Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Fictional Female Scientists: Do reader expectations meet reality?

by Catherine Haustein

If you ask readers what they require from a fictional scientist they’ll say she should first of all be a problem solver, bursting with intelligence and curiosity. What does it take to craft a multidimensional, realistic female scientist?

I surveyed female scientists about their defining traits and two rose to the top: passion and curiosity. They had these suggestions as well.

  1. Passion runs more deeply than just for science. She’s likely to be multidimensional. The scientist will most likely be passionate about life in general so give her a side interest. Many scientists like the arts, enjoy working with their hands, and find similarities between the lab and the studio. Others enjoy sports and fitness. She likes to defy expectations.
  2. Scientists combine passion and compassion. They see science as being a not just fascinating but a benefit to society.
  3. Balancing career and family is an important aspect of a female scientist’s life. Scientists would love to see more fictional characters who have kid and to an extent, so would readers. Don’t be afraid to make her life way more complicated by adding family to the mix. Studies have shown that motherhood enhances problem solving ability.
  4. Readers are correct--problem solving is essential to scientists, but keep in mind that a scientist today will be highly specialized. She won’t know everything. She’s more likely to work as part of a team, too.
  5. She’s overcome a lot to get where she is. Prejudice, harassment, exclusion-- these women are tenacious and they do overcome, often by cultivating a healthy sense of humor.
  6. Yes, she was a good student. Intelligence is a common trait among scientists. But it takes more than smarts to be a scientist. She probably had something driving her--the need to please a parent, to prove herself, or to overcome poverty or prejudice.
  7. She might have her favorite jargon and readers expect it. Scientists have their words. It’s part of being in the club. But there’s an even better reason for science speak—it’s precise. Why say carbohydrate when you can say maltodextrin?
  8. Yes, it’s true. Scientists fix things with duct tape and paper clips or a twist of copper wire. Scientists don’t mind improvising. And they like their scientific equipment.
  9. Power suit? It’s a lab coat. Studies have shown that those white coats make people perform better and make fewer errors.
  10. Under scrutiny. Peer review means that her work is critiqued by other scientists—a humbling experience and one that will keep her honest.
  11. Yes, she will be curious and find wonder in the natural world. Isaac Newton said that being a scientist is like picking up pebbles and shells on a beach beside the “vast ocean of truth”. Your scientist should be always questioning, always curious, with one foot in the future, her eyes on the stars or peeking through a microscope, and her passionate heart here on earth.

A version of this post first appeared here.

Catherine Haustein is the author of Natural Attraction, a Victorian Scifi Romance.

All views expressed in this post are those of the author, Catherine Haustein, and don't necessarily reflect that of the Brigade.

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