In my novel, Shame on You, the protagonist, Holly, initially seems spotless. She is a modern image of morality: dieted lean through a nutritionally pure diet, spouting motivational messages and accessible inspiration on social media. Yet, she harbours a dark secret, one that I found personally quite hard to reconcile as a writer.
As a feminist, how could I write a character that did not paint women in a good light, who was not always strong, and when she was strong, was fierce in her motivation? How supportive am I of my fellow women, if I write a person with a conflicted idea of morality?
I found it easier to write Tyler, another character who was capable of evil and terrorises Holly through the novel, yet somehow remains likeable and relatable. In hindsight, this experience throws Holly's significance into perspective.
It was easy for me to write a difficult man, because we are used to difficult men. We are used to focussing on a man's virtues and achievements, and minimising his crimes. We are used to searching for something to make them likeable, to excuse what they have done.
Holly is a feminist symbol in her own way. Over the course of the novel, she comes undone spectacularly, and challenges her carefully manufactured image. She is unapologetic in what she wants. Most of all, the story allows her to follow her own, tortured path that is true to her personality and past. Not to give too much away, but there is no relief to the tension of Holly's character, no moment where it is clear that was a wonderful person all along.
It's time we become comfortable with stories of women that we don't agree with, stories where women (as Gillian Flynn says in a recent interview with Meg Abott), don't 'run around saving babies and kittens to prove they are a good person.' Holly was a challenge to write and is sometimes a challenge to read, as she tests our compassion. If I have achieved anything with this novel, I hope that it has been to portray a difficult woman with empathy, to tell her story without the need to dress her up as something else.
Interested in reading Shame on You? Buy it here.