Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Journey in Writing Female Characters

Several weeks ago I encountered an old man who decided to “take me under his wing.” By that, I mean, boss me around and be surprised when I wasn’t interested.

I am a quiet, young girl, small, thin, who makes a point to smile because otherwise people think I hate them. I am, what I would call, a bully in nerd’s clothing.

I have talked about before how, in constructive criticism sessions, the person who gets the worst of it is not the worst writer or the biggest jerk, but she who looks like she won’t fly off the handle at every insult. The person who looks like she will say, “Oh. Okay.” I look like that person. I can be that person. I’m rarely that person. Especially when you tick me off.

The first time we met, I questioned him. By questioning him, I mean, he told me—his voice harsh; he might have been constipated—“You contradicted yourself there,” and I said, “Yes. He [the character] doesn’t know what she’ll do.”

He stared at me.

“Did it not look like that’s what I wanted?”

Then the man crumbled into himself as though the organs had all fallen out. He wouldn’t respond at first; someone had to do it for him.

We continued on without him.

He stopped talking, and we let him be, I, completely unaware at the time.

Because I have a big stack of drafts at home, all filled circles around words I should not be using from 20 different people, none agreeing on which words, when someone tells me something is awkward and should be changed, I always say, “Do you mean that it was hard to picture the image? Or that it was distracting or…?” Because it would be easier to rewrite my whole book in a different mindset then try to “fix” every word that someone doesn’t like to a word that everyone is okay with, especially when I’m not sure on the problem.

So after the meeting, I took a draft in which someone wrote, “Expand for clarity,” at the top, asking her to point out specifically where. He is waiting, and I thought to talk to her, when he says to me, “Can I interrupt?”


“I didn’t want to say this while other people were around, but you are very defensive.”

The little space behind my ears went red hot. It was a weird sensation, because I did not believe for a second I was—I know what defensiveness feels like—so I wasn’t offended or embarrassed, just annoyed, knowing that I would be thinking about this for a while.

I said, “If I’m defensive, what do you think my reaction to that would be?”

I told him that I would often go home from these places and look at these remarks and not understand why that person found this problem so important. Why this wording was awkward, but that wording is okay. What they mean when they say, “Fix” or “?” or “I don’t understand.”

Then, by this time, another writer had returned, hearing the tail end of this conversation, and said, “I don’t think she’s defensive.”

And the old man bowed his head again, looking down as he muttered something about, “I just thought you should know.” Then leaving.

He’s a lawyer. He should be better at arguing.

My point here is not about whether or not he was correct in his assessment of me, however. I can’t prove anything, and I could be wrong. My point is that this old man waited for a good time afterwards to tell me I was being defensive, and I can’t imagine he does that for every person who he feels is behaving inappropriately. Why could he say it to me? Because he’s older, wiser, and I’m a nice young girl who would appreciate having the advice of someone of his stature.

In the discussion, he never critiques the men. Not unless it’s one of those “agreeable” guys who accept everything they’re told. Then he’ll contradict everything. He always is harsh and abrupt, and downright rude towards the women. After our little tete-et-tete, he started treating me in the same manner as the guys. He would rarely say anything, and if it did, it would be as small and unsubjective as he could make it. Typos and such.

Now the biggest problem with sexism is that you’re never really sure if that’s what’s going on. I’m not positive if he confronted me because he thought he could get away with it, but it certainly looked like it. I do not believe he would ever do that to any one of the highly competitive men in our group. He would not do that to someone who he thought would say, “Go to hell.” I, being forty years his junior and a girl, fell into the more submissive category. So, it was okay.

What does this have to do with my evolution of female characters?

Well, about two weeks later we were both in a writer’s workshop (it’s a small town), when out of the blue he brings up, “I think everyone has a hard time writing for characters of different genders and different races because you don’t know what it’s like.”

I don’t know what it would feel like to get my arm blown off, doesn’t mean I can’t imagine it. That’s called, empathy, sir. Something I know you do not have.

This gentleman was sure that his problem was everyone else’s, and in reality, it isn’t. I have read the first books of some men that characterized women in interesting and believable manners. (They were, of course, good at characters in general, which helps.) One of the big parts of writing is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, no matter what gender, and try to figure out an appropriate way to react to a situation you have never been in before. And, I know a lot of women who don’t write well for women either.

Because women are hard.

Why? They’re just people, right? And women can relate to other women, right? So what’s the problem?

The problem is not “relating to them,” although, that would definitely be my first suggested to the fine gentlemen. Or maybe, get your head out of your ass. (This is the bully part I’m talking about.) The problem is there is no “correct” way to do a female character, that standards for fictional women warped our understanding of real women, and that we succumb to trying too hard very quickly.

I started writing when I was thirteen, and my first characters were, for lack of a better term, bitchy. They were contradictory and aggressive and unlikeable. Even at that age, I had a firm opinion against most of the women in movies and television shows who were also contradictory, aggressive, and unlikable. I thought I could do better, and I struggled with it.

I kept writing them, trying too hard to make them strong/independent, though I didn’t realize that was what I was doing. The consequence of these choices was alienation. They were sarcastic, but they weren’t funny. They were independent, so they had nothing to do with the story.

