Writing Female Characters

Katniss Everdeen and Clary Fray, two strong female protagonists in Young Adult fiction who are written with depth. They can be identifiably strong characters without losing their female identity.

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!”



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Why I Am Not Participating In NaNoWriMo This Year (But It’s Fine If You Do)

photo of nanowrimo pictures
This isn’t one of those Chick-fil-A things where if you participate you’re an enemy collaborator and Liam Neeson will find you. And he will kill you.

I did National Novel-Writing Month in 2004. For those of you unfamiliar, the goal is to motivate writers to write (which is definitely the hardest part of being a writer, oddly enough). You write fifty-thousand words (the length of a short novel) in thirty days (the month of November). And, as a friend once said: “fifty is a lot of thousands.”

As a senior in high school, I did NaNoWriMo for the first time (in 2004) while making straight As and genuinely being a fastidious student. That was my senior year of high school. I did it again in 2005 as a college freshman, but I was already having problems with it—namely, that it kind of destroys your writing style.

Because, in order to encourage writers to get more of their thoughts down on paper in prose form, NaNoWriMo gauges completion by word-count. Silly fonts, margins, or unreasonably small and numerous paragraphs will make a document fill more pages, but it will not alter your word-count.

But you can alter your word-count. And, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo, you almost certainly will, even if you do not consciously set out to do so.

“Alex walked to the grocery store,” is a simple sentence. It needs context to be interesting, and perhaps some slight expansion. What it does not need is to become: “Carefully slipping his earbuds into his ears, Alexander P Sellers—Alex to his friends—made his way along the neighborhood sidewalk, using his carefully arranged music playlist to drown out even the quietest noises of his suburban surroundings, as he made his way on foot along the half-mile walk to the nearest grocery store.”

That’s not all bad, of course, but that should not be a typical sentence. But when you are working on NaNoWriMo, less dramatic examples of this kind of automatic extension of sentences begin to creep into everything that you write. A nightmare when you’re trying to tweet, of course, but it does not do you any favors when writing essays, emails, or blog posts. “Can’t wait to see you,” becomes “I truly cannot wait to see you again.” And while that second sentence can get a particularly awesome Miley Cyrus song in your head, it is a bit too much for the sentiment being expressed.

So, if you want to do NaNoWriMo, good for you. It’s a great experience. And it is wonderful to know that you can get it done (with normal font and margins, that’s about eighty pages, single-spaced, of solid text). But do not expect that it will be your highest-quality work. Part of the point of NaNoWriMo is quantity over quality.

I am not participating in National Novel-Writing Month this year. But I am writing a novel (supernatural/contemporary fantasy). And this is a month.



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Are Women Better at Writing Sex?

photo of 50 shades of grey pictures

I talk in hyperbole a lot. I use a lot of analogies and examples when I speak. On more than one occasion, someone has texted me – or the in case of my Aunt, scolded me – over my choice in language to get my point across. My retort is always the same to them: “I like to be descriptive.” And I do, I really do. I like to paint with words when I can. I feel it’s a writers place to be descriptive, and that’s why Stephen King is so successful. He can terrify you because he’s so thorough.

When I read an article that said that women make better writers when it comes to writing sex I thought “duh.” Now, I’m not talking 50 Shades of Grey, because that writing is terrible. I’m talking Ann Rice’s The Sleeping Beauty trilogy, if we must be specific. Even though 50 Shades of Grey has deplorable writing in it, it is incredibly successful because it is incredibly descriptive. In the article I read, it said that women “are more sincere in writing emotion,” and naturally, I think that is a load of bull – that is, most definitely, not why we’re better at writing about getting down.

I think it has to do with the fact that women like to describe things and we like to connect. Men turn into drooling babies when sex is involved. They use words like “bang,” “laid,” and “screw,” just to name a few. Don’t get me wrong - I’ve used those terms (and worse) too, but I would never use them to describe real, actual sex; I use them to make sex dismissive.

I was a little put off that the writer of the article made it all about emotions and being sincere. You know, things that are always used to describe women. It’s like saying a child should always go with the mother because she’s the mother and it doesn’t matter who the better parent is – a mother is kind and caring and what a child needs. Women are usually painted as these emotional, maternal archetypes, and it’s just crap. I mean, why can’t women write sex well because they understand sex better? That’s my stance – women can write sex better than men because they understand it better than men. Call it sincere or emotional, call it whatever you like. It’s knowledge, and knowledge is power.



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Men’s Health Magazine Launches Feminist Blog

photo of sawyer mens health lost pictures

Yep, you read the title of this post right. Men’s Health magazine, usually full of ‘Upgrade Your Abs’ and ‘Have Better Sex’-type articles, has launched a blog, aimed at it’s male readers, about feminism. But is it a good thing? Whilst I initially had some reservations, I think so. Here’s why.

Firstly, the fact that Men’s Health has decided to …

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