by | Dec 9, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 6 comments

By Francine Mathews
One of my all-time favorite movies is Stranger Than Fiction. Will Ferrell plays an IRS auditor who wakes up one day to the truth that he is in fact a character in a book being written by Emma Thompson–and that, as she constructs her plot, he both loses control of his life and regains his personal freedom. Not everyone liked the film, but I LOVED it. Maybe because in the course of writing each of my books, I’ve experienced the curious phenomenon of my characters seizing control of the plot. Once they begin to speak, they become individuals who cannot be manipulated, no matter what roles I’ve designated for them on paper. They chart their separate courses, and if those journeys happen to align with the aims of my novel, I feel exquisite relief. This is a curious alchemy between writer and subject that I ascribe to the Creative Process, which no one entirely designs or controls. Whenever I start a book, I embark along with the people I’ve thought into being. We’re fellow travelers. If we end up in the same chapter, that’s all to the good.

But in Stranger Than Fiction, the reverse is true: Emma Thompson becomes God in Will Ferrell’s life, with such pervasive force that she ultimately decides whether he lives or dies. The fact that he tracks her down to plead for survival (see picture above) only makes her artistic dilemma more fraught. We know he has finally reached her when she actually hands him her manuscript so that he can read the end.

As a writer, I’ve faced similar issues. I’ve received hate mail in the past when I’ve killed off a beloved character. Explaining to my readers that the character himself made the decision to go, rarely helps. Obviously, that answer tells them that he was as alive in my mind as he was in theirs. Such an admission is fatal. It implies that fiction is TRUTH. Suggesting the character acted out of free will only makes me a more arbitrary and coldblooded killer.

In Don Juan, written in 1823, George Gordon, Lord Byron, wrote that:

‘ Tis strange – but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
How oft would vice and virtue places change!
The new world would be nothing to the old,
If some Columbus of the moral seas
Would show mankind their souls’ antipodes.

 Later, Mark Twain and W. Somerset Maugham would embroider on the same idea, as would Albert Einstein. Great minds think in similar quotes. But sometimes, they’re all wrong. I come up against this nine times out of ten when I encounter a female character in a book or movie: They’re nothing like the women I know or am; they never behave as we would. Invariably, women are stranger in fiction.

For instance: In my four years of training and employment as an intelligence analyst at the CIA, I was never ordered to sleep with an enemy agent. It wasn’t part of the protocol. It wasn’t why I was hired. This is shocking, I know. Most women who slink through spy stories are no sooner stripped of their firearm by a powerful male than they are swooning in his arms. (I except all of the characters in Zero Dark Thirty from this rule; it does not apply to women who run operational bases or dispatch Seal Team Six.) Moreover, I frequently experienced such hours of sheer boredom while dutifully employed at Langley that I ran screaming to Tysons Corner on my lunch hour to buy lipstick or browse the seasonal sales. Contrary to popular belief, the world is not about to end each day, and one woman alone cannot save it.

Similarly, when I worked as a news reporter for the Miami Herald and the San Jose Mercury News, I was never tempted to embark on an affair with a Source, as Kate Mara’s character, Zoe Barnes, does in House of Cards. The fact that she is eventually pushed in front of a Metro train by her Machiavellian lover, Frank Underwood, who eventually becomes President of the United States, is no solace. Male news reporters–Woodward and Bernstein in All The President’s Men come to mind–are invariably presented as driven professionals with ethics and integrity for which they’d willingly go to jail. Female reporters seem to lack so many skills that it’s simply easier to trade sex for information. This is patently false and infinitely destructive to the public view of news reporting, as any journalist who happens to be a woman will tell you. Recently, in this year’s revival of Gilmore Girls, a similar lament was raised among women reporters when Rory Gilmore–whose girlhood dream in the original series was to become a journalist–ends up, you guessed it, sleeping with her Source. Because when you’re a romantic young soul sister, professional ethics fly out the window. 

And finally, the Maggie Gyllenhaal test.

Gyllenhaal–who has a great supporting role in Stranger Than Fiction, by the way–has said that whenever she reads a script, she pays immediate attention to how the female character is introduced. There’s an underlying trope in screenwriting, it seems, that every actor recognizes. Male leads may be introduced as lean and intense, focused or with an expression of obvious intelligence; they may be described as world-weary, cynical, waiting for a reason to hope–in other words, they’re framed as individuals with a psychological and emotional presence. Sometimes they may also be described as “fit,” or “ripped” or “ruggedly handsome,” if the intent is to cast a romantic lead. But women….Female characters are all too often dropped into the script with a variation on this theme: “Wet from the shower, she is trailing through the penthouse with a towel loosely draped around her hips, her wet hair shrouding her bare breasts…She is mid-twenties, lithe, a yoga instructor with a wickedly knowing smile…” And then there’s the casting problem: A young woman in her mid-twenties is usually paired with a guy in his late forties or fifties. Because everyone in Hollywood, male and female, apparently has a Daddy Complex.

Maggie says as soon as she flags this sort of intro, she tosses the script in the trash. It can offer her nothing of truth, and everything of strange fiction.

I leave you with my favorite photo essay of the year: Outdoor Research’s spoof of a casually sexist GQ photoshoot of star rockclimbers, adored by winsome models, this past September. 

Women. They’re stranger in fiction.


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  1. Jamie Freveletti

    Thanks for calling this out! The Outside response to the GQ photo shoot was classic and funny. Perfect. During this season be on the watch: ads for toys. Often the little boy plays with the toy while the little girl looks on. Always bugged me, that and hopefully less common these days. (I have TIVO so glide past most commercials, but just saw a LEGO commercial like this). Love this post!

  2. S. Lee Manning

    Love both the discussion of how character develop lives of their own, and of how women are portrayed in books and film. I love your story on how boring it actually was to work at Langley. But there is always such a disconnect between what life is like in a particular profession and the fiction about it. For example, legal thrillers. The vast majority of time, lawyers sit at a desk, reading through boxes of documents. Talk about boring. Yet, if you read legal thrillers – or watch television where a case comes to trial the day after it's filed (laughing now), lawyers' lives just move from one exciting moment to another.

  3. Gayle Lynds

    A wonderful essay, Francine, and I so agree!

  4. Francine Mathews

    As a girl who played constantly with Legos and the family collection of Matchbox cars, I totally understand what you're saying, Jamie. And as someone who's married to a lawyer, Sandy, I know too well that every profession has its tedium. That's death to pacing and drama in storytelling. Hence the "rogue actor," who's forced out on his or her own to escape the vengeance of bored colleagues living within the system…The Firm comes to mind!

  5. Sonja Stone

    Francine, thanks for focusing your keen eye on this topic! The Zoe Barnes thing didn't overtly occur to me, but you're totally right!

  6. Chris Goff

    I knew I liked Maggie Gyllenhaal for more than just her acting skills. Thanks for telling it like it is.