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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I Hate Zoe Barnes

How amazing in House of Cards on Netflix? It so good that it makes me forget that I know creepy things about Kevin Spacey—that’s how good it is! It’s near perfection. Robin Wright? Stop it. Just stop being so perfect! She’s brilliant in this! She looks amazing, she’s made Claire completely three-dimensional, I want to be Claire Underwood. Kevin Spacey, you cheeky bugger! Spacey has always been a brilliant actor and there’s no part he’s played that he hasn’t killed. This is just another example of his talent.
For those of you who haven’t watched it yet, go do it. It’s all on Netflix and you will not be sorry. It’s a political thriller that revolves around Claire and Frank Underwood. It’s political chess, it’s drama, it’s intense, and it’s gorgeous. I just love everything about it. Well, almost everything. I hate Zoe Barnes.
Zoe Barnes is a young up and coming writer trying to make a name for herself. She starts a working relationship with Congressman Frank Underwood. He’s her source, she’s his puppet. I loved that angle. Then of course, they start having an affair. Whatever, that’s fine, these shows always do something like that. But I hoped that when they moved in that direction that it wouldn’t be so high school. Truth be told I hoped it wouldn’t happen at all. Sex complicates things and I needed this relationship to be uncomplicated!
See, Zoe fancies herself and independent woman. She lives in a crap apartment because she refuses to ask her parents for money. She’s going to make it on her own! She even talks Frank into becoming her source. She’s a clever girl. Then she starts turning into a needy girl. Asking for Frank’s advice on everything from what meetings she should take to calling her Father on Father’s Day.
Claire, Frank’s wife, is aware of the affair and seemingly doesn’t care. This is just moving a pawn in their game. However, Zoe showing up to an event and shaking Claire’s hand—ugh you suck Zoe Barnes. She stands there in her too-tight-white dress and acts like she belongs there and isn’t there on the good graces of the Underwood’s. All I’m saying is a little self-awareness goes a long way.
I don’t want to ruin the series for anyone so I’ll cut it short here. Basically, I feel like if you’re going to write a character like Zoe Barnes you either have to make her likeable (like she started out) or completely detestable (like she’s becoming). I know some people would argue that’s the Walter White effect. But, the thing is Walter White is the guy you’re rooting for and he slowly turns into the bad guy. But he’s the lead guy—you always root for the lead guy. Zoe is a secondary character and the Underwood’s are the bad guys you root for.
In short, Zoe Barnes is the weak link in House of Cards mainly because she’s a cliché. This was the first season of the show and the first foray into scripted “television” for Netflix. Maybe next season they’ll get it right. There better be a next season. Man, how good is House of Cards?!?

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It Pays To Be Stupid

I’ve worked as a freelance writer and I’ve hired freelancers. I remember when I worked as an editor, I was interviewing a writer that said “I get a dollar a word” both my co-editor and I muted the phone because we couldn’t help but laugh—a dollar a word? That’s insane! Normally, when freelancing you’ll get a flat rate sometimes it’s as little as $10.00 an article or as high as $400. Now, if you’re getting $400 you are at the top of your game for a freelancer, you have demonstrated that you can get top interviews—I’m talking Tom Hanks not some new actor off the plane starring in local theater. You’ve also probably had positions as a staff writer somewhere like the New York Times or have written a book … basically you’re independently famous and can cash in on your name.

Last Sunday on the latest episode of ‘Girls’, the character of Hannah* got offered $200.00 for her first published article ever. I rolled my eyes at this because it’s complete bullshit. It reminded me of the time on ‘Sex and the City’ where Carrie Bradshaw proudly proclaimed “I’ve been offered four dollars a word at Vogue.” I laughed at that too. Carrie Bradshaw, who writes a small sex column for a no-name paper, would not get four freaking dollars a word at Vogue. Nonsense! I laughed and laughed at these fictional characters with their amazing apartments and designer clothes in New York working as freelancers…hahahah! Fake people on T.V are so silly. Then I got a hard dose of reality.

Sarah Palin is out at Fox. They dumped her. The first smart thing Fox has done in decades. Naturally, Smart Politics decided to calculate how much it cost Fox to have Palin. They looked at her three-year contract in which she made one million dollars a year and broke it down with how many words she spoke for the network. We heard 189,221 words from Sarah Palin. She appeared about once a week. That mean she was paid about $15.81 per word spoken. Sarah Palin was paid almost $16.00 per word. I’m sorry…but that airhead with absolutely no credibility as a journalist, politician, or even human being at this point is not worth five cents a word let alone $16.00!

Want to feel even sicker? Palin said,  “You betcha” twice, “Amen” 111 times, “God” 57 times, “Moses” three times, and “Jesus” just once—that’s almost three grand right there. Go back to busting your ass at your nine to five where you pay up to 15% in taxes per pay check and try not to scream over the fact that if you just could’ve been the one chosen to ruin a Presidential campaign –you too could’ve been paid one million dollars a year to be a moron.

*Hannah’s character is entitled and self centered and that’s the point. Lena Dunham wrote this character and is someone who has had her career handed to her on her parents good name so I understand why she wouldn’t know that you actually have to work for things in order to make a lot of money instead of just saying “gimme”.

