How Can You Tell A Man is Writing a Female Character?
When I was first asked this, I tried to give a succinct answer—“Men’s view on women’s view on sexuality tends to be warped,” but according to a recent writer’s blog, I have 20,000 words to say today as the average woman, so I’ve brought this into my own sphere.
As much as I'd like to say we have a monopoly on our gender, I think that the best thing a male writer can do is not worry so much about writing a female character incorrectly. I have a myriad of anecdotes in my back pocket about how my masculine name has confused some critique partners who received my work prior to meeting me. They reacted differently about my female characters on learning I was a woman, proving that men are judged more harshly. I also know of a study in which actors were given sarcastic dialogue to test people’s immediate reading comprehension for subtext which proved that both men and women tended to assume female characters were being serious instead of facetious when they speak.
Which is to say there are plenty of unavoidable external factors outside of what is actually done, and men often do better trying to be true to their perception on reality and letting imagination work its wiles instead of doing the “right” thing.
On the other hand, there is definitely some times when I’ve read pretty bad portrayals of women that seems consistent with male authors.
-Talking about breasts outside of sexual/self-evaluating moments, and not separating the two.
While walking through an art gallery, I saw a painting of a naked woman and immediately knew, before looking at the artist’s name, the creator was female. How? Because the breasts were unattractive and lopsided.
Women think about breasts in sexual, sensual situations, or they think about them in their more insecure moments. When thinking about their own breasts, such as when they’re changing, they’re often going to notice the imperfections, or possibly be happily surprised they like what they see, because they might not always. Sometimes she will love her breasts and be proud of them. Yet often that sort of vanity isn’t conveyed in men’s description of their female characters. While in her P.O.V., the male author describes her boobs, yet the character doesn’t seem to have an opinion about them one way or another. An attractive woman who knows she's attractive isn't as appealing and neither is insecurity. So instead of indulging the personality trait that would lead the character to think so in-depth on her body, the male author focuses on wording that will scintillate his audience rather than provide a perspective on how the character perceives herself. In reality, if the character’s noticing them, she has an opinion about them. Having a woman self-evaluate and be turned on by what she sees is a choice, but should be a strong one, and also is less common than self-deprecation. It should also be known that when she happens to feel extra attractive (and doesn’t acknowledge the abnormality of it) on the humdrum day the story starts, it can read more like meta-motivation for the horny author. As in, the writer was aroused by the scene when the character wouldn’t be.
Often young male writers will have a female admire her own breasts in an otherwise non-vain character, the descriptions incredibly masculine and external in what they notice.
I found Wicked to be especially annoying in this aspect. On three occasions the female characters, upon realizing they were alone, took off their clothes and thought about how sexy they were. One was doing laundry. One was a little girl flying on a broomstick. The other was just after (before?) a sex scene, so we’ll cut him some slack there, but for most women, breasts are like Yellowstone was for me—always there, so never something I made an effort to go see.
-Overly dramatizing girls’ budding sexuality.
Horror authors are the worst at this. Though I love Carrie, Stephen King definitely believes that puberty for young women is a traumatizing event, even writing that Twilight’s success was solely contingent on girls’ inability to deal with their frightening sexuality in a safe place.
Women have vastly different experiences in how they’re taught about sex, and yes the shame of it can cause deeply rooted problem later in life. But fiction like Hemlock Grove that acts as though girls are driven insane for fear of their desires are overdone and at times insulting. On occasion, I’ve felt as though a guy is writing out his frustration that girls don’t want to sleep with him; why are women so cautious? They claim they want sex just as much as me… Maybe they don’t want to sleep with me because they’re afraid!
Possibly, actually. But that’s not the whole story.
-Long, boring descriptions of a woman’s beauty.
Two summers ago, I took a social media sabbatical due to the constant dismissive responses I would receive from a select few men who were trying to get my attention. I posted a blog about it even, discussing how I was sick of posting a joke to have a guy sit there and tell me how to “solve” my problem. When I came back, they all had posted, “Are you talking about me?!”
One man in particular creeped me out. He had written and promoted an essay about a girl half his age, using her actual name, A LOT, and talking about how attracted he was to her, how nervous she made him. He was married.
At one point, I Tweeted a joke, “Writing a short story is about sticking to your point. Maybe I should figure out what mine is.”
