The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal - Writing Female Characters101: The Difference Is Not Biological
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Writing Female Characters101: The Difference Is Not Biological|
My friend was very excited, because his new novel featured a first for him: a female protagonist. He was looking forward to the challenge of writing something long-form that had a different viewpoint character than his other, male-centered, novels. And he was so concerned with getting it right that he’d asked a bunch of us to talk it over wih him.
Unfortunately, he made an error that I think a lot of male writers do. And that error arrived with this statement:
“Okay,” he said. “At this point, she’s been brought to a foreign land, and I need to raise the stakes so that she wants to stay here and fight for this culture. So I think she needs to get pregnant.”
Cue groans from the women in the session.
Now, I’ve observed before in that in fiction, women have one of two roles: to get raped, or get pregnant. And I think, watching my very well-intentioned friend go at it, I’ve finally understood the reason why men do this.
See, in his excitement to write a woman, he got caught up on the differences between men and women. If women can get pregnant, and I’m writing a woman, well, I should immediately start with this biological difference! That’ll be a plot that only a woman can have!
Except it’s a plot that almost any woman can have. In attempting to differentiate your character, you’ve just made her like 95% of other women in fiction.
Plus, pregnancy is just one of a thousand different motivations that can get a woman to do things. If you had a male character, would you define his sole reason for staying as being biologically-based? Of course not. You’d look at all the myriads of motivations that could drive humanity to fight for a cause – love, justice, revenge, obligation, pride, the challenge of starting over again, survival, redemption, hatred – and choose one that was not based on a man’s unique ability to squirt sperm.
So why do you narrow it to pregnancy? Why? To write a woman’s plot? Then what you’re saying, whether you mean to or not, is that women have one role… and I gotta tell you, from the groans of protest I heard from the women, they’re getting pretty tired of that crap.
Pregnancy is just one aspect of a female character. Look at all the emotions that might motivate a woman, and allow that pregnancy is also an option, but let it be just one option among many. Then choose the one that fits this character.
As someone wisely said during the session, “A woman’s character is not formed from biological imperatives. It’s formed from a difference in experience, and that experience is often societally driven. If women think differently, it’s because people treat them differently – but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel all the same emotions that men do.”
And those emotions run the gamut to “not wanting to be pregnant.” Yes, protecting your baby is noble – but as others noted, assuming that I was whisked away to a foreign land consumed by war, my instinct would not be to double down on fighting for this land, but to get my kid to a nice safe hospital back in the States. Pregnancy is a specific event for a woman, yes, but there are lots of abortions and lots of neglectful mothers, and not every character is going to react in the “traditional” way to the news of impending progeny.
In fact, is “traditional” even what you want? I mean, when you’re writing a male character, do you want someone who reacts in the way that men are inevitably supposed to react? Isn’t the point of characterization to give us something surprising? Don’t you want something a little better than the stock-in-trade reactions that have been seen a thousand times before?
So why make pregnancy, that traditional “This is where the woman gets strong” moment, the crux of your novel?
The good news is that my friend listened to the feedback given, and hopefully changed all this stuff before he started. As a guy, that’s the best start you can have – talking to women you trust, and listening to what you get wrong. I sympathize. I’m about to start a novel involving two teenaged girls, and as a guy I assure you I’m going to get it wildly wrong. The female experience is complicated, female adolescence doubly so. The best I can do is to write honestly, and keep listening to actual female feedback to keep me on track.
But when I write women protagonists (which I have in Sauerkraut Station, In The Garden of Rust and Salt, My Father’s Wounds, and The Backdated Romance, among others, each of which features wildly differing characters) I’ve always tried to ensure that their motivations are more than biology. I think that’s the baseline with which to start.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.
This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/199741.html. You can comment here, or comment there; makes no never-mind by me.
Tags: feminism, i'm a writer, writing
Plus, just going into the rape and pregnancy tropes is just not as creatively fun.
One of my favorite things in the world as a freelancer is when I get hired to ghostwrite something as a woman. It's so much more creative and fun to construct the woman I'm pretending to be as a writer in my head and make up stories in my mind of how she came to be to the place she was when she was "writing" whatever it is I'm writing and just to become that character in my head for however many hours I'm writing it then it is if the character is more like me. I can write from my point of view on my blog. When I'm not blogging I want to become someone else when I write - whether that's a woman writing a book about relationship advice for women, or a gay man telling about his erotic adventures or a woman to woman advice guide about how to climb the corporate ladder. It makes work seem like play!
i've found that i enjoy writing from a male POV - but i'm more male than female, so there's that ...
Something I despise when reading a book is having the motivation become based on a baby. It just seems like a cheap way out of a plotline to me. Let her come to some revelation in her head, make her do or think or see. Instead of things happening to a female lead, have her make things happen!
Neal Stephenson was guilty of this in one of his books, but to his credit, it was... reasonably? authentic, and his female protagonist had a lot of other motivations, especially for a woman in her time. So I kinda let the awkward slide.
So much of this is what bugs me about most of the game of thrones female characters (more so the books than the TV show which i think does a better job).
So much of the time i felt like all the female characters thoughts could be summed up as "i could do this just as well as a man but damn this man's world and damn these breasts of mine".
Or they are written exactly like a male character that just happens to be in a dress.
