How The Pressure For Perfection Led Me To Write Novels With A Flawed Female Protagonist

By Kathleen Valenti

It’s not exactly a secret that there’s tremendous pressure on women to be perfect. Every magazine ad, television show, and movie demand that we have flushed cheeks, virgin hair, a Photoshop-suspected thigh gap, and skin so hydrated that it looks fabulous even under a microscope.

Of course, physicality is just the beginning. We must also be highly intelligent, intensely driven, undeniably successful, able to put together a killer PowerPoint presentation in a flash, and know how to make radish rosettes while throwing an intimate dinner for 20. It’s the whole dancing backward in high heels thing. Except now we have to cobble the heels ourselves with the help of a Pinterest post.

When I set out to write the first book in the Maggie O’Malley mystery series, I knew I wanted my protagonist to be free from the onus of perfection. She’d be beautifully flawed, a brilliant, brainy disaster held together by Post-It notes, dry shampoo, and questionable choices. She’d be real. Authentic. An everywoman. An emblem of the wholeness of imperfect personhood.

I knew she’d face adversity. Any protagonist worth her salt has to grow and change through the baptismal fire of hardship. What I didn’t expect was what changed her the most. Maggie is beset by difficulties before the series’ first book even begins. She loses her mother then tries to lose herself through hard work and relentless study. By the time the sun sets on the third book, Maggie has been harassed, hunted, frozen out, fired, attacked, injured, persecuted, and prosecuted in the court of public opinion.

She overcomes. She perseveres. She solves the mystery and saves the day. Yet her greatest victories take place not in dark alleys or in life-and-death struggles, but in the quiet of her heart and mind. Despite the world’s efforts to make her small, to force her into boxes and beneath labels, she discovers the size of her influence. She shrugs off the mantle of the good girl, the compliant girl, the girl who softens her syllables and fills her sentences with “I’m sorry,” “I just,” and “I think”, and dons the girdle of a warrior who realizes her own power.

The anti-hero who didn’t believe in her ability to be heroic finds that, despite what the world has told her, she is enough. Smart enough. Brave enough. Worthy enough. This notion of being “enough” is a lesson I’ve worked hard to learn.

When I first put pen to page, I told myself that writing a book would finally quiet my internal editor, that nagging voice that told me all the ways in which I was lacking. When the heady excitement of seeing “The End” had passed, the voice was back, louder than ever.

Maybe securing an agent would quiet it, I reasoned. Maybe that coveted status of having representation would make me finally feel “enough.” Nope. Neither did landing a three-book publishing deal. Or being nominated for awards for my work.

It would have been easy to blame the male-dominated publishing industry, but women have been making great strides in that arena and beyond. In the end, it all came back to me. I’d internalized society’s message that I needed to do more. I needed to be more. In some ways, this realization was the worst part of all.

So I looked to Maggie. Inspired by my perfectly imperfect protagonist, I dug deep and recalibrated my definition of success. I silenced the voice in my head and replaced it with a simple mantra: I am enough.

I decided that I didn’t need society to calculate my worth. I didn’t need to measure myself against the yardstick of what the world deemed important. Instead, I embraced what I valued: kindness, love, hard work, and writing books I believe in.

It was an exercise in mental revision, editing out doubt, adding in self-value. All of which turned out to be a hell of a lot harder than moving around commas. It’s a work in progress, just like Maggie. The genre demands strong characters, especially strong female characters. Yet this edict feels like yet another mandate for perfection.

So Maggie’s strength waxes and wanes as she figures out who she is and who she’s meant to be. At many times in the series, Maggie seems to be broken. As she uses her intellect, her education, the aspects and attributes that make her her, we learn that Maggie wasn’t broken at all. She was simply retooling, regrouping, preparing for a comeback.

Maggie O’Malley isn’t perfect. She doesn’t have to be. Neither do I—any of us, really. In fact, I believe that the greatest work of fiction isn’t found between the pages of a book. It’s in the idea that perfection, rather than authenticity, is the ideal to be chased.

Kathleen Valenti is the author of the Maggie O’Malley Mystery Series, which includes her Agatha- and Lefty-nominated debut novel, Protocol, its acclaimed sequel, 39 Winks, and highly anticipated new release, As Directed. When Kathleen isn’t writing page-turning mysteries that combine humor and suspense, she works as a nationally award-winning advertising copywriter. She lives in Oregon with her family where she pretends to enjoy running.

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