“I try my best to look on the bright side of things. I try to think the best of people. Because… it’s easy to think the worst.”

For Writers: The Audacity of Optimism

Note that this is a drawing. Not an actual female person.

Note that this is a drawing. Not an actual female person.

There have been several articles lately about how complicated writing female protagonists can be. We want them strong but not too strong. Amazingly competent but not unrealistic. Gritty but not abrasive.

Blech.

By my count, I have now written thirteen female protagonists (maybe more depending on your definition of protagonist) in my novels and novellas. Here’s some of the reader and reviewer feedback I’ve gotten about my female protagonists:

“clever” “boring, plain, over-emotional, and kinda stupid” “kickass!” “pathetic” “spineless ninny” “awesome” “relatable” “no personality” “one-dimensional” “all-time favorite heroine” “weak” “brilliant”

And ladies and gentlemen, this is all feedback for the same character! I’ll leave you to guess for which because honestly, this could be for any and all of them. Reader perception ranges SO wildly (and always has) that I tend to stick with the philosophy that has guided me from the beginning of my writing career. It’s simple, actually. It’s one single question:

“Do I know anyone that acts or has acted this way?”

If the answer is yes, then it’ll probably show up in a character somewhere. Which means my protagonists (both male and female) are kickass! And weak. Often in the same book. They’re so clever! And also dumb. Because that happens in real life. See, the same situation where one person can feel competent will make another, equally intelligent person do something stupid.

Because we all have our strengths and our blind spots. We all have our moments of weakness and moments to shine. That’s life. And even though I write fantasy, I need to ground my characters in reality. There are no real-life superheroes. Or maybe we can all be superheroes if we really need to be. (<-I pick that option personally.)

Waking Hearts - Ebook SmallAnd yet, all that said, I find myself nervous about my next release, Waking Hearts, because I have created a character more open to criticism than perhaps any other. Ladies and gentlemen, I have written…

An optimist.

A real, honest to goodness optimist.

I can already feel the metaphorical lips curling. Because how banal. How trite. A perky mom of four who always tries to look on the bright side? Her children are even (mostly) well behaved?!

Clearly a fantasy character, the cynics sneer. The pending echoes of “Mary Sue!” chase me off the interwebs.

Okay, I’m probably exaggerating. After all, I’m writing a paranormal romance, right? Everyone expects the happy ending in romance, whether it has shapeshifters or vampires or mermaids. Everyone has read this story before! HEAs aren’t real after all, are they? Romance heroes don’t really exist.

Feel that pat on the head, romance writers? That’s the patronizing pat of dismissal from the “real” writers. The ones who write those “strong female characters” who fear nothing. The cynics and the realists. The scarred NOT-Mary Sue who know that happy endings don’t exist.

I was listening to a sermon at my church yesterday that really spoke to me. (Don’t worry, this isn’t turning into one of THOSE posts. Everyone can relate to this. I think.) And the pastor was talking about suffering. And walking with God through the hardest times in life. And he shared something that was happening with his family that was gut-wrenching. I cried. And then he talked about how helpless he felt. And how hurt.

It was an incredibly brave moment. It was complete emotional honesty in front of a whole bunch of people, many of whom may have been hearing him teach for the first time. And then he said something that really struck me. (Forgive my paraphrase.)

The best evidence of spiritual maturity is a wide-open heart in the midst of suffering and adversity.

You don’t hear people say that! It’s not a “sophisticated” thing to say. Because real life is hard and breeds cynicism.

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

We hold our hard hearts up like a badge of honor. And they’re understandable badges of honor! Life hurts us all. If you’re not going through a hard time right now, then you’ve either just come out of one or are about to go through one. Because sometimes, life sucks. It’s inevitable.

Lesley Knope. One of the bravest women ever written for television.

Lesley Knope. One of the bravest women ever written for television.

