When I was in my final year of literary studies at university, our professor ran a tutorial on characterisation. Half of the session was dedicated to creating likeable females. ‘Women are motivated by two things,’ he mansplained. ‘Safety and service.’ Even though part of me tensed, he was a well-known author who had won awards and written female characters, so…who was I to question him? He then handed out a list (I still have this) of the traits of a likeable female character. Here are just a few: always honest, tactful (keeps things to herself), unselfish, morally upright (yes, he used this term), vulnerable and sometimes needs help, is slighted without hurting others. I’m hyperventilating even writing these words, so I’ll stop there. But you get the gist. Maybe this was the moment I became quite obsessed with twentieth-century literature by women (Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys, Margaret Atwood, Janet Frame, so many more). But I digress. Fast forward twenty years and I sat down to finally write the novel I had always wanted to write.
Two experiences shaped my story. One night my daughter stopped breathing. I rushed her and my toddler to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and they saved her life. After a few days we were discharged. I was sitting with my girls in the hospital cafeteria (probably looking emotional and tired) when a woman with a lanyard approached me and asked if I would like her to hold my baby and sit with my child so that I could go to the toilet and get something to eat. I gratefully accepted.
When I returned, the woman explained that she was an anaesthetist at the hospital, that she had children of her own, and a mother she was looking after and that she came to work often feeling like she wasn’t doing a good job of anything. Then she said something that has never left me, and which was the catalyst for my novel. She said that one of the greatest lessons her job has taught her is to not look away – to notice someone in distress, to see them in their full humanity. That night I wrote the opening line to my novel The Heart is a Star, which has never changed: ‘Like a splinter in my finger I always thought that if I left my mother alone she would work herself out.’
The doctor’s words stayed with me so much so that months later I was at work, sitting at my desk with my daughter strapped to my chest sleeping. I was teaching creative writing at RMIT University and my desk overlooked Swanston Street in Melbourne. I looked down one morning and saw a woman in a black suit holding a child and staring across the road. She didn’t move for what seemed like ten or so minutes. I remembered what that anaesthetist said to me, and I didn’t want to look away.
I took my baby down and gently approached the woman in a black suit. I asked if she was ok. She turned to me and looked surprised that I had asked and then she broke down in tears and said, ‘No, you know I don’t think I am ok.’ I invited her to come and have a coffee and I held her child as she ate a toasted cheese sandwich. She explained that she was due to go back to work that day and to put her child into care for the first time. She couldn’t imagine not going back to work, but she also couldn’t imagine handing her child over for the day and she said she felt paralysed.
We eventually parted ways and I gave her my details. About a year later she emailed me and told me she’d quit her job and started a HR company for women returning to work after having children. She said that sitting there with me that morning had allowed her to quieten the voices and expectations in her mind and to, in her words, create a door.
I wanted to honour both those women’s words and write a woman’s story where I didn’t look away. Where I explored a character’s mistakes and hopes and fears – all her humanity – without looking away. But I also wanted to, eventually, create a space for her where she could quieten the ever-present needs of others and carve out for herself a door.
But how could I do this while constructing a character that resonated with readers? Deep down my professor’s voice kept sounding: if I did not make my female protagonist ‘likeable’, likeable by his particular standards, no one would connect with her, and I would never get published.
As silly as my professor’s list was and is, and as much as I hate to admit it, the fear of writing a character that people didn’t like paralysed me. I started, stopped, edited, tried again. It was all wrong. Nothing rang true and I was too self-aware in my plotting and prose. I knew the writing was falling flat because of four things: the dialogue didn’t have subtext; the characters were not flawed and therefore not complex; this left no room for revealing context and backstory; and I didn’t want to read it aloud. This final point is one of my litmus tests. If I don’t want to read a chapter aloud to myself then it’s not working. But a third experience got me unstuck. Covid.
During lockdown in Melbourne, I witnessed women brought to the brink. I watched mothers give up their jobs to manage remote learning and the emotional needs of their family while their husbands locked themselves in their offices and continued their careers. I watched (mostly women) in caring professions such as aged care running themselves into the ground looking after everyone but themselves. In short, I watched the advances in gender equality that I had witnessed in my mother’s and my lifetimes be sacrificed at the altar of ‘the greater good’. And I thought, Fuck this.
The way I overcame the paralysis was by replacing ‘likeable’ with ‘relatable’. As soon as I did this, I was freed to write a real woman. And write I did. Like a woman possessed. All the while in my head saying, Fuck you professor. Fuck you.
I chose situations, decisions and consequences that rebelled against his list of likeable traits. I made my protagonist Layla confused, a human with desires (god forbid), and I made her mess up and mess up again. I gave voice to the thoughts that occupy women’s minds that are silenced to likeability. I wanted to explore female desire, anger, hatred, guilt, confusion, without censoring her internal voice. Because I also wanted to trust the reader; to acknowledge the fact that they might be intelligent, empathetic, complex people who can relate to a real woman. Not a two-dimensional character who plays into gender stereotypes. This is one of the reasons I chose first person as my point of view, because I needed the reader to see inside Layla’s turbulent mind. And, in turn, maybe even feel as though they have their own internal voices heard a little as well.
I also gave Layla complex current situations and problems – a failing marriage and a nuanced love affair, a job she loves but a workload she can’t sustain; children she adores and wants to spend time with but a career that prevents her from doing so; a mother with mental illness and a family with secrets; a sister who is emotionally unavailable and an aunt she has to look after. And one of the greatest joys was then figuring out how she got there. This was the key, in many ways, of making her relatable. The act of filling in all the gaps so that the reader can understand her feelings and actions was incredibly important, since without backstory and broader context, a reader cannot empathise and empathy, I found, was one of the keys to relatability.
Finally, I wanted Layla to realise the truth about her life and why she made the decisions she did at the same time as the reader, and for both to be left at a place in the end where the creation of a new more authentic self is possible. Not a more likeable self. But a more real one.
Megan Rogers began her working life as an editorial assistant at Allen & Unwin, before moving into corporate communications, eventually heading up the marketing team at the State Library of Victoria. In 2014 Megan finished a PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT University, which resulted in the book on narratology, Finding the Plot. Megan has taught creative writing for many years at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts/Science, a Diploma of Professional Writing & Editing, a Graduate Diploma in Professional Communication, and a Masters of Marketing. The Heart is a Star is her debut novel. Instagram: @megan_rogers_writer