Ex-VP of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google and a former Facebook CEO, Sheryl Sandberg is a powerful woman. Her best-selling first book Lean In – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, deals with the importance for women to ‘lean into’ life to capitalize on both professional and personal opportunities. A heady mix, the book includes a long, hard look at a woman’s role – or the lack of one – in business leadership, development and government, and explores the contemporary role of feminism.
According to Sandberg, the key to female success isn’t necessarily pushing harder. It’s about being attentive, remaining objective, focusing on emerging life and work opportunities. In Sandberg’s world, women who know and understand their own passions, calculate risks boldly, reject pressure, and say ‘boo’ to fear smooth the rocky paths of life and work better than others.
As a writer who enjoys breaking stereotypes, I get her point. The themes in her book resonate, where against the odds, and sometimes dire circumstances, women take control of their destinies.
Three kinds of women; the good, the bad and the ugly
I write about three kinds of women, none of whom are heroes in the traditional sense (well, maybe a little). All of them, however, are characters who “lean in” on their own. They are women who deal with extraordinary circumstances in unexpected and sometimes extraordinary ways, and I love writing about all of them.
Flawed but honorable
First there are the flawed but honorable women, imperfect in many ways, yet they have high levels of empathy for others. Ellie Foreman and Georgia Davis are both examples, as is Frankie Pacelli, at the beginning of my latest book, HAVANA LOST. Frankie knows her mother and father don’t approve of what she’s doing. She understands why. But she goes her own way anyway, calculating that an honorable, open, honest life with her lover Luis is better than living without him, no matter how hard her defection and disobedience will affect her family. In her own way Carla is another flawed but honorable woman in HAVANA LOST.
We are all flawed; it’s part of the human condition. But we are not all honorable. I find it fascinating to discover how some characters become cowards and lose all sense of honor when they run into difficulties, while others remain true to themselves—even heroic—when obstacles happen.
Women without choices
The second type of women I love writing about are women whose choices have been taken away from them. For example Anna in A Bitter Veil travels to her new husband’s native Iran with high expectations only to find life is at first difficult, and then impossible. Her freedom is restricted and threatened simply because she is female in an oppressive male-dominated society. She’s up against the wall, all her options have vanished, and many would call her a victim. In her darker moments, she might even agree. But not for long. Something—some core inner strength—propels her to endure, perhaps even prevail against her problems. She is a survivor.
The same goes for Arin and Mika in my novel An Image of Death, as well as Lila and Alix in Set The Night on Fire. I put them in desperate situations, force them to cope with the challenges and, like the women championed by Sheryl Sandberg, they all eventually manage. I like to think that, put in a similar situation, I’d react the same way, that I would fight to protect my innermost ‘self’. But what do any of us know, until it actually happens?
The witch bitch
The third type of female I love to write about is the witch-bitch. Take Ricki Feldman, who’s a recurring character in several of my novels, and somewhat of a nemesis for Georgia Davis. She’s sharp, willing to cut corners, and says one thing while doing another. You really want to hate her, and she deserves it, but every once in a while she does something … well, almost noble. So you can’t hate her 100%. She’s flawed and damaged and has more baggage than the carousels at O’Hare, but something human has survived under her hard shell of disappointment and disillusion.
My favorite witch-bitches are Ricki, Frankie Pacelli in HAVANA LOST, and Marian Iverson, who was an important character in my first novel, AN EYE FOR MURDER.
More questions than answers
Women are far from perfect, and creating characters that reflect their flaws and foibles is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing my novels. Who is your favorite strong fictional female character, and why? If you’ve read Lean In – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, what did you think about it?
Image source: Jaquandor