The other day, a woman described another woman to me as a bitch. Bitch is one of those words that can convey a world of ideas. But what does it really mean? And, more to the point for any writer working to create flesh and blood characters, what are the undercurrents and coloration of such a "power" word?
Does the description change in meaning for us when the woman saying it is a daughter talking about her mother? What if the mother is long dead, frozen in time and memory for the daughter? Or very much alive, interacting with the daughter on a daily basis? Weekly? Never in person, but by phone or email? Only during annual obligatory visits?
Of course, the storyteller in me wants to pose the so-called bitch and her describer into a wide range of scenes, to see how they change.
A woman talking about a co-worker, a boss, a competitor for a man's affection, her daughter's teacher.
Or what if it's a man discussing a woman he's met? A woman who is strong-willed when he wants her to be malleable? His father's second wife? A policewoman who's just given him a traffic ticket?
At this point, I expect that you now have as many different kinds of women in mind as I do, and they all could be called a bitch at one time or another, depending on the interaction, relationship and mood of the players.
As powerful as the word bitch is, it could now pull us into a political, feminist discussion about how it has been used to delineate and limit women. But, for now, I'm more interested in creating fictional women who resonate with readers' imagination, becoming believable, real.
When that woman was called a bitch, she was objectified, made into a monolithic unrevealed entity, with no redeemable or even knowable characteristics. The problem is that no single description can capture or convey any full personality for two reasons:
1. It doesn't tell us enough about the person.
2. It forces the character to be unrealistically consistent in behavior.
The first point is one familiar to any writer or reader. We need to know so much more about that bitchy woman before we can picture her, relate to her. Who is she? What does her laugh sound like? Does she have a heavy walk or a dancer's step? Has she just lost her job, or is she a new mother with a colicky baby?
It's the second point that is often overlooked by authors. When fictional characters are unnaturally consistent, they come across as cardboard cut-outs rather than full-dimensional people. What real person do you know who is always the same every day, all hours of the day? A strong, confident woman can be insecure (and often is). A character who is mean-spirited and stingy one moment can be open-heartedly generous at another time. Sometimes, a person can have a hair-trigger temper that flares at the slightest insult, or she can turn inwardly, becoming depressed over the low opinion embodied in that insult.
Real people change moods, behavior and perceived personalities, depending on the situation, the people they are with, the history of the moment, the background of the relationship, and so forth. Maybe they have an upset stomach, didn't get enough sleep the night before, or are worried about something completely unrelated to the current interaction.
Emerson wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." What follows that famous quote in his "Self-Reliance" essay is even more relevant for the fiction author. "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall."
Of course, inconsistency for its own sake in a novel won't work. Any action, reaction or behavior must have a believable basis, if your readers are going to accept it and keep on reading. But that's a subject for another day.