My writers group is still looking at first chapters. This week as I listened to the first chapter of an up and coming female mystery writer’s book, I found myself jerked out of the story at the point where the main male character meets the female protagonist. I found myself thinking, “Wow, she sounds like a romance writer here.” (Sorry all ye romance writers out there, but as this is a mystery and not a romance, this is not a good thing.) Let me emphasize here that this is a writer whose work I admire. Yet her storytelling obviously wobbled a bit at that point, and we spent some time trying to figure out how and why. We came up with several reasons, but the most obvious is that real men don’t think or react this way.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are a few men out there in the world who might react this way, but I suspect they’re almost as rare as women who look in the mirror and catalogue their assets. Here’s the passage:
“His challenge brought the woman’s chin up, and she snapped her head around, zeroing in on the two policemen. She was plain, no makeup and nondescript dark blond hair scraped back in a ponytail. She had that overbred look he associated with rich women from the north side of town: high cheekbones and a long thin nose that was perfect for looking down at folks…He felt himself coloring. Her eyes were the only exceptional thing about her, true hazel, like granite seen under green water.” Uh, and her body? All we’re told is that she is “athletic-looking” –despite the fact he first comes at her from behind and she’s bent over.
In my experience, men are no better at detecting that women are wearing makeup than they are at detecting that women dye their hair. Unless it's overdone they don't notice it (actually, if it's applied well you aren't supposed to notice it). And maybe an artist would wax lyrical about a woman’s nose and the color of her eyes, but a cop in a tense situation? I don’t think so. Plus, when was the last time a male of your acquaintance commented on a woman’s body by saying, “Hhmm…athletic-looking.”
I’m not saying all male characters need to zero in on the tits and ass of every woman they meet. That annoys me, too, when it’s done in sexist language. But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s James Lee Burke first describing a similar woman: “[She] wore her hair in blond ringlets and her body was as lithe, tanned, and supple-looking as an Olympic swimmer’s.” Or another women (for whom Robicheaux will have some romantic attraction) : “She wore an orange silk shirt and khaki slacks and sandals, her funny straw hat spotted with rain, her hair dark red against the gloom of the day, her face glowing with a smile that was like a thorn in the heart.”
Yes, I know; JLB writes wonderful prose, but the male voice is still authentically there. Our female author’s touches about the nose and the eyes are nice, but they’d have worked better if she saved them for later, as the cop gets to know our heroine and in a more relaxed setting, rather than shoving them on the reader all at once up-front in an inappropriate setting. Despite them, I still didn’t get a good “feel” for this woman. The image is too superficial, distant.
I suspect another reason this mystery writer’s passage struck me as romancy is because the romantic nature of the relationship that will develop between these two is so obvious it’s as if our writer has run up a flag decorated with red hearts and kisses. Our cop meets two other women in this chapter—one of whom will be a suspect—and neither is described with more than half a sentence. Plus, all the romance cliches are there--the chin coming up, the head snapping around, the woman looking down her nose at the man who thinks she's arrogant, and then the lingering on the eye color. I’d expect this kind of obvious “meet” in a romance, but not in a mystery.
I’m nitpicking, I know; but it’s little things like this that can make a story feel off-kilter. I don’t think this writer’s errors are as egregious as yesterday’s example, but it was this passage that started me to thinking about the mistakes in gender portrayals that writers can inadvertently make. I know I’m not immune from such errors myself, and I’d be interested to hear of other examples people have noticed.