Friday, July 21, 2017

Difficulty Writing Female Characters Has Nothing to Do with ‘Understanding Them’

The man who said it best was a giant of a human being: tall, overweight, with a barking voice and an arrogance that could scare away even me.

He wasn’t a bad writer, to be clear. One of those types who created something ‘perfectly fine,’ but with no real personality behind his words, no real emotion, no real point. Characters, it should be said, was his weakest skill, falling flat with obvious meta-motivations behind their words. “Aren’t I being funny right now?”

Also, to be clear, I didn’t like him. We attended the same writers group and his criticism style oriented around his aggression. A retired lawyer, he would bully people into agreeing with him. No one ever gave him feedback for fear of being on the receiving end of his aggression.

His feedback itself tended to be closed-minded and competitive. He once told me that I had “contradicted myself”—simply that—when it was obviously intentional. So obvious, that when I tried to follow his train of thought, the only reasonable solutions for our drastically different views was either that he was looking for something easy to point out (a common tactic amongst bullies), or he thought I was the biggest moron on the face of the planet. Both equally possible.

More importantly, we had a kind hearted older woman, soft spoken, who told us she didn’t want to have a character arc prior to our reading. Weird, I know. What’s the benefit of that? Many of you might be thinking that’s kind of an arbitrary stipulation, and I get it. However, writers get to experiment, challenge themselves, and create their own visions. It’s extremely important for critique partners to remember that innovative people always face obstacles whenever they want to break away from the conventional path, so even though you don’t think “not having a character arc” is a good idea, it may very well be a change the literary world is starving for. You don’t want to be the idiot who haughtily told George Orwell, “Animal books don’t sell.”

Respect your own opinion and advocate for it, but when someone wants to try something different, it’s important to discuss it, not scare them into getting back in line with how you think things should be.

The gentlemen shouted, “WHY?!” causing her to physically cringe back and she stammered her reasons.

At a later date, I was taking a class that he also happened to be in. We had had an altercation prior when he followed me out of the group and waited to get me alone so he could criticize me and my “behavior” in private. I, uncharacteristically cool, explained to him proper conduct in that sort of setting—despite being one-third his age, I had a great deal more experience as a writer—and sternly told him off. He slunk off and was oh so nice for the remainder of our experiences.

In the middle of the class, my dear gentlemen interrupted the (male) teacher to announce to everyone, letting them know the ways of the world, “Men can’t write for women because we aren’t them!”

The statement, since then, has taken on a personal agitation for me. He wasn’t the first to say it, nor the last. It’s also not just men who believe it, women saying both that men can’t write for women or that women can’t write for men, though I personally haven’t heard that as much. But after that point in time, I can see his mouth around those words regardless of who speaks it.

I’ve seen women get up in arms about men saying, “I don’t understand women!” and men be baffled by the amount of offense taken. There’s more to it than just an association with a jackass, of course. When you are getting sexually harassed—as in pursued by a man who won’t take no for an answer—it can feel like you’re doing everything to make your disinterest (or even hatred) known, and he just can’t comprehend the rejection or how he’s affecting you. How you see him. How you feel. Women find their emotions belittled and invalidated by male suitors frequently, and it’s not uncommon for a guy to play stupid then later admit he knew what he was doing when it’s finally time to apologize/he thinks owing up will get you to trust him again. It’s not uncommon for men to say, “Women are so complicated!” and then refuse to listen.

There’s also something dehumanizing about it. “Oh, I can’t empathize with women. I can’t put myself into their shoes or understand their actions.” Really? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how having a complete strange publicly and loudly announce his sexual attraction to you as you walk down the street might be embarrassing instead of flattering.

I recently came to terms with my desire to understand and be understood. A great deal of my social anxiety was actually a fear of confrontation—I always said I didn’t care if people liked me or not, but I needed to know if they did. That didn’t make much sense to people, myself included, until I realized that it was my desire to predict what was going to set someone off that made me hesitant afraid of strangers. Sure, I want to make people happy (it’s why I became a writer), and sure I want people to like me enough to leave me alone (so that I can become a writer), but mostly, I just don’t want to say something and unwittingly end up in a screaming match. If conflict’s going to happen, I want to be prepared for it.

