Absolutely not,” said Russel. “Not even a little bit.”
Ellen sighed. “Nice twist. Wallace, you’re next.”
“My character is undead,” Wallace said. “But she’s not just a mindless eating machine. She’s retained her intelligence and she’s cunning. She prefers to eat men. . .”
Snorting laughter filled the room. Ellen fixed her best teacher glare on the men. They ducked their heads and fell silent.
“She prefers to prey on males,” Wallace corrected himself, “because, um, because. . .”
“Because she was raped and murdered.”
Ellen sighed, “Has anyone created a character who was not raped?”
Zach’s hand shot up in the air. “I have a young woman suffering from PTSD who is dominated by her well-intentioned boyfriend. He forces her to accompany him to this primitive commune he’s researching. Turns out the commune does weird rites that include human sacrifice. They pressure her into becoming a fertility figure which everyone like, not rapes, but has sex with. In the end, she chooses her boyfriend to be the sacrifice and cuts out his heart.”
Ellen rubbed her temples as if they hurt.
Zach persisted, “So she’s not really a victim. She just kind of drinks the Kool Aid with everyone else.”
“And is pressured into having sex—repeatedly,” Art said. Viscous saliva dripped from his savagely toothed mouth and congealed into a gelatinous mass on the desk. The men in the class slid their desks back a few more inches.
“You have something better?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.” The arthropod wiped away the jellied spittle with the tip of his jointed tail as he rummaged in his bag. He retrieved a sheaf of creased papers which he spread out on the desk. He ran a talon down a page of bullet points as he read, “The setting is a distant planet where a clan of nonnatives is trying to establish a colony. They are a matriarchy and their leader—their queen, really—is laying several large clutches of eggs. While she is doing this, a ship from another civilization lands and human explorers attempt to set up a competing colony right on top of hers. When her warriors attempt to defend their claim, the human invaders waste them. Finally, the female leader, the humans’ best fighter, hunts down the colonists and their matriarch. She takes a flame thrower to the defenseless eggs and very nearly kills the queen. Her motivation is nothing more than greed and a thirst for conquest.”
“Your warrior woman sounds like a badass. She kills without mercy just to get what she wants,” Ellen commented. “But what makes her authentically feminine, rather than a woman character who acts like a man?”
Art replied, “She has a girl child, who accompanies the woman on the hunt. She shows maternal tenderness to the girl, even as the child repeatedly witnesses indiscriminate violence. And of course, she wants to reproduce, too.”
“Fascinating. And what about the queen?”
“Well, she’s a warrior in her own right. I’m thinking of writing a trilogy, where it’s womano a womano until the end. But I don’t know how it all ends.”
“So you have two fully fleshed out female characters: the killer and the defender of the colony.” Ellen could not disguise her approval.
Wallace covered his mouth and muttered, “Suck up.”
Art’s tail whipped above his head like a lasso, then lashed out and punched Wallace’s shoulder.
“Hey, that fuckin’ burns!” Wallace cried.
“I just grazed you,” Art said. “Don’t be such a baby.”
“Knock it off,” barked the professor. “This assignment is about writing believable, fully developed female characters who do evil things. Art has an idea that moves beyond the neurotic victimized woman. Art, could you share your process with the class?”
Art’s black, helmet-like head bowed over his desk. He was silent for a minute, and a single tear slid down his face. It fell on the surface, where it hissed and pitted the laminate.
“Hey, man, you okay?” asked Irwin.
Art waved away his classmate’s concern. “I’m good. I’m good. To be honest, the story I plan to write has autobiographical elements. My Mom’s a warrior. She went through something like this. I’ve been listening to her stories since I was a little face hugger. She’s shared her pain and her triumphs, but also her admiration for the genocidal Warrior Woman.”
Dave leaned forward, pondered a moment, then said, “I feel for you, bro. But we don’t all have mothers and sisters who went through something like that.”
“Well, Mom taught me to listen. I’ve learned that all females have important stories of injustice, of pain, of anger that aren’t rooted in abusive relationships or sexual assault. I think this has helped me develop unique backstories for the characters I write.”
Art’s classmates nodded and murmured their support. An animated discussion ensued in which the men tried to recall things the women in their lives had shared with them, and how these confidences could inspire horror literature with authentic feminine perspectives.
Ellen checked her watch and said, “This was great. I’m excited by the ideas I’m hearing. I think this is a good place to end class. Please continue working on your characters and back stories. I’ll see you all next week.”
As the students ambled into the hall, Ellen beckoned to Art to remain behind. Tall as she was, the arthropod towered over her.
“You’ve come a long way, Art,” she said. “I appreciated your input. I’m sure the guys will come to appreciate it, too.”
Art ducked his shiny black head and averted his gaze. “Thank you, but let’s be honest, Professor Ripley. I’ve been schooled in the subject in no uncertain terms.”
“Yes, you have.” Ellen smiled. “Say ‘hi’ to your Mom for me. Okay?”
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