Sunday, May 30, 2010

Female Characters, pt. 1: In which I blame 80s cartoons just a little

Soo, I had this craft chat thing awhile back and the first topic was Female Characters. Just a few people showed up, but we had a decent chat. However, since only a few people could come, my friend Su suggested:

"Since so many folks missed out, why don't you start a post about it? Write your opinion, maybe throw in some of those questions you were going to ask at the chat, and then all of us can respond in the comments. The exchanges may be slower, but we can still get a pretty good chat out of it, I'm sure."

Good idea, Su! =D I just had to wait until BEA craziness was over. So let's chat here. Why not. I'll ask some questions all week, at least until I run out.

First question: Is it easier for you to write female or male characters? Why do you think that is, anyway?

I have been getting praise for Nimira in Magic Under Glass for being a strong heroine, and I have to admit, this surprised me a bit because I thought I kind of sucked at writing girl characters. When I was a kid/teen, I never wanted to be a girl in pretend games or write about girls. (I did like to draw girls, though, but that is because their clothes are better.)

I think I had the subconscious idea that girls couldn't be awesome. At least, not in the way I liked. Thinking back to the girls in popular media of my childhood, there were princesses and cackling evildoers and cute little girls. I had the entire Lady Lovelylocks castle, but I didn't want to BE Lady Lovelylocks. I just wanted her clothes. I loved some of the girls in books like Ramona Quimby and Anastasia Krupnik, but I didn't want to be them. They were too much like me. I liked characters who were accomplished and awesome and maybe a little eccentric and pompous. It wasn't that girls couldn't be strong back then. It was that they rarely got to be awesome in that particular way I craved.

I grew up in a sort of age of compensation for the crimes of the past. Girls in stories before my time tended to be wimps and damsels in distress and sexy window dressing or just plain excluded. By the 80s and 90s, we had plenty of "token" girls and sometimes girlcentric entertainment. Fantasy books had started to include the bad-ass warrior woman. But it seemed to me that these stories missed the point to some degree. I still didn't want to be a girl (well, in fiction anyway), write about a girl. I was perhaps LESS interested in the bad-ass warrior woman than I was in the girly girl who at least sported a hot wardrobe.

Girls were still not quirky.

So sometime in my twenties, part consciously and part unconsciously, I decided I was going to let the ladies be not just strong, but quirky and awesome and tragic-past-y and funny. Somewhere along the way I started liking Nimira almost as much as Erris. That would never have been the case back in the day. Triumph! I hope girls of the modern era have some more fascinating characters to inspire them than I did.

However, I know many writers found it easier to write girls than boys. Please let me know which you prefer and why!

I'll also have some more reader-centric questions upcoming, so whether you're a reader or writer, stay tuned.


  1. I've always found female characters easier to write. I was an 80s child too, but I loved the princesses and being a girly girl. To me boys were dirty and icky. I find it much easier to get inside the heads of female characters because I am a girl and I can relate to them. I find boys more difficult to write because I find it hard to get inside their heads and know what motivates them.

  2. I think there's a lot more pressure when one tries to write female characters because there's such emphasis on avoiding the cliches and creating complex personalities. I don't feel like this is really the case where male characters are concerned. I mean, of course you want to create multi-dimmensional characters, no matter their gender, but quirky, complex males have dominated literature for centuries. They're out there in droves, and nobody's going to slam you because you didn't add another one to the mix. I wouldn't say that females of the same ilk are nonexistent, or even uncommon, but they certainly aren't as prevalent. They don't receive nearly as much press as the stereotypical heroines. And plenty of people will slam you if you fail to write them.

    I was a lot like you, growing up. I didn't usually want to play at being girl characters because they just weren't as quirky and interesting. They didn't have cool jobs, or awesome talents, or great opportunities like the male characters had. They weren't knights or archers or wandering minstrels.

    So when I first started creating my own characters, I developed a girl who was going to be a knight, of sorts. She had wicked mad fighting skillz, and she could take care of herself, and she was on the fast track to getting a pretty great job of the wander-around-the-continent variety. The trouble was, she still fit the stereotype of the shrewish, bitter girl who throws fits when things don't go her way, because that's the sort of girl I always encountered in my own reading.

    I ended up abandoning her in favour of the more interesting male characters who'd appeared in her story. I must've liked them, because I'm still writing about them more than a decade later.

    These days, I try to write every character as a person, first and foremost, but I still stress over my female characters far more than their male counterparts. I try to make sure that they aren't just fulfilling traditional female roles in traditional female ways. They're politicians and fighters and businesspeople as well as mothers and wives. Some of them are girly; some of them aren't. And I always, always worry that I'm getting it wrong, and someone, somewhere down the line, is going to slam me for it.

