I have just finished a book called A faint cold fear by Karin Slaughter [link]. I bought it in a book fair upon reading the back cover:
Sara Linton, medical examiner in the small town of Heartsdale, is called out to an apparent suicide on the local college campus. The mutilated body provides little in the way of clues – and the college authorities are eager to avoid a scandal – but for Sara and police chief Jeffrey Tolliver, things don’t add up.
Two more suspicious suicides follow, and a young woman is brutally attacked. For Sara, the violence strikes far too close to home. And as Jeffrey pursues the sadistic killer, he discovers that ex-police detective Lena Adams, now a security guard on campus, may be in possession of crucial information. But, bruised and angered by her expulsion from the force, Lena seems to be barely capable of protecting herself, let alone saving the next victim…
You can find the first few pages of the book here [link] provided by Random House. When I was reading the back cover I thought that Sara looked like a strong female character, an MI working hand to hand with the police chief, cool. Well, the book was an extreme disappointment. I did not like it at all. The style was rather plain, synonyms were lacking and pacing was kind of jumpy – a character ‘makes a discovery’ that you only get told about three or four pages later, when the character tells another one; in a not really flowy way.
However, what really irked me out was the way the author portrays her women. The main two women hold important, independent, even dangerous jobs, and by every account could be considered “strong, independent women”. Instead, even if they are able to perform that job, they crave for a man to rescue them whenever something goes wrong. Basically, they are strong and independent while everything is fine; when it is not they need a man to take over, protect and control them. An example: police chief is MI Sara’s ex-husband, he cheated on her, in her house; she divorced him and she’s still dying for his bones; never mind that he is a caveman that short of urinating around her to mark her as his, because he did her dishes once! And cooked! And omg that’s the best you can find in a man!! Example two: Lena, the ex-cop and rape victim who basically bangs the white supremacist because it’s ‘the right thing to do’.
I started thinking about the way women are portrayed in fiction, and how many times four patterns of women can be identified in a story
- Tragic heroine, for romance plots. She tends to be weak, scared and needs a guy to do everything for her. She might come across as strong first but when push comes to shove she crumbles.
- Compulsory love interest of macho male main character
- Random unimportant character who could perfectly be a guy but is female because it’s politically correct
- Mother/wife sacrificing her everything for her children/husband
These had me thinking about the female characters I write about, which are few, I own up. As a rule, I am not too fond of writing women. I am not completely sure of why, but I find good female characters hard to write. I like men more than women, what can I do… Anyway, I mostly thought about some females in the Osaka Shikigami universe. Here is a bit about them (be warned, this might be spoilery).
Tsubaki-sama: In her own way, Tsubaki-sama, manager of The Temple, is a very powerful woman. When she was young, she was a prostitute, and was raped at one time. Now that she is about 60, she has become a Madame. Her power comes from her ability to read men and assign to them the right whore for them. She can also ban (i.e. kick out) any yakuza out of her high-class brothel, that is another way she maintains her status. True that said status is granted by The Sun’s Council and thus is artificial, but it is there. Tsubaki-sama is perfectly conscious of the equilibrium between her power and her vulnerabilities, and both of them conflict within her. Within the brothel she protects her hired girls more than she cares to protect the private slaves, because she feels an acquired responsibility towards the former.
Shinohara Aya: Shinohara is sensitive, submissive and mostly sweet. She is Kamon Tsuyoshi’s private slave, and he keeps her in The Temple to prevent his backstabbing brother to find out that he is in love with her. Shinohara can be strong, even vengeful when her protective instincts are triggered, that is what happens when Kitsune hurts Takuma. I’ve always wondered how her life as Kamon’s wife would be…
Shirota Tomoko: On the outside, Shirota Tomoko was the perfect Japanese woman: quiet, obedient, a good daughter who accepted her ‘responsibility’ towards her family and married the man that her father had chosen for her. Then, during the wedding, she threatened to stab him if he ever cheated on her, and she would have done it without blinking. It was her honour at stake, but his too. Tomoko was the Saiko-Kommon head of her father’s gang and kept the role when the Osaka Shikigami was formed, thus working alongside her husband. She is the figure of the mother, who is willing to give anything for her child. Even if she married the Ice Dragon out of a gang deal, the two of them learnt to love each other deeply.