And it’s natural to put up shields. I have lots of my own! It’s natural to narrow your heart until only those who have really and truly earned your trust are allowed in. We’ve been taught that this is this the smart thing to do. Wise, worldly people are not optimists.

But nothing about that makes the world a better place! When we’re closed off, we aren’t open to the good things that may come. We’re not open to those we meet who may touch us in positive ways. And we’re not going to see those around us who are also searching for connection.

To me, there’s nothing more daring than an optimist. There’s nothing braver than the person walking with an open heart through a life that has hurt them. Still looking for the good in people, even when others have wounded them in the past. There’s nothing more audacious than hope after disappointment.

Because that hope, that optimism, tells the world: “You can knock me down and kick me. You can take it all away again. But I’ll keep getting up. I’ll keep going. And I’ll do it with a smile on my face and hope in my heart. Because I’m an open-hearted badass.

And that, readers, makes romance the bravest genre. The most optimistic, despite all the heartache in the world. We lay our hearts on the page, looking for happiness and connection in a world that mostly tells us that we’re searching in vain.

Write characters that reflect that audacity.

The literary world is not going to ever want for cynics. Don’t be afraid to write some optimists. Write them despite the criticism you may face from the “sophisticated” reviewer:

Mary Sue.

Weak.

Needy.

Overly emotional.

Stupid.

Unrealistic.

Fantasy.

This is me choosing optimism. Because I do believe there is no greater evidence of emotional or spiritual maturity than a wide-open heart in the midst of adversity. Adversity is all around us. Adversity is life. We choose how to walk through it, and we choose the characters who reflect that journey in fiction.

Be brave.

“I try my best to look on the bright side of things. I try to think the best of people. Because… it’s easy to think the worst.”

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12 Comments

  1. I absolutely love this blog. Everything you said is true. It takes courage to walk through life with an open heart, to trust and believe that there are good people out there especially if you have been wounded, beaten and/or betrayed by life and/or people.

  2. This is so refreshing. I love broken characters, but I also love those with hope. They are not mutually exclusive. Thank you for putting this out there and affirming that happiness is a choice.

  3. Pingback: For Writers: The Audacity of Optimism | Deliakane

  4. Well said. I appreciate your optimism in continuing to write such badass books and heroines, in spite of the naysaying, narrow-minded reviewers out there. You have a posse of people who love your stuff and can’t wait for every new release, don’t ever forget that!

  5. Monty Python says “Always look on the bright side of life.” The one thing I have noticed about your books, (aside from the sheer quality of the writing overall), and commented on in reviews, is that the characters are believeable. Even when the protagonist is clearly not human – to be expected in paranormal romance – he/she always displays realistic human traits and emotions, realistic actions and reactions, so much so that it is possible to immerse oneself in the world(s) you have created, and to imagine these people living amongst us. People are diverse, book characters should be too. Even if I don’t like the character (hasn’t actually happened yet in your books tho’) I can still believe they could exist. This is the mark of a good writer. Please don’t stop. 🙂

  6. Elizabeth,
    The world and society today needs MANY more optimists’, like Allie, out there. I think that if we have more optimism in the world, it will help create a positive environment to live in. It will definitely drown out the pessimism in our society, possibly reduce a lot of the crimes, firings at work, and maybe increase job productivity, satisfaction, and possibly the hiring market, too (it COULD happen!!)

    Great article!! Any chance you could/would release “Walking Hearts” a week early? I’m in between books at the moment!
    Can’t wait to read Allie & Ollie!!
    Read you soon,
    Kimberly

  7. Greatt! As I love broken characters, but also those optimistics with hope who serve as inspiration to others, I have chosen my main characters with both personalities, fighting each against adversities from their diverse points of view. Some day, they´ll help each other in a way that we can see them both present in real life. As you clearly say, “…sometimes, life sucks. It’s inevitable.” And I love having both strong and weak points to overcome the inevitable. I want the same in my characters.
    The best for your optimistic Allie 🙂

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