Monday, 27 March 2017

Gender issues in writing female characters

I have my friend Tamara to thank for today's topic. I was kicking around some thoughts with a few friends, looking for something I could bite into for a blog post, and Tamara said, what about the difficulty of writing strong female characters so that they don't seem to have been written by a man.

My kneejerk reaction was to dismiss this as the usual cant of social justice warriors. But then I know Tamara, and if she says something like this there is going to be some meat in it, so I enquired further. Let me tell you a little about Tamara, by the way, for she, or at least our friendship, is a great example of the value of my advice to be constantly engaging in the community.

I met Tamara on the Victoria Police Facebook page. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, this is the official page of the Victoria Police. The page is administered by the police, but its average inhabitant could be a poster child for the KKK. Redneck just is not the word. I was hanging about there because I was working on a police procedural novel, and hoping to pick up the odd bit of texture that I could use in my book. So there was Tamara, and there was I, and of course I got into an argument because it's almost impossible not to on that page. We found ourselves on opposite sides of whatever the question was, and infected by the spirit of the page we soon quarrelled, and insulted each other a fair bit. I forget whether the cops told us to take it outside or what, but we continued our frank exchange of views in private messages, and pretty soon we became friends. As you do. Since that time, I've found Tamara and I have a lot in common, but more than that, she has a sharp mind and a habit of cutting past the fluff, and often has very penetrating insights about things, and I value her friendship dearly. Do you see what I mean about engaging in the community? You have to put yourself out there, and then you meet all kinds of people who enlarge your world, and to a writer, that's pure gold. Tamara is going to be one of my beta readers for that police procedural novel, when I eventually finish it. She has some unique expertise that will be wonderfully valuable.

A police procedural novel needs gritty detail
So anyway, when Tamara said this about the female characters, instead of dismissing it as mere cant, I enquired further, and sure enough there is a very interesting question there. Female protagonists, Tamara says, when they are written by a man, very often focus on the woman's appearance and her attractiveness to others, even when this is completely irrelevant to the plot. Tamara likes action and adventure novels, so this irrelevance to the plot is a common thing. If you're a six foot marine invading a terrorist stronghold, no one is going to care about your shining waves of golden hair or your frilly undies, right? Right.

If you're writing about this kind of action, leave out the frilly undies.
So I planned to look into the writing of a number of authors and try to determine whether I agree with this or not.

The first step was to make a list of female protagonists created by male authors. This could be endless, but in the interests of time and space, because I really don't want to spend the rest of my life on this, I have limited it. 

I didn't just choose authors at random, because there are some books where attractiveness really is a relevant issue. I chose characters for whom their appearance and attractiveness to others would have had no material effect on how their stories played out.

I examined the work of the following male writers; the protagonists' names are given in parentheses. I've chosen these ones from memory based on how much I like the character, how much I like the author's work generally, and the force of the character within the books: how essential that particular character is for the books to work as written; this is what, to me, a 'strong character' means.

Peter O'Donnell (Modesty Blaze)
Alexander McCall Smith (Precious Ramotswe)
Walter Scott (Jeannie Deans)
Simon Brett (Melita Pargeter)
Isaac Asimov (Susan Calvin)
Terry Pratchett (Granny Weatherwax) 

Granny Weatherwax doesn't look like this.
Based on these guys, I have to acquit the male gender of the accusation, at least absent a lengthy enquiry that would take years. I don't dismiss Tamara's statement, though. She is talking about books currently being published, rather than these favourites of mine, all of which have attained classic or near-classic status. Tamara likes the action-adventure genre, where you would normally expect that the protagonist's beauty and/or sexual attractiveness would be of peripheral interest, at best. I myself don't read a lot in that genre, so I'm quite prepared to take her word for it. And that brings us to the thought of the day- what does this have to say to you, a writer?

Let's get one thing straight right away. Female characters are not 'difficult' to write. Everyone knows lots of women, just as everyone knows lots of men. The crucial thing with writing any character is believability. Could this person really exist? Your own life experience should be your guide here.

Once you've sorted that, the rest should follow naturally. All you have to do is watch out for the extraneous matter that creeps in. Resist the temptation to describe everything. Yes, I know it's an easy way to get your wordcount up, but when you're writing a real book, you don't want to get your wordcount up. If anything, you want to keep it down. Your reader doesn't want to know the brand name of every single item your character is wearing, or the exact shade of her eyes, or any of that shit. Your reader can fill in the blanks himself, and he will have a far more satisfying reading experience if you allow him to do so.

Unless it's directly relevant, don't describe your character going to the lavatory.
Similarly, you don't want to waste space on crap that is completely irrelevant to your plot. This goes for your character's attractiveness, just as it goes for her personal hygiene. Consider this - how many times have you read in a novel a description of someone going to the lavatory? Almost never, I'll bet. And yet most people take care of these functions several times a day. It just isn't interesting to read about, and neither is taking a shower, eating food or having sex, unless you're writing porn, in which case the quality of your book is probably not at the top of your list of concerns. Things like this should go in only insofar as they have some relevance to your story, or serve in developing your character.

Meals, too, are best left to the reader, unless something has particular relevance.

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