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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Female Characters: Why All Of The Hate?

Fandoms—the community of fans of a particular work of fiction, be it Harry Potter or Doctor Who (and even non-British series)—are somewhat notorious on the internet. Say one thing, and an entire fandom rises up as an angry (verbal) mob. Sometimes, fandoms get their shows renewed (sending a ridiculous volume of peanuts to a network got cult-favorite television show Jericho a second season). A lot of the time, fandoms just exist to discuss their favorite books, films, shows, writers, and characters.

And that can be a very positive thing. It can also be a very negative thing. Sometimes, people in fandoms just detest certain characters in ways that seem to be beyond justification.

Unfortunately, though I cannot name a reliable statistical study to prove this, I have noticed that a lot of the targets of this . . . fan-based vitriol . . . are female characters.

I am not necessarily talking about villains. When a character is said or shown or implied to be a rapist or a child-abuser, these are the characters whom we are supposed to hate. Other villains might be those whom we enjoy seeing but still root against. I am talking about . . . characters. And I am talking about female characters.

Depending upon the genre, a female character might be cited as being “annoying,” “having a chip on her shoulder,” or “forced on us by the writers.” Female characters who cheat on their boyfriends seem to get more hate than cheating boyfriends do. When a boyfriend cheats on his girlfriend with another woman, some fans seem to spit venom at the other woman and even at the girlfriend.

I am honestly not sure why female characters are so very polarizing. But I can guess. And, honestly, it is a discussion worth having. Because the things that we say about our favorite shows, whether talking to our friends or on posts to Tumblr, say a lot about us and our society.

First of all, sometimes female characters just make a bigger impact on us, psychologically. Perhaps because (though women outnumber men in …

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Watch This: Once Upon A Time

photo of once upon a time pictures
You guys, my Super Best Friend has only recently started watching Once Upon A Time. He and I tend to watch a lot of different television shows and put off watching others or giving others a try. When we finally do, the result is usually similar to Squidward’s first time tasting a Krabby Patty on SpongeBog Squarepants: “All the wasted years!”

I mean, he’s the guy who first got me to watch Gossip Girl, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Dante’s Cove, Titan Maximum, and Gundam Wing. And, soon, Revenge, which I know is totally up my alley. “This is not a story about forgiveness.” That line could be the blurb under my biography.

Right, so, the show comes on ABC on Sunday nights and, honestly, I was not all that impressed when I watched the first few episodes. Well, the first episode. It’s one of those shows that has an awkward beginning but gets better and better until you can no longer remember a time when you were not in love with the show. Every week slows to a crawl as you anticipate the arrival of the next episode.

Yeah. This show also has a very rabid fandom.

I want to talk about the women on the show. Women have not, historically, had the best roles in fairy tales. They tend to be the villains or the helpless damsels. And while Disney “villains” are typically the most interesting parts of the films (and ABC is a part of Disney, so there are overt references on the show to Disney’s interpretations of a few fairytales. Jiminy Cricket is a character, the “Evil Fairy” from Sleeping Beauty is called “Maleficent,” etc), the princesses did not really possess a great deal of agency until more recent years.

Regina Mills is, as far as I am concerned, the main character. In season one, the writers try to make her out to be the primary antagonist, but …

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Why Are There No Strong Female Characters in Video Games?

I should preface this by saying I am not a gamer. I am one of those people who forgets that holding the controller and then moving your body to the left does not actually move the character on screen, and saying ‘pew pew’ doesn’t make your character shoot. I also sort of have issues with the idea that killing things on screen is okay, because the victims aren’t real (I’ve never understood why a violent impulse is acceptable as long as it is acted upon  in a fictional space. Would it be okay if we had virtual arenas for torturing the elderly, raping women, or abusing children? No, because those things are wrong. So why is virtual killing the exception? Never quite got that).

But my partner is a gamer, and a pretty serious one, so by proxy I have seen a lot of video game action. Far too much in my opinion, but that is a complaint for another time.

One of my biggest qualms with video games is their depiction of women. Although video games have jumped leaps and bounds from their original female roles (think Princess Peach in Mario Bros., or Zelda in the Legend of Zelda- innocent women in dire need of rescuing. From men), to now allowing women to hold guns and such, I have yet to witness a video game where the female characters aren’t buxom and wearing skin tight or little clothing. There are no real women- just stripper-esque eye candy.

Take for example, my partner’s latest video game of choice: Mass Effect 2.  One would think that because players can chose to play the main character either as a female or a male (only 18% of players chose to play the lead as a female), this game would show women in a less sexist light. That is not all the case. All of the women in the game are wearing skin tight garb, and there are ass and boob shots …

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