On Writing Women (and Men): a rant

Surely 2012 is the beginning of the end of the world. Today, courtesy of Harry Connolly, I stumbled upon this masterpiece. Just in case you don’t want to read it – and I wouldn’t blame you – here’s the general gist of it: A man tries to explain how you shouldn’t write women characters. And while I think that it is well-meaning, it’s so completely off the mark that I’m not sure he even remembered what he was writing about by the end of it. The idea being that female characters are still characters, not “how a stereotypical woman acts. For examples, watch any television commercial.”

Record scratch. What? In the midst of you telling us that stereotypes are bad and wrong, did you just accuse women of generally acting like women in commercials? That we smile joyfully when our husbands spill salsa all over the freshly vacuumed white carpet because cheering too enthusiastically for his favorite football team? That’s totally what my home life looks like. Yup. Totally.

The best part of the post, of course, was the bullet-point list of “female characteristics.”

Look, I’m not trying to insult the author, I’m merely trying to point out the logical fallacies in his argument, and one of the problems with writing women in fiction – especially in fantasy fiction. And honestly, you run across the same problems in RPGs. There’s a reason men usually roleplay men and women usually roleplay women.

If you’ll allow me a small detour: in my weekly Legend of the Five Rings game, for instance, I play a female spellcaster. She has been accused, on more than one occasion, of being a tiny Japanese lesbian Harry Dresden. And that’s… okay, that’s fair. Mostly because she sets things on fire. Sort of a lot. Anyway, not the point.

Let’s take the parts of this character:
-She is a spellcaster. With this comes the ability to speak the language of the kami, cast elemental magic, heal wounds, cause earthquakes, conjure a katana made of a living fire kami (that I affectionately call my light sabre). Her having trained at the Tamori school gives her alchemy: she can put spells into potions. Handy.
-She’s tiny. She’s 4’10” on a good day. She has the “small” disadvantage, which means her Water ring is considered one lower for the purposes of movement. Translation: she doesn’t move as fast, and she isn’t as strong. Because she’s tiny. NOT because she’s a woman.
-She’s Japanese. Well, she’s Rokugani, which is L5R-speak for Japanese. All the PCs are.
-She’s a lesbian. Because why not? There’s no cultural restriction on same-sex relationships, but because a samurai’s duty is to the Empress always and forever, and part of your duty is to make more samurai for the Empress and same-sex relations don’t produce any new samurai, that doesn’t work for the Empress. My character has a girlfriend. No one cares. And here’s the thing about it: her liking women colors an interaction just as much as it would if she liked men. She notices attractive women just like the men in the party do, and doesn’t so much notice attractive men. There’s no difference.
-And, uh… Harry Dresden. Right. Fuego!

Tamori Ishi is more than the sum of these parts, despite the fact that this is the list I would use to describe her. I have a female friend whom I refer to as the Bellydancing Archaeologist Librarian Harpist. Has she done all these things? Yes. Does she do more than these things? Yes. Sometimes I call Blur “my magician lawyer boyfriend,” and I’m probably his “archaeologist author girlfriend.” Whatever.

The point is that when you’re writing a female character, you’re still writing a character. It’s still a person. A beta reader described my WIP hero Olivia Monck as a “crier.” I was like, oh, Jesus, she is? Beta reader said, “It’s not a bad thing. Women cry. People cry. She cries at appropriate times. She doesn’t just go around crying at things that don’t make any sense. She cries when she’s upset enough to cry – and the things that happen in the book, there are a number of times where it’s understandable that she cries. Where I’d cry. Leave it. It’s good. It makes her believable.”

You come across similar struggles when writing a man. One of my favorite authors, Rob Thurman, once said, “You don’t need a dick to write a male character.” And you don’t need a vagina to write a woman. You do, however, need a brain. You need to be able to recognize that your people are, first and foremost, people, and you need to get into their heads, and you need to decide what you’re going to do with them. What they’re going to do. Write your character however you damn well please, but be consistent. If your girl’s a crier, make sure she cries when she’s upset. If she gets angry, make her punch something. Same thing with your guys: your consistency, the evocative nature of language, are going to make your characters strong and believable.

Takeaway: Know your character. Know your character inside and out, her backstory, her general emotional state, so that when the boys in the basement throw a curveball at her, she reacts in a way that is consistent with her character. If that’s crying, fine. If it’s whipping out a shotgun and relieving someone of their ribcage, fine.

What if I want a strong female protagonist, Sara? you ask. How do I write that? Short answer: However you bloody well please. There’s no formula as to what makes a female protagonist “strong” or “weak.” As long as she deals with what’s given her, as long as she doesn’t run away from every problem presented her, you can do whatever you want. She can run from some, but she can’t run from everything. And, look, that’s not a male/female thing. That’s a protagonist thing. Who the hell wants to read a character who refuses to deal with any of the situations with which the author presents her? That’s not a story, that’s an article in a psychology journal. (I have a character react escapist-ly when her ex-boyfriend rolls into town, but who cares? That’s believable. She’s got bigger fish to fry, anyway, and it’s very easy to convince herself that she’s doing what’s best for her job.)

You want strong female protagonists that aren’t just Dudes With Tits? Try Lilith Saintcrow‘s Jill Kismet, Dante Valentine, Dru Anderson; Kalayna Price‘s Alex Craft; Rob Thurman’s Trixa Iktomi; Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson; Anne McCaffrey’s Lessa. For non-fantasy, try Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell; Alice Hoffman’s Yael (The Dovekeepers).

And I’ll leave you with a last confession: I read way more male protagonists than female. Why? Because this, this thing we’re discussing, it’s hard. It’s easy to turn a male protagonist into a Ahnold-esque robot, and you go, okay, well, he’s this Bruce Willis badass. There are whole genres built on this non-person, and it’s easier to swallow. Having a male protagonist who’s strong, interesting, and vulnerable (because he’s still a person)? Much harder.

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One Response to On Writing Women (and Men): a rant

  1. lizzdreamer says:

    I have had a few really bad experiences with female protagonists. Especially in the few “supernatural romances” I tried to read. Mainly with female characters who are whiny and indecisive, especially if they have to choose between two good things (like boyfriends) and trying to choose makes them miserable and hate themselves (looking at you, Bella!). I can’t think of an instance where I saw a male character with these qualities, but if I did, I don’t know if it would bother me as much.
    I don’t know if this is because these are “stereotypical female qualities” that I find particularly demeaning, or if it is because these are qualities that I hate to see in myself, and thus are really unpalatable in fictional protagonists. It may be that I notice them more in female characters, but I do not think it is because I relate to female characters more than males because I am a woman. I would not say that is true.
    Incidentally, I love that picture of Tamori Ishi. L5R art does a really good job in pictures of women of NOT making the breasts the visual focus of the picture.

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