Okonogi Kazuko: She is the complete opposite from Tomoko, she is the yakuza woman, who is able to take the reigns with steel will. Kazuko can be harsh and unforgiving, she was brought up in the yakuza ways, and is perfectly conscious of how things work in the underworld. She can and will kill, either protecting her own or claiming revenge. However, she developed this huge soft spot called Okonogi Hisaki; she fell in love with him and was completely surprised when she did. I peg her for being the Matriarch, offering wisdom and guidance. She had awful pregnancies, being really sick during the three of them, and she used to kick her husband to the couch or out of the house.
Okonogi Azusa: The youngest Okonogi was designed to be a baby girl on the outside, loving pink and frills and wearing piggy tails and cute dresses. Originally this was done to generate a contrast between her older brother, Okonogi Kazuki, and her, she would be ‘smart’ and somewhat ‘posh’ and he would be the ‘blunt force barbarian’, with the balance figure of Okonogi Misako between them (having the best, or the worst, of both worlds). At least, that was the plan until I stumbled upon the existence of a Hello Kitty AK-15 rifle, a real one [link]. What started as a joke on Azusa and a gun quickly developed. By the time she was a full-fletched character, she was a complete different person from what I had originally planned. She kept the pink (for the record, I don’t like pink), and the frill (also for the record, I hate frill), and a bunch of details were added to her personality: she is a trained sniper – still trying to figure that out – and she has had crushes on every of the Ice Dragon taken-in children. Out of all my females she is the one who most actively wants to get married and have children – especially the having children part. Azusa can be spoiled and selfish sometimes, and oftentimes a bit manipulative, especially towards her lover, but when his life is torn apart, she is the one who holds the fort for him to give him time to recover.
Shirota Kyoko: Last but not least, the current Osaka Shikigami Kumicho. To be completely honest, when I started working the Osaka Shikigami structure I wanted a 100% out-of-the-norm Oyabun, so that left me two options: a gaijin (foreigner) or a woman. I have always hated the whole idea of ‘foreigner comes into society and suddenly he is the best living in that society than the natives’, thus it left me with the only option of a female. It was a rather easy decision to make and also a challenge, since as I mentioned before I am not too used to writing women. Shirota is probably the female character most featured in the Osaka Shikigami books, but most of the time she has been described from another character’s point of view, thus her real self can be confused with what others think of her. It’s fun how most of the males around her consider her completely unreachable, probably the only one who sees her as a human being is Okonogi Kazuki, then again he grew up with her and is almost her same age, not even Kwang Ho, her lover is completely conscious of her human nature; if Kazuko is the Matriarch and Tomoko is the Mother, Shirota is something like the High Priestess, probably. Since her point of view has been scarce until now (it’s reserved for Blood). Sometimes this very same unreachability is her weakness: waiting for Kwang Ho to make a move did not really work for her, and she had to take matters in her own hands, even if she would have liked for him to acknowledge his feelings first. She is sometimes a bit lonely, and that is why Kazuki randomly drops by to remind her that she is indeed not alone. Something that almost nobody knows is that Shirota Kyoko is infertile, thus unable to carry on the bloodline. This means that the next child raised to take over the Osaka Shikigami will most probably be one of Azusa’s kid, let’s hope he or she inherits the female part of the Okonogi genes…
From now on I will remind myself the fact that these characters are women and that being female is an inherent part of what they are. They don’t have to be superwomen, but they can be well-developed women ^^
Picture belongs to the public domain, “Ippitsusai Buncho ukiyo-e” [link]; A faint cold fear belongs to Karin Slaughter and the excerpt is provided by Random House (see links above).