  3. Jackie, what a GREAT way to start off the Female Characters discussion!!

    First of all, I have to say I COMPLETELY UNDERSTAND what you mean about 80’s/90’s—heck, even most of today’s—female characters not being “cool” in the way you wanted them to be/you wanted to be yourself. It’s so true—if a girl was a part of a team/fighting squad, she had no personality except as “the girl,” whereas the guys had designations like “the nerdy guy,” “the smart-ass,” “the dumb but kindly muscleman,” “the idealistic boy-hero,” “the cold, standoffish badass,” etc. But yeah, the girl was basically always “the girl,” and she always had to have the same sorts of generic “girl” personality traits—kind, sweet, probably weaker than the others, DEFINITELY the hero’s/someone’s love interest—in other words, extremely generic traits that expressed more of what the girl’s role in life was as opposed to her actual personality.

    And yes, “the girl” could never be the cool, smart-alecky one or stand alone w/o a love interest. Having a girl on the team apparently set off a certain expectation—“She shall be someone’s love interest”—like introducing a gun in the first act of a play immediately signaled “someone will get shot by the end of the play.” Which is silly because not every girl is constantly looking to be in a relationship, and not every girl prioritizes love as her main goal in life/on a team of elite fighters, etc.

    But anyway, leaving off the horribly flawed, mono-dimensional portrayals of heroines in 80’s, etc, popular kids’ media, I want to go back to the sort of “awesome” that we could never find in those heroines, the kind of awesome that we ourselves could truly embrace and identify with. I think the first thing missing was something you touched upon when you said you wanted the heroine to be able to have a “tragic-y past”—that is, you wanted a heroine who existed as more than the perfectly packaged, love interest-ripe “girl member” of the team—you wanted her to have her own backstory, her own scars and baggage, etc, that shaped her into who she is today, just like we’d expect the hero (probably) and angsty badass (100% guaranteed) to have. In other words, you wanted her to be a whole character, and you wanted the attention of at least an episode or two to be focused ENTIRELY ON HER, got inside her head, etc, rather than always view her from the outside as a side character. I absolutely understand this, and I think a large part of the problem is that a lot of the folks who were writing for those shows probably didn’t know how to get into a female character’s head—because they were men.

    Now, I’m not saying that all 80’s cartoons, etc, were written exclusively by men. But you have to admit that the majority of the names that scroll by after your favorite episode of “Tiny Toons” or “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” or whatever were male. Watch the “Making of” specials after any Pixar movie, anime DVD, etc, and I can more or less guarantee that every, single person (excluding a few voice actors, perhaps) will be male. I don’t know whether it’s because fewer women want to make a career in animation, etc (though, judging form the female-packed crowds at anime cons and how skewed the online fandoms are in gender toward women, I don’t think this is for a lack of interest, certainly), but at the least, we can say that the folks in the positions that rank high enough to have creative control/get on the “Making Of” reel, are generally men. And if the rampant misogyny or pitifully 1-dimensional female characters found in the majority of SFF novels written by men are any indication (not to mention the uber-sexified portrayals and—again—outsiders’-perspective-only roles of women in most superhero comics, etc), men in geekdom generally don’t get women/can’t get in their heads very well (though, that said, there are some HUGE, amazing, unspeakably worthy exceptions to this rule, of course! Thank you to the Scott Westerfelds, Jim C. Hines and Patrick Rothfusses of this world!!)

    [Oops, gonna have to split the post... Sorry... ^^; ]

  4. So, in short, yes, I do think that having such a heavily-skewed-towards-male-creators animation/entertainment industry has ended up creating these legions of not fully fleshed-out female characters (even sometimes against a male creator’s best intentions; it’s a rare man who can make the mindset leap—though I’m sure the reverse is also true).

    Which brings me to another question you asked—do you find it easier to write male or female characters?

    Weirdly enough in my case, I’m just like you—all my main characters are male. @_@; And this despite my ardent desire for a really wonderful, cool female main character I could really identify with. It’s baffling since now, since I am the creator myself, I *could* write that heroine I’ve always longed to find. So why don’t I?

    I get the feeling that those 80’s cartoons/movies/etc we grew up on did their job even better than we realize. We know we always wanted an awesome female main character, and yet, given the chance, why don’t we write one? Is it because the idea that the main character/hero of a series/story must be a boy has become so ingrained in our heads? Is it because making the main character of your story a girl immediately sends off some kind of nuance or subtle signal to us/our readers that this will be a “certain” kind of story? For instance, when we want to be gender-neutral, we say “he” (if not “it,” etc) as Ursula Le Guin masterfully explains in “The Left Hand of Darkness” (a brilliant and illuminating breakdown of our perceptions of “gender,” btw) because throwing in a “she” immediately adds a certain nuance/heightened layer of “description” rather than just being an equivalently basic term like “he.” I guess our long exposure to boy-heroes-only epics have caused us to being feeling the same about stories. If you’re just trying to tell a classic epic fantasy tale, for instance (which I am, actually ^^; ), then our ingrained values tell us the hero must be a boy.