He said, “Careful! Function over form! Don’t worry about word count! Story. Story. Story.” He then sent me a link to one of his (unpublished) short stories as an example. It was just one long description on how beautiful his anthropomorphized muse was. All his stories were like that, actually. A beautiful young woman stands on a cliff side and feels happy. A Japanese man goes to work and it’s clear this random woman kind of likes him. A young girl spoke to him on Twitter and she has a beautiful photo. Two women are outside smoking and they are beautiful.
I don’t care that a woman is beautiful. It’s pretty much to be assumed anyway, even outside of fiction. If the author is telling me that the P.O.V. character is falling in love with her, the little things he notices in what makes her beautiful—including personality flaws—are more interesting than her gorgeous blonde hair and bell-like laugh.
-Women being sexy when they’re alone.
I was in a class in which a young, obviously horny young man wrote about girls quite a bit. One of the things drawing my attention was how the female characters, when alone, were still doing things to turn someone on.
The key scene in question was stripping down to her bra and thong before she put her make up on. I think I might have not gotten dressed before applying make-up once in my life, and if I remember right, it was because I had just gotten out of the bath and was too lazy to thoroughly dry myself off. Outside of that, I don’t see why you’d stop getting dressed halfway through to put your mascara on. Foundation, possibly, but unless you’re wearing a button up, you risk smearing shit all over your close far worse when you pull the thing over your head.
Most importantly, it was obviously author motivated over character motivated. The writer had more to gain from that scene than his protagonist did. No matter what the action, this is one of the top reasons readers respond badly to a work.
Readers shouldn’t be thinking about what the writer wants. Not to make the character cool, not to easily get out of the corner he’s worked his way into, not to make a villain look evil, and certainly not how much the writer wishes he was having sex… in the majority of cases, the readers should stay in-world the entire time.
-What about outside of sexuality?
This is less about how men write for women, and typically just a sign of badly written characters.
Basically, she doesn’t have a life, inner or outer.
-Her skills don’t fit a niche. She is an excellent fighter… but so is the protagonist. She is more like a back-up for if another character couldn’t come into play. Like Zoey from Firefly, who has a medium temperament and decent skills, but if she wasn’t at hand, Jayne or Mal could do anything she could offer.
-She’s too independent.
The independent male doesn’t exist. Not a likable one anyway. Sherlock has his Watson, Calvin has his Hobbes. Mal needs his crew. Aang needs his friends. Neville needs his Sam. If he truly is a loner, you see the emotional effects it has on him. Successful male characters always need someone a little bit.
Neediness is a surprisingly endearing trait (so long as it’s used in moderation.) She should have someone she genuinely cares about, a need from them that is illustrated throughout the story. She can be sarcastic and push them away at times, but we want to see that vulnerability.
We like people with deep bonds. Those that don’t seem to need it tend to be annoying and often unrealistic.
-She is tunnel-visioned.
Her super objective is all that matters. They must get the dagger and save the world! No stopping for a laugh or to make money! She becomes this hard ass who can’t let go of her purpose in life.
-She is the voice of reason.
Someone needs to control that loose cannon cop on the edge, and it can’t be an authority figure!
But presenting women as stand-in mothers and the morality of the group makes them unlikable. No one wants to be around them. You often don’t want them in the story. When they threaten to kill them off, you think, “DO IT.”
-She’s the only girl in the group.
The best way to avoid being called out on “saying something” about women as a whole is by having more than one female in your story. The one woman is stupid? You’re saying women are stupid, but only one of them is dumb? Well that's just humanity.
-She has no flaws, especially that would be required for her qualities.
Perfect characters are boring as hell, for one thing, regardless of gender. Sometimes the protagonists can get away with it because a bland foil for all the wacky people around him is pretty common, plus there’s the idea of “seeing yourself” as him.
But when it comes to women, there is definitely this attempt to put them on a pedestal, or be overly cautious to not piss off us modern females. Problem is, you have a completely strong, intelligent, capable woman, you don’t have a story or someone relatable.
All qualities are tied to flaws. If she’s responsible, she’s a stick in the mud (the most common trait allowed for a woman.)
But you can, and should, use that to your advantage, and comment on her flaws, in-world. If she’s confident, she’s stubborn. If she’s anti-authority, she has to reinvent the wheel all of the time. If she’s smart, she’s neurotic. If she’s chill, she lacks drive. If she’s skilled, she doesn’t have a lot of free time. If she’s naturally talented, she’s smug. Or maybe insecure and oblivious. By identifying and growing these elements of why she is the way she is, good and bad, the character will be more interesting and more real.
-She defies the social rules without consequence.
Whether it be the rules of our world or the fictional one she lives in, she is above all things feminine that keep a good woman down.
