Writing Women

I’ve only recently discovered I’m terrible at writing female characters. Last week, I read an article by Mirah Bolender published on Tor.com titled “Learning to Write #FearlessWomen.” It was an eye-opener for me because I realized I approached female characters with the same hesitations she did.  She explains:

“…I wanted to write a male protagonist. He wouldn’t have the baggage a female would; he wouldn’t have to constantly reiterate his gender instead of who he was, would not have to exclusively focus on romance… In the here and now, I’ve noticed something— the male characters I love have heavily feminine-coded traits. They are empathetic, thoughtful, vulnerable, and treasure other people above themselves. They teem with traits that would make a female character seem bland, but being male, they are allowed to play out grand stories where their compassion factors in without being written off. I want female characters to have that without being denounced as just another mold.”

I am afraid to write female characters the way I want to write them because I’m afraid my readers will write them off as stereotypes. Instead, I write male characters who exhibit the traits I was too afraid to give my female characters. How ridiculous is that? And I do it all the time.

So, amidst my research on how to stop doing that, I came across this article by Kate Elliot, also published on Tor.com: “Writing Women Characters as Human Beings.” It is a wonderful, informative, aggravating article. I write this blog post in hopes of better internalizing what she had to say.

Kate’s “easy” answer (and she includes the quotes on “easy” as well) is this: “Write all characters as human beings in all their glorious complexity and contradiction.”

Her specific recommendations (with disclaimers noted) on how to do this are…

1. Have enough women that they can talk to each other.

I’d never considered something as simple as that. It goes along with another observation she makes, saying, “Often people don’t remark on how much of a stereotype it is to situate one girl away from other women as if women are somehow made more important the farther away they get from other women.” Even now I can think of a short story I wrote a year ago that hasn’t sold, and now I know why.

2. Fill in tertiary characters with women.

Tertiary characters, the “spear holders,” the flat characters used merely to fill in the background of a story. She makes this point, “In virtually all societies historically there have been both women and men present. Really, it’s true.” Sarcasm, but truth. Too often, we fall back on cultural stereotypes, and often ones that aren’t accurate. All secretaries are women; all military messengers are men; all farmers are men; all hairdressers are women, etc…. History debunks all of these stereotypes.  As she states later in her article, I need to “make conscious choices rather than default choices.” In short, if I want all my secretaries to be women, there better be a good reason for it (see Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series, for example).

3. Have your female characters exist for themselves, not as mere plot devices.

This, I think, will be my salvation. Kate exhorts, “Dig deeper to find meaning and importance and a place in the narrative for all lives.”

This is significant. This is important. As a writer, if I can do this in my writing, then I can do this in real life. It would fundamentally alter my world paradigm to imagine everyone as individuals with “her own dreams, her own desires, her own goals and quirks and thoughts and emotions.” That’s the goal. No more blanket statements.

Here’s where I’ve really struggled though: “Putting a female character into a stereotypically ‘male role’ is not the only way to make her interesting or strong.”

Maybe it’s silly of me, but the current trend seems to imply that this is the only type of “strong woman” anyone is interested in reading about. Series after series of warrior women–“Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “The Immortal Instruments,” “Mistborn.” What strong, female protagonist is there (and I mean specifically in speculative fiction) that isn’t a warrior, or doesn’t fit any of the other tropes Kate lists off?

The Disposable Love Interest; The Nameless Raped Girl; The One-of-the-Guys Girl; The Exceptional Girl; Mother Figure; The Evil Seductress; The Slutty Girl; The Girl Too Ugly to Get Married; The Passive Bride; The Peaceful Matriarch Who Nurtures All

No wonder I can’t write a decent female character because apparently every female characteristic reflects some sort of stereotype. It’s enough to make me want to rip my hair out! Or is that cliche too?

Luckily, I came across another article, “Write Strong Female Characters Without Being Cliche” that touches on that:

“In a culture that’s saturated with stories, a person could consider almost any defining character element as overly familiar. It’s all been done–and done again. To write a character who is more than a jumble of seen-it-before cliches it’s important to approach your characters with deep respect and understanding. Commit to writing a complete, well-rounded character–even if some of her traits feel familiar.”

“Even if some of her traits feel familiar.” That’s key for me.

What it all comes down to is this: It’s okay to write characters who exhibit some female tropes. It’s not okay to leave those characters as only collections of tropes. What were those other elements Kate listed? What are “her own dreams, her own desires, her own goals and quirks and thoughts and emotions”?

If I can answer those questions, if I can dig deep into my creative mind and get to know my female cast members, then it won’t matter what roles they play: lone warrior or awkward scholar, icy boss or sexy secretary, ambitious slave or pampered aristocrat.

Kate’s conclusion is this:

“Treat all your characters as people.
It’s that simple. It’s that hard.”

Hard, yes. So, I suppose that means it’s time for me to get to work. I have some characters to interview.

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