One and Only Girl began life as an exercise in a long-ago workshop, and then lurked for a some time inside a folder-within-a-folder somewhere on my laptop before I rediscovered the paragraph and finally expanded it into a full story. Maybe it’s just an excuse for procrastination on my part, but my stories, I find, usually benefit from plenty of brewing time. As for the exercise, it was, I recall a simple, prompt-led one, placing two characters in conflict in a room. Hardly any of the original first paragraph remains now, having been edited away, although I have remained true to its original essence and its characters.
The room I pictured for the exercise was based on a bedsit I lived in many years ago, and the then-unnamed father character and his world view came into my mind fully-formed, although it took me quite a while to find the details of the story itself. The physical persona of Frank happened, for some reason, to be based on a local newspaper-seller I knew (a larger than life, and unlike Frank, cheerful and friendly character, who, as part of his daily greeting as I passed, always referred to me as ‘baby’ rather than the usual ‘love’ or ‘darling’, as if my short stature elicted an extra protective instinct – I suspect it was something around this idea that sparked the whole thing off). But Frank as a character was always intended to be far darker, a sort of composite of a number of unsavoury individuals themselves from the pages of the news – Raoul Moat of course, with the combination of macho exterior and intense self-pity revealed through his communications with the press during his final days; those who trap, objectify and abuse others, the kidnapper of Natascha Kampusch, for example, the Ariel Castros, or Josef Fritzls of this world. In writing the story I wanted to explore the sort of world views and circumstances that might underly those distorted types of actions, the dark extremities of particular fixed attitudes around masculinity, for example, a skewing of what it means to be, say, a loving father, a real man, a protector, with a correspondingly distorted narrative of especially girls and women, and seemingly rival males. There is also a deliberately ‘missing’ character in the story, a person-shaped hole consisting of Frank’s ex, his daughter’s mother, never described, but always somehow there in the background, the key recipient, perhaps, of many of his resentments. For Frank, as was the case with Moat, there are always other people – ‘them’ – to blame for his violent actions and how he feels; in Frank’s case, the ‘them’ consists of pretty much everybody, family members, his own daughter, society as a whole.
To understand what might drive this kind of character, I needed to try to explore his mindset, to view the the world as he might. Unpleasant as I wanted Frank to be, I didn’t want to create him as a two dimensional villain; I wanted to get under the surface to ask questions about why, hint at an emotional vulnerability that he has never, for whatever reason, matured enough to be able to manage; somehow he is not equipped to deal like a mature adult with complex feelings and I wanted to show how this, combined with his rigid picture of his role in life, backs him into a corner from which he cannot escape. Other people are cast as objects in a world where he is always the put-upon victim; they are either his persecutors or simply reflections of the success or failure of masculinity on his part. He is entirely self-absorbed, to the point he can barely register the crimes he commits against members of his own family. His childlike sentimentality is coupled with explosive rage when he feels his needs aren’t being met. But of course, this is somehow never his responsibility or his fault. In his mind, he cannot see that there might be any other way to be.
I was curious, too, about me writing this as a woman from a male character’s perspective. Was I stereotyping? Would a male writer, for example, seek to write about the same issue in the same way, and could he do so without being accused of perpetuating the same objectification I felt I was seeking to expose? There is always a concern about further objectification of victim characters even in fiction about violent or unpleasant crime; about repeating it, simply for the sake of entertainment or titillation. Although the other writers who kindly gave me feedback – and thanks especially to Paul and Emma here, both of whom made me realise the story was definitely worth pursuing – seemed to feel the choices I’d made on this were the right ones, I did, from one or two other comments, have some concerns about my depiction – or rather non-depiction – of Frank’s daughter, Michelle. She is portrayed, from Frank’s perspective at least, as simply ‘a girl’, two-dimensional, passive, sketchy. It raised the question for me of whether or not, writing about things like this at all, especially from the point of view of ‘the bad guy’ is in some way exploitative. But for me, that objectification of her character was precisely the effect I wanted, part of the whole point of the story. I wanted to try and show that this is exactly what happens with this narcissistic, internalised, overly-rigid way of thinking – that it renders others people as something less than human, objects in the world, symbols of a perpetrator’s own successes and failures, little more than that.
Laura Windley is a writer from London. She won 2nd prize in the 2011 Bristol Short story prize, has had work short and longlisted in various competitions and published in print and online. She is currently finishing a Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck.
Copyright © Laura Windley, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.