Good for the gander, maybe not the goose
In the writing world, there is a great deal of talk about motivation. Without a doubt, it is key to any good characterization. Without it, books seem too much like real life, full of meaningless sound and fury.
For the record there are two kinds of motivation: internal and external. External is driven by things from outside of us: We are motivated to call the plumber because the tap is dripping. Internal is driven (you guessed it!) from inside: We are motivated to call the plumber because secretly we are working out daddy issues, and daddy was a pipe and porcelain man. If we call, we symbolically confront him one more time.
Audiences—and by that I mean editors, agents, reviewers and blog commenters because those are the folks whose opinions I know about—are particular about what is acceptable internal motivation in protagonists. This is thrown in stark relief when we get to what could be sweepingly termed boy books versus girl books.
In a thriller, Agent Manly Man is given the task of putting away Evil Guy, so he does it. It’s his job. No one questions that. He might do it as a cop, a special agent, or in the courtroom. Gotta earn a pay cheque, and these occupations make good pulp fiction. Often/usually Manly Man is a loner. Audiences ache for his lonely state and hopes someday he’ll find solace in the bosom of, well, a bosom. These books—and they are legion—have a definite following.
However, wheel Agent Jane into the same scenario. The first question you’ll get as an author is, “Why is she a police sergeant? What happened to her that she wants a job with so much violence? Why isn’t she, like, a teacher or something?” You have to put a good reason out there before folks will move on to paragraph two.
Jane can’t wake up one day and think, “Gee, it’s Career Day at school. I like excitement. I think I’ll go check out the booth with the cops” any more than she can announce, “There’s a company over there with good assets and earning potential. I’ll think I’ll take it over and damn the torpedoes.” No way. What she’s allowed is, “My daddy was a cop and I never got his love because Peter was the boy. I’ll go be more of a cop than Peter and finally earn Daddy’s love.” Well, I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to go scuttling into a shoot ‘em up wearing Kevlar and a prayer, I’m doing it because I want to and to heck with what Daddy thinks. But that’s me.
Better yet, Jane is a cop because a child was murdered somewhere in her past, and she’s out there to defend young ‘uns everywhere. (No one ever oversets their lives in a crusade to defend middle-aged couch potatoes.)
But I digress.
I’ve run into the same problem plenty of times with female characters in the boardroom—I’ve never had a storyline pass go if it features a career woman, and I’ve tried many times. I know plenty of females who are ambitious and career-minded in real life. They do it for the same reason as guys: because they’re good at it, and they like the idea of retiring comfortably. However, if you translate that onto the fictional page, it’s necessary to counteract that “cold” ambition with a lot of factors that make her “softer” and “likeable.” Preferably kids. If her kids interfere with her job and she chooses family over personal success, so much the better. Does this mean boy exec = breadwinner; girl exec = not likeable?
I’m completely sure there are exceptions to this. I’m just going by my experience. However, the conclusion I draw is that there is a segment that sees female motivation convincing only in the context of family. A woman has to be motivated by factors outside of her own self-fulfillment before some readers can accept her.
As I say, I’m going by my own limited observations. What do you think? Am I right or wrong?