I also wanted to be understood, and found myself most angry when people don’t give me the benefit of the doubt. In attempts to understand others, I lacked the ability to respond on impulse—needing to take my time to digest their intention—which made conversation stilted and awkward if I didn’t have previous experiences to supplement my comprehension on what they might mean.

When I started watching people who wielded themselves well in social situations, I realized that they didn’t care one-wit about being understood; they assumed that they were right and moved on with their day, not second guessing it. It worked great for other people as well, and spectators were more inclined to assume that the social butterfly did know what she was doing. In recent days, I find that this philosophy as benefited me. I make silly mistakes here and there, jump to the wrong conclusions like anyone, and am a truth seeker above all, questioning everything, wanting to be right by actually being right, and struggle to accept that sometimes there aren’t correct answers, that every decision has flaws and rewards. I don’t always know what I want and am flexible in helping make others happy—to the downfall of my past relationship in which I didn’t realize not actively pursuing my own happiness was the same as sacrificing it—but when I’m by myself I am fairly driven and focused on my goals. All I needed to do was to feel comfortable with a little more self-centeredness while in public. Which is not that easy to do, but NYC, the land of everyone minding their own business, I feel less pressured to understand their opinions and more freedom to focus on my own.

But to be told by someone that he can’t possibly understand me who I’ve felt doesn’t try to understand anyone is deeply insulting, and incredibly foolish on his part. The real insult is his assertion that he can write for a paraplegic retired spy with PTSD, but an everyday woman is beyond him.

And one of the real reasons we had butted heads is that we were so similar in personalities. I will insist on being an empathetic person; it’s my best quality. But I too have an ego. I too like people listening to me. I too don’t like to be questioned by a stubborn redhead one-third my age. Redheads are gremlins. I’d argue that I am far more self-aware than he is, but we had some striking similarities.

What do you mean you don’t understand me? You are me!

If you can’t understand why I react the way I do, then it’s due to your lack of self-reflection, not my irrationality.

Patrick Rothfuss and Stephen King are two successful writers who claim struggling with writing better female characters. In King’s case, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard he himself say that he couldn’t “write for them because he doesn’t understand him,” but that he was criticized for it nonetheless. And I get it. If you read Sue Snell from Carrie or Susan Norton from ‘Salem’s Lot, you can see why these flat, good-girl love interests might be rebuked. King, in fact, wrote his first published novel because of this criticism, trying to create an interesting female protagonist. And I think he was successful.

In Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, the main character falls in love with Denna, as par the course, who’s great appeal was questioned by readers. She has a pretty watered-down personality, which later is turned into emotional walls. Rothfuss agrees the character wasn’t well developed because he wrote originally as a 20 year old boy and didn’t “understand women.”

But I don’t find that to be true, his not understanding women. I will admit his side-character of Fela is an awful portrayal of a beautiful woman, far more so than Denna. Fela was an idolized version of a damsel in distress who, even throughout the sequel, never had an internal dialogue. But, there were elements of truth. He described her reasons for falling in love accurately, and it wasn’t as though her actions were problematic. They just weren’t human because they lacked flaws. She had few goals, was not emotionally impacted by pretty dramatic events to her, and didn’t exactly serve a purpose in the story save to show Kvothe as a hero. She had no opinion on herself. Does she think she’s beautiful? Does that make her happy? Lament it?

HOWEVER, Denna seemed real, just uninteresting. The question was more about the protagonist’s obsession with her. It wasn’t as though Rohfuss was bad at understanding her or conveying her in a real way, it just seemed like she gained the protagonist’s devotion for no discernable reason.

More importantly, he had characters like Devi, who was severely flawed, driven, talented, and interesting. His own favorite character was Ari, someone whose brain had cracked and lived hidden in abandon parts of the city. They, among other females, were examples that he could identify with women. I think he writes women well. He just doesn’t seem to understand male love or female self-identity.