The problem is, this is dismissive of the real world issues, and the side characters even. In the same vein as seeing the bright blue haired anime character surrounded by a bunch of drab brunette extras, having your character be so completely different from others reminds us of the fabrication of the world. At least she should have to face the consequences of being different.
Patrick Rothfuss, one of my favorite authors, did this the worst when it came to a character named Fela.
I read The Name of the Wind and its sequel, A Wiseman’s Fear during a bad phase. I had, for the first time in my life, become the object of attraction to strange men who didn’t know me, and who probably wouldn’t care about me once they did. I related to Fela in an unfortunate way, and these books reminded me just how little people understood what I had gone through.
While I actually like Fela as a person—she’d be nice company, I’m rooting for her, and so on—the way she was portrayed was fairly cliché.
She is sexually harassed by the villain just in time for the protagonist to come and save her…
But it ignores what will happen once the protagonist leaves. It’s not like that harassment just stops, and she and the villain still work together at the location the events took place. People often ask me, when I’m dealing with someone who won’t take no for an answer, “Why don’t you just do this?” or “Why don’t you just do that?”
In most cases, he’s not going to let you off the hook. The meaner you are, the more he fellows you around “apologizing.” You do something drastic to get him to leave you alone, the more likely his behavior escalates (block him online, he finds you at work. True story.) Having a guy humiliate him in defending me might possibly lead him to take out his embarrassment on me later. It is unlikely that having a guy stand up to him will stop him from doing it again at another time when said man is not around, and rejected guys can make your life miserable if wanted. The villain Ambrose’s ability to screw over protagonist Kvothe’s life in pretty drastic ways is evident of that.
But Fela faces zero consequences of dismissing Ambrose, and is even perfectly fine going on a date with him when they need to use her as bait. She feels safe being alone with the stranger who thinks it’s okay to put his hand on her leg when she is a mere coworker. A stranger with a vindictive temper and more money than a kingdom who has raped and beaten women throughout the storyline, using his abilities to try and kill, expel, and make Kvothe homeless.
Her sexual harassment isn’t even spoken of again, forgotten by a writer who put it in as a plot point.
Fela is beautiful and smart and kind, in the sort of way that means she keeps a lot of her inner life to herself. She is a perfect example of someone who just makes the life around other people better, mostly guys. She is awarded to the girl-crazy best friend who, though I do like him too, is honestly closer to the sort of personality of the men who have harassed me in the past; guys who just want to be loved, and don’t particularly care by whom. She never puts her problems on anyone—mostly because she doesn’t have any.
But she should. She is this stunning girl who is a victim throughout the book, the damsel in distress that everyone likes despite her not revealing anything interesting about herself. She’s just easy to be around. She’s smart and talented too, but doesn’t seem to get any real appreciation for it—because she is so modest.
Fela isn’t what I would call a cardboard character in truth. I think that really her issue is she’s more of a writer’s convenience, using her to raise the stakes or make Kvothe look good, or sometimes just be the “extra” in a scene so as to not add a new character.
She could be realistic in a way, but I’d like to see more insight into her. I know plenty of kind women who try to make everyone comfortable by not taking up space, by being pleasant and pretty—but there’s way more to them than what meets the first impression. These decisions, the choice to not act out for attention, to not ask for what you need, to not bulldoze over others to get what you want, are exhausting, sometimes painful, and constant. Being beloved by all the men solely because it’s easy for them to imprint a personality on you is disheartening. Being beloved by all the men means you have to “entertain them” when they want to show off their card trick or struggle to engage you in conversation even when you just want to be left alone. Being beloved by all the men just because you’re cute means you are easily replaceable. Being loved by all of the men because you are one of the few women in the area makes you a target for constant interruption, a lot of it, not so nice. You have to deal with the fact that you constantly have to play nice with people who don’t give a shit about your feelings, else deal with the ramifications of ticking the wrong person off, and then get criticized for inciting him into it.
And kind people, no matter their gender, do get the blunt of jackasses. I’ve seen so many good-natured individuals sit there and smile while some egomaniac is condescendingly blabbering on about herself, mostly because they’re the only ones who will give me the time of day.
Fela is just the surface of a complex character. She has her own problems, her own priorities, and none of that is being talked about because we have better things to focus on than what occurs after Kvothe is not around to defend her.
Sometimes, perhaps, the best way to write about a female character, is just to genuinely care about her, and don’t let her quiet and non-invasive personality let you forget that she has her own problems too.
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