It didn't ruin the books for me but it was certainly one of the problems i had with them. It was sort of amusing that GRR Martin was essentially just as bad as all the stereo types of bad pulpy Sci/fi and Fantasy authors when it came to writing female characters poorly and yet he is championed as one of the best of the genera. **i'm not saying he's a bad author, he isn't, i just think this is by far the weakest part of his game and i find it amusing that it is so stereotypical**
I had exactly the opposite experience of the female characters in GoT. I thought it was a deeply feminist book. There are lots of female POV characters -- LOTS of them. And they are all different! They have different personalities, different motivations, different experiences of life. They have different ways of getting what they want. You're describing Cersei, who is definitely of the "damn these breasts of mine" mentality, but that's not because she's a woman, it's because she's CERSEI. Arya isn't like that, she never says "damn these breasts of mine," she just goes and does what she wants. Sansa isn't like that, she never says "I could do this just as well as a man." Catelyn Stark isn't like that, she says "My world is as the mother of these children," and let me tell you, her experience there rings very true to my own. Asha Greyjoy isn't like that, Brienne isn't like that, Melisandre certainly isn't like that. And Dany Targaryen is really, really, really so very much not like that.
As a woman, a feminist, a mother, a wife, and a nerd, I was very well pleased by those books. I found the women diverse, well-written, well-developed, and interesting, as much so as the men. And that is really, really rare in epic fantasy.
|Date:||March 22nd, 2012 04:05 pm (UTC)|| |
Plus, in TV series, you know that a show is well over the shark when they have the female lead get pregnant. It means they are out of ideas.
Or that the actress got pregnant :)
And here, I thought you think of a man and remove reason and accountability.
Ha! So funny! And original! You're so clever!
yes, thank you for yukking it up in a thread about writing meaningful female characters. Lord knows we'd never make it through otherwise.
Wait, what? 95% of all women in fiction are pregnant? I think we've been reading wildly different books!
|Date:||March 22nd, 2012 06:10 pm (UTC)|| |
This! Just one of the many reasons to love you.
Why don't men ever get their stakes raised by fathering a child, is what I want to know. Plus, if you're planning on making your female character pregnant, I want to see some evidence that she's menstruating. That's a reality of life for most women, certainly most fertile women, but I can count the number of SF books I've read that mention it even in passing on one hand.
OMG YES! YES!!!
can i clip this for possible use in my blog??
So I think she needs to get pregnant
and that's where i'd have gotten up and left. but that's me - and i have issues.
pregnancy is just one of a thousand different motivations that can get a woman to do things
in fiction, probably. in real life, the only motivation it gave me, twice, was to get that kid out of there. lol
Then what you’re saying, whether you mean to or not, is that women have one role
exactly why i would have left.
not every character is going to react in the “traditional” way to the news of impending progeny
i'm not a character, but gods know there's nothing traditional about me.
Personally, I can't imagine what would make me LESS likely to dive into a war in a foreign country than finding out I was newly pregnant. As you say, my first options would be (if it was an unintended pregnancy) to abort or (if it was wanted) to leave, at any cost possible. And if leaving was impossible, then to abort even if I wanted the baby.
Hi Ferrett, I was one of your $100.00 donators for your most recent Clarion fundraiser. About a week and a half ago I sent a quick follow-up email for that, but I think you may have missed it or it may have wound up in the spam folder. I know you're a busy guy, should I resend it or wait a few months? Thanks! :)
|Date:||March 22nd, 2012 09:39 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: Off-topic comment
Hey! I think I missed it. Can you resend and let me know when you've resent it so that I can look for it?
This statement always provokes screaming arguments, but I'm going to say it anyway: I think Robert A. Heinlein was one of the best authors in any field, not just science fiction, when it came to writing from a woman's first-person POV. As a woman myself (starting as a young girl, when I first read the Heinlein "juvies"), I always empathized with his female characters, from "Peewee" in Have Space Suit - Will Travel, to Hazel Stone, to Mama Maureen. His women did get pregnant a lot, but it was often completely incidental to the plot - and they were busy flying starships, winning revolutions, and entertaining the troops even when they were pregnant.
Am re-reading a Heinlein just now, and thinking of this post. The thing that strikes me, reading his women being pregnant is the utter idyll it seems to be. "For several months, her balance wasn't as catlike as it normally was and her ankles ached; I decreased the ship's gravity by half a gee. Delivery, when the time came, took five minutes." I think part of the reason his heroines (and sweet gods, there's a big part of me that wishes it could grow up to be Mama Maureen) can be so bloody capable all the time even with seventeen kids underfoot is that *Virginia (gods rest her or chase her as she likes) never had kids*. The only experience I can find that the man had with kids was either being one or playing uncle.
And that makes me want to shake my fist some.
It's funny how women are supposed to naturally know how to write from the perspective of men, but so many men have difficulty with the concept of writing from the perspective of women. Or, as my gaming group encountered recently, with the concept of playing a woman. I hope your friend is also willing to examine his privilege.
BUT, I'm glad he listened. I really am. Being a woman has nothing to do with producing babies. We are not that simple-minded.
Well, it has SOMETHING to do with producing babies. But that is one thing among multitudes. :-)
Upon reading this, I immediately thought of Tom Robbins as a writer who "gets" women. I deeply enjoy his writing, and I was particularly impressed with the way he handled the female characters in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It seems to me, what male authors need in order to write women is a solid set of examples. I'll read anyone's stuff if they can get the female characters right.
A note on female adolescence
Biology actually does drive more than you might think here. There are boobs, more noticeable boobs, and people (boys) are noticing. These reactions are often amusing and can make a teenage girl feel powerful (look what I got that idiot to do, just by pouting and wearing a low cut top). There is more to it than this, but this is an aspect you may not have considered. Teenagers in general want attention, teenage girls have a means of getting that attention that teenage boys do not.