Stephen King’s most iconic characters are women. Carrie, Annie Wilkes, Mother Abagail… Christine. King is more of a plot guy, and a lot of his characters, especially protagonists, aren’t notorious by themselves, but if you were to ask someone to list out their favorites, you know a few women who’d get named.

In fact, in my experience, people don’t struggle to write female villains, and we struggle to write good love interests period. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reading a romance novel and screamed at the male lover, “GET A LIFE!” in frustration. Love interests often fall flat. Why do we like who we like? Who the hell knows?

Why do people love Harley Quinn since her incarnation in the Batman universe? Comic books have tried for years to make female counterparts, but Quinn’s relationship with the Joker was the only one that worked?

Why? Because it was screwed up. Because wasn’t forced to be healthy, to be a role-model for all the readers. Because Joker wasn’t forced to change himself when the relationship began because she was so willing to be whatever he wanted. And that flaw of hers? That was real. That was human. It is sad and scary, but fascinating and understandable.

Harley Quinn made decisions that may women can relate to, despite us not supposed to. It touched on fears. The comic books and television show did not romanticize her relationship with the Joker, and yet many of the readers did. For a time, a lot of people claimed they wanted a love like Joker and Harley’s. Do you know how people ask how women could stay in an abusive relationship? Harley’s devotion is insane, nonsensible, but convincing. It is true to her, and a lot of people understand it.

Harley Quinn was invented by two men. Her origin story was written by a man.

Is she a representation for feminism? That’s not the point here. It’s that men can write a female character that works, that they can get inside her head.

So why doesn’t Supergirl take off? I know, I know. She has her own T.V. show! And it’s awful.  She has been struggling to find a place for years, and while I’m certain there’s people who like her fine, I don’t think anyone has been obsessed with her.

It’s all to the same point. It’s not that it’s hard for men to understand women, but it’s hard to understand someone you idolize. It’s hard to empathize with a person rejecting you. It’s hard to understand how others see you. It’s hard to understand how others see themselves. It’s hard to put a finger on what makes us fall in love. It’s hard to create a healthy yet interesting to watch relationship. It’s hard to sexualize a character once you’ve watched her taking a dump (preverbally or literally).

Women are labeled as emotional or irrational, have a history of having their opinions trivialized, and so reasonably struggle to make our feelings known. This is not to claim that men don’t suffer too, but to help understand why, for some, “I can’t write for a woman because I don’t understand them,” is so personal.

You’re not always going to understand other people. You won’t always know why they didn’t like you, or why you got into that fight. You won’t always know what someone goes through, especially if their physical appearance causes others to react differently to them in everyday situations. But, as a writer, it doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself to only you and your experiences. It’s going to lead to a bunch of characters that sound the same, it’s going to restrict your story to your small view of the world, and yes, it will make your readers think, “So someone like me doesn’t belong here?”

If you struggle to write women well, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with an inability to empathize. For one thing, women are idolized by both genders, and have for centuries been expected to be the voice of morality. Now with the growth of feminism, there is even more pressure to make a “healthy role model,” even if that doesn’t make sense for the story. You can find yourself a part of a witch hunt just because you portrayed a woman as a genuine reflection of your perspective, or because she’s flawed in a way that doesn’t promote improvement. Or simply doesn’t promote whatever ideology the critic has.

There’s also times where it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s not that you don’t understand them, but you’re so anxious about portraying them “correctly” it becomes mechanical and difficult. As a female author with a given male name, I can attest to the differences of criticism on my female’s and male’s portrayal.

I hear writers blame their flat females on their naivety about the going ons of woman’s mind, but that excuse is cause of the problem, a whole slew of problems, not just a fact of life. If you want to understand someone that naturally bewilders you, the first step is to not accept it. Choose to try and understand. It not only will open a world of options for you, but you may helping to create a better world for those “weirdos” around you.

If you liked this post, want to support, contact, stalk, or argue with me, please consider...

Liking Charley Daveler on Facebook
Following @CharleyDaveler on Twitter
Following @CDaveler on Instagram