    Now, having said all that, I actually do have a less lemming-like reason for using a boy protagonist in this particular story I’m writing. The idea for the story grew up specifically from my desire to have a really, REALLY strong, butt-kicking female warrior in the series who—unlike practically every other female warrior character I’d seen recently (note: I was watching “Naruto” at the time, which will probably explain my extreme ire)—would actually NOT fail when push came to shove; who would, in fact, be THE STRONGEST CHARACTER IN THE STORY—PHYSICALLY!! (insert righteous fist-shaking at the sky here) What’s more, after sitting through the ridiculous conceit that a so-called legendary, super-strong female ninja (Tsunade) STILL had to be saved by the 12-year-old, wet-nosed ninja boy fresh out of ninja school (Naruto), I determined that not only would this heroine kick everyone’s ass up and down, she would be the one saving the male hero—not the other way around. The desire to include such a hero to serve as my damsel-in-distress, combined with a vague notion I’ve always had that side characters are typically cooler than your main character, my protag ended up as the expected teenage boy hero, and my super female warrior ended up getting second billing. ::exhale::

    So... there you have it. ^^; In this case of this story, at least, that’s why I chose a male hero. As for why the vast majority of my other stories have starred male characters... my guess is as good as yours. @_@;

    P.S. Sorry for this riduclously, epically long entry. Thank you for reading, guys...! -grovel- m(___)m

  5. Oops, I meant to say, "just like you IN YOUR EARLY DAYS, I write mainly male characters" up there. ^^;; Lol, why is it that I never think to proofread my comments/blog posts until *after* I hit the "submit" button? Maa, nee... =__=

  6. I'm a girl, so I do tend to relate to female characters more than males (in general). I've mostly written female MCs. However, I do find that it's also harder for me to separate myself from my character, and to really make her rounded, when I'm writing female. I did write one book entirely from a male perspective, and I found out all kinds of things about the character that I maybe wouldn't have been forced to think about had I been on default female. And then I was able to apply some of that when revising a girl MC book, so it was doubly helpful. I've been giving some thought to doing a dual POV, one guy, one girl, because I don't know if I'm quite ready to give up that interesting perspective yet. But maybe it's just a matter of needing to write outside my comfort zone to stretch, too.

    I think it's impossible to write a character everyone likes, but at the same time, it's tricky to get a female character right when so many people want so much from her. It's easy to fall into the Save Me category, but just as easy to write a hard as nails character who just isn't very nice to hang out with for 300 pages. A character's vulnerabilities make us feel for them, but of course we want to see them take on courage and act in spite of that vulnerability. And no matter if you're writing male or female characters, it's hard to get that balance so they feel both real and likable.

  7. This topic is interesting to me for many many reasons. I think your upbringing HAS to colour your experience, especially as I had entirely the opposite experience from you. Then again, I was raised in a household that read comic books like Xmen, Spawn, etc., where kick-ass females were more than costumed heroines. They had tragic pasts, bad romances, and they triumphed. (The villainess had those same things, but they usually didn't triumph, or, at least, not for long!)

    I also remember watching cartoons with bad-ass/strong female leads like in Thunder Cats. There was also She-Ra and to some degree even Rainbow Bright had kick-ass-ness with, um, unicorns thrown in for good glitter measure. >:D And let's not forget Miss April O'Neil from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She didn't know kung-fu, but she usually handled herself even when in the Shredder's clutches.

    And then I watched TV shows like Buffy and the X-Files. There was no lack of strong women there either. But I never was one for shows like Beverly Hills 90210, etc. Those girls were alien to me. They talked about hair and make-up and had money to buy expensive clothing from labels I could barely pronounce. They dated popular boys and never ever talked about geeky stuff like their mad crush on Remy LeBeau. Oh, right, he's not real.

    As for movies, I loved action/adventure like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc. From Princess Leia, who was both a princess but also a kick-ass leader who mostly held her own to Indy's Marion, who could drink a burly Russian into the ground, there were role-models for me growing up. Even though I never had the misfortune to need to know how to handle a gun or other weapon. I did, however, manage to drink one of my male roommates under the table. Moo ha ha.

    You could very well say that I grew up in a fairly boy-centric way. But I always managed to find strong females in those very boy-centric things. The downside of this, to some degree, is that my female characters lack the stereo-typical girly-ness. No frills, no sparkles.

    What amuses me further about that is I've pointedly used the SAME voice for a female character as a male. The male gets way more praise for being snarky and funny and the females are called "bitchy" and "cold". The things is, to some degree, I AM those voices. They are the products of my experiences. They are how I see things, so when people say my female characters are bitches, I tend to take that pretty damn personally. LOL

    So, after a long ramble, it's easier for me to write snarky boy characters and tom-boy girl characters. There's a challenge in here for me, I can feel it!