Soon I developed my first tactic to prevent this: Acknowledgement. The fellow characters in the book, especially the boys, would recognize her bitchy behavior and make fun of it, mock it, point out that I knew how she appeared. This helped the overall appeal of the book, saving the other characters from being brought down with her, but she was still unlikable.

Lesson number one? The other character’s reactions are important.

Then, one day, I saw Ironman. There I was introduced to Pepper, one of the most annoying female characters I’ve ever seen in my life. I hated her, mostly because I loved Tony Stark so much. It was not a jealousy issue—the way I enjoy movies demands for my favorite character’s happiness with the people of their choosing—it was a, “Stop being such a buzz kill!” issue.

And I had to wonder why I hated Pepper so much, why her lines were not funny at all, yet Stark’s had me in tears. They were written by the same people. The difference was tiny. Was it the acting? Yes, I think that was a big part of it. Was it the different way I perceived women and men? I hoped not, but a possibility. Or was it something about the difference of their personality? Bingo.

Pepper behaves as an antagonist to Ironman, except that her “antagonism” is also always correct. She is always telling him he’s wrong, he shouldn’t do that, saving him from stupid decisions that we expect Stark would make, but couldn’t possibly make without dying. She was the voice of reason, but that made her obnoxious.

I wrote a book called Silver Diggers, a story about siblings who live in the Wyrd, fighting supernatural beasts. In it, Kaia had the same sarcastic personality, a borderline bitch, but she was always on her brother’s side. They fought a lot, but she defended him at times, and they let each other live. Both acted as the voice of reason for the other, both got angry, but they never tried to force the other into taking their advice. They let their sibling make a mistake, and thus, Kaia, a selfish and greedy woman, ended up being fairly likable.

Then I started the book I named The Fallen Prince, in which an exiled prince is asked to return home, followed by the singular maid, Paris, who had sided with him at his banishment. As I began the first few pages, I immediately felt my dislike of Paris and knew that I was falling back into my old trends. So, approximately twenty pages in, I cut all her lines.

She wasn’t allowed to talk. I developed her as a shy girl. She had those contradicting and sarcastic thoughts, but she just didn’t say them. Not until she and Prince Anders were alone. In which case, her true self came out, which developed a connection between them, and illustrated her trust in him. It also made sense because of her standing and history.

Lesson number two? Not all reactions have to be verbal.

A couple of false starts later, I eventually began a beast of a novel, The Dying Breed, in which, for the first time, I had no idea what I wanted the female lead to be like. A dystopian romance, I sat down, for the first time saying, “Be whatever you wish to be.” It led to a lack of cohesion, but, by the time I finished it, Libra had become a better developed personality than I had of any other character. She was also sexist as hell. At least, in the beginning.

A brainwashed child of a cult, I had to go back through and make her more submissive, more pathetic, more afraid. She is kidnapped, and though is angry about it, decides to stay with the man doing it. It’s not Stockholm syndrome—she loved him before—it’s just stupidity. The character is not the most likeable person, but she is a character of her upbringing. For once I stopped worrying about looking sexist, (women can fear that too) and just let her be what she needed to be. It was freeing.

Lesson number three? Don’t worry so much.

Sometime later, as I was screwing around and writing the 100 page outline for another book in which I considered making the protagonist a deliberate bitch, I saw the preview for the new Hansel and Gretel movie. In it, we see Gretel walk up to the leader of a town and head butt him, and I thought, “It must be nice to be a woman and get away with assault.”

Now the movie actually handled it better than I gathered in the preview, but it led me to another epiphany. Women, in these movies, rarely have to face ramifications for their actions. And that’s the problem. You introduce a character to a world, then have her break the rules of the world and not pay for it, she doesn’t really belong to that world, does she?

I realized something very important. The reason why many women—Pepper, Gretel, Kora from the Last Airbender—are irritating is not because of their actions, but because their actions make for hard reactions. If it is so easy to break societal rules, why isn’t everyone doing it? If it is so easy to be a strong and independent woman, why is this girl the only one in the movie? If you are untouchable, why wouldn’t you just do anything you wanted? What’s stopping you? Your morality? Boring.

Lesson number four? Punish her.

It’s hard for people to humiliate women. For many, they can only do the extremes. Invincible or raped, those are the options.

With this in mind, I started the book The Imposture’s Prison, in which the sister of a fallen Chosen One is asked to take his place. I had one basic rule for Iris: She is allowed to act on impulse, but once she does, so is everyone else.

She was injured throughout the majority of the book.

Because I wanted her to live in a semi-barbaric world, and I could not motivate removal of sexism all together—nor did I really want to—I had her defy the societal rules, and gave good reason why most people wouldn’t. She said something sarcastic, someone backhanded her. She voiced her opinion, people pretended she didn’t exist. She was a loose cannon warrior on the edge, and she sat in the stocks—despite winning. I was hard on Iris. She spent many days starving, bleeding, invisible (metaphorically), and just in a lot of pain. And she was likable. She is my favorite character, male or female, to date.

Lesson number five? Strength only means something if it’s hard to come by.