I am a writer. And I don’t just mean that I write for Zelda Lily. I do (and I love it), but I have also been writing, for fun, since I was in seventh grade (I’m not published yet because I’m a perfectionist who is afraid of rejection and/or I am like that Jimmy Neutron villain who was voiced by Tim Curry who was a brilliant inventor but was never able to actually finish anything that he wrote). Honestly, writing science fiction or fantasy is, for me, basically the exact same process as playing with action figures or LEGOS was when I was in elementary school. You had to plan the characters and the storyline and the setting (I had this “grand unified concept” that made all of my LEGOS fit into the same setting) and, honestly, the tactile part in which my friends and I acted out the story was almost secondary.
So, I end up reading a lot of stuff about advice for writers. Some of it is terrible advice (anything from that wretched Hemingway*), other things are pieces of advice that are great for people who are not me (“write out in public” is rarely good advice for getting actual work done, and it would be even worse for an introvert with an anxiety disorder). But, a lot of the time, I run across specific advice on “how to write female characters.”
And we do live in a world in which male protagonists are so commonplace that you never find a female author being advised that “Oh, men don’t think that way.” At the risk of sounding sexist, it seems that women know how to write male protagonists a lot better than some men know how to write female protagonists.
This is a problem, and not just for writers. Young Adult (and adult) fiction is filled with male and female protagonists who serve as more than just an escape for young people—they are role models and fictional friends. Fictional characters experience their own worlds for the reader and are valuable teachers. It’s important that people get things right. For example, I might make certain that my child is well-insulated before exposing him or her to the misogyny and homophobia in, say, Stranger In A Strange Land.
The most basic source of confusion for male writers with female protagonists might be anatomical. That is probably the most understandable. And also a problem for me (my exposure to naked women is strictly at parties—I have to ask a female friend whether or not a specific action scene would go as I wrote it or if they would be flashing their attackers in the process). Sometimes, I have to ask a female friend how a particular garment or fabric feels, just to that I can write how my female character feels. Details of anatomy, wardrobe, and hygiene are completely understandably outside of the scope of the average male’s knowledge (and especially outside of the range of a gay man’s knowledge. Manscaping is not the same thing as shaving, though honestly I’ve never written anything that featured a character doing either).
But I think that it is less excusable but possibly more widespread (particularly in fanfiction) for female characters to be written in either traditional, misogynistic roles (such as “ideal sexual partner for the male protagonist”) or “written exactly like a male character.”
What does that last thing mean? It means that, for some writers, to take a female character outside of the realm of the “maiden in distress” or “femme fatale” archetypes, they need to make her into a tomboy. I’m all for making female characters tough-as-nails badasses, but they don’t need to belch publicly or start tavern brawls to be strong characters. (You can have a character like that—don’t get me wrong. But a strong female character does not have to be like that, even if she is a traveling warrior or an undercover space-warden or whatever you like)
I find “writer tips” that give this advice (in one form or another) all of the time. But, after agreeing with them, my next thought is: “Wait . . . please don’t write your guys like this, either.” Because male characters do not have to be dirty, rude, short-tempered louts to be badass protagonists. And they don’t have to be gay or sinister to be concerned about their own appearances. Antiquated masculine ideals certainly have their place in literature (you can have a maiden in distress if you want to), but don’t reduce characters of either sex to roles that have no place in the Twenty-First Century. There is something to be said for playing around with stereotypes and surprising people. Thinking of having a dirty, temperamental, barbarian warrior male character? It might add some depth to his character, and be a pleasant surprise for many readers, if he happened to be gay. Not all female characters are sweetness and light or tempting, scheming harlots. Play with expectations and you’ll have a more intriguing, more memorable book, filled with characters who better embody the diversity that is integral to the human experience.
Even if the characters themselves are, like, cat-people or robots.
*I tried to figure out what I was going to say about Hemingway and I thought of something that perfectly summarizes my opinion of him, but, to quote Auntie Em: “And now . . . being a Christian woman, I can’t say it!”