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Thank Yew: My Thanksgiving

photo of turkey pictures
So, I’m not going to rant about how half of the history that they teach in elementary schools is horrifying lies. Or even really complain about how when Lincoln founded the US’ Thanksgiving as an official national holiday with a specifically prescribed date, his statement of the subject makes it sound like a holiday for Americans who are of Abrahamic faiths.

Because, you know what? Unlike more official religious holidays, Thanksgiving is really just an American holiday, with its religious undertones purely optional. Even if, as my family did, you only celebrate the Santa-and-getting-what-you-want side of Christmas (I refer to it as “Santamas”), you still probably call it Christmas and may have noticed what the first six letters of the holiday are. You still hear crazy people who believe that any cashier giving them a generic religious greeting rather than one specific to their own religion is contributing to the collapse of America and dooming the world to catastrophe. Thanksgiving is just, well, Thanksgiving.

And speaking of Thanksgiving, have you heard this nightmarish song from the same total weirdo who produced Rebecca Black’s Friday? Patrice Wilson’s latest victim . . . I mean “client/star,” is Nicole Westbrook. I had it in my head all day on Thanksgiving—until I listened to Songs For An Evil Queen, a two-disk playlist which my best friend recently and painstakingly assembled especially for me because he is the best person ever.

I do not really like Thanksgiving food. I mean, cheese does not really factor into the meal very much. Or at all. I like cranberry sauce (but mostly I love the cranberry sauce that I used to get from Boston Market. That stuff was the best and way better than canned or homemade cranberry sauce, though I have not had it in a decade), but until I was in my early teens, I just did not see an upside to Thanksgiving. Sweet potatoes? No thank you. Stuffing in which my mother has hidden mushrooms and who knows what else? I’d rather die. Green bean anything? Don’t insult me.

And then I discovered that Hidden Valley Ranch dressing is a magical serum that transmutes uninteresting meat like turkey into a delicious food. Specifically, a delicious vehicle with which to ingest ranch dressing. It can’t be just any ranch, though. Hidden Valley. Other ranch dressings are … nightmarish imposters.

I should know. At this point, I am an expert in ranch dressing.

After the meal, usually cooked by my mother (this year, it was the two of us, my grandmother, my eldest aunt, and my mother and aunt’s cousin who is delightful but whom I see much less frequently). This was the first Thanksgiving since the family dog died (she passed away on the fifth of October of this year), and the fourth Thanksgiving since my youngest sister died (e. coli at the NC State Fair; fortunately, the livestock are now separated from where children are allowed to go. It would have been nice if they had done that before 2009). My youngest sister, Jaime, died on 2 November 2009 and would have turned fifteen on the twenty-eighth of November of that year, so Thanksgiving often falls on an awkward time for my family.

This year, I had a wonderful time with my relatives. I drank a bit too much delicious wine and the pies were not opened until it was just me with my mother. When I am done writing this post, I am going to go eat a slice (read: one quarter of the entire pie) of blackberry pie, because hot damn pie is delicious. After I was done visiting family, a wonderful friend of mine came over—after having more than one Thanksgiving—and he and I watched Justice League because it is an awesome show that we both missed out on when it first aired.

Also, Disaronno, my favorite beverage on the planet, was involved. On the rocks, of course. I did not make it into an amaretto sour like some kind of . . . monster.

And, of course, I considered the things for which I am thankful. No one at our table prayed openly or anything like that; that has never been a part of my Thanksgiving experience, though my grandmother and aunt, at least, are Christians. We mostly exchanged stories, most of which we had all heard before. Old people are adorable.

I considered the things for which I am thankful. A non-exhaustive list? I am thankful for my magnificent friends who are the only reasons for which I have not given up, moved to as cold of a place as I can find and found some life-sucking job that will pay me enough that I can play video games and, in all likelihood, reach five-hundred pounds through simply no longer having any motivation to interact with other humans in person. Even just keeping in contact with them online is enough to keep me sane. Or close enough.

I am thankful for my wonderful and absolutely out of her mind insane mother. She is all kinds of weird but she cannot help it.

I am so thankful that I have a computer that works, and works well. Computer troubles leave scars in your soul.

It has been such an honor to write for Zelda Lily and I absolutely love doing it. Even on weeks like this one when I almost forget until the last minute because my schedule has been crazy.

I am writing a book (the first part of a series). I am so thankful that it is coming along nicely, that I have a detailed outline of the book’s events already assembled in order and a clear idea of where the series is heading. I am especially thankful that my unreasonably awesome best friend is my collaborator. He is so brilliant and, while I would be writing even without him, the stories and characters and settings would not be the same without him. Plus, he’s often the voice of reason when we are blamestorming, and that is all kinds of necessary. I hope that, next year, I am thankful that we are done writing this book and that we have found a publisher.

I finished the first draft of another chapter just before writing this, in fact.

I thanked the Gods for being awesome, but I did so in private.

I am especially thankful that President Obama was reelected. Thankful that I will never have to say “President Romney” unless I write a story about a gloomy alternate universe.

Happy belated Thanksgiving, you beautiful people. I hope that you enjoy your delicious leftovers if you still have any.

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