Saturday, July 13, 2013

Writing Female Characters with "the Secret Ingredient"

I was, perhaps, around 20 when I looked at my girl characters and realized something: They don't have tragic pasts.

At this point in my life my stories were overwhelmingly based around male characters. Females were jammed in out of necessity to be love interests, childhood best friends, and moms, with some warrior women and mystical wise priestesses to fulfill some sense of demographic requirement. But I didn't care about them. What I realized, at this point, was that the guys had all the coolest parts of storytelling. All the conflict, all the angst and pain and complication.

When I thought back on all the stories I had loved as a kid, this was almost always true. In any given story, I was attracted not to the hero or the heroine, but the weirdo. Maybe the funniest character, because I like characters with a good sense of humor. (The funniest character in a story is almost always a guy.) The character with a good heart but a somewhat skewed sense of morality (aka, your thieves, your mob bosses, your pirates...), the tormented character with the complicated backstory, the character with a limp or a stoop or an eyepatch or a missing hand, the character who is the quirky intellectual with a memorably charming but eccentric personality...

One phrase I have never been especially fond of is "kick-butt" or "kick-ass" as applied to female characters. Because...I don't really care for a guy character that kicks peoples butts or asses, and I also am not especially compelled to read a book if a female character is described that way. There are plenty of people, of course, who do want to read about kick-ass girls, and there are different interpretations of the word too, so I don't want to sound like I'm against it or anything, but I also sometimes think that even now, STILL, we don't always think beyond that when we write girls. We ask ourselves, "Are they strong?" But we don't always ask, "Are they COOL? Are they complicated? Do they have the secret ingredient?"

The secret ingredient is a little different for everyone, but you just kind of know it when you hear it, too. It's there in fan favorites like Magnus Bane and Eugenides. I think girls get left out of it a lot. Less than they used to. But still. Too often. Even with writers that write strong female characters.

Including, I realize, myself, more often than I'd like.

This has been a thought I've been particularly keeping in the back of my mind when I write Dark Metropolis and I am very proud of that aspect of the book. When I began the first book I thought, "I'm going to write Nan like I'd write one of my boys." My idea was not to write her like she is "A BOY", as in, the elements that common wisdom suggests are how boys act. No, I just mean like one of MY boys. Because I realize that all my characters are me to some degree and I don't write super manly men (I don't even know super manly men) but there are subtle differences between how I portray girls and boys. I really tried to twist that. I'm not sure I was always successful, but Nan is definitely unlike any other girl *or* boy I've written. And a good character really should be unlike any other character I've ever written, so I'll take it. And in book 2 I'm trying to take it further. I can't really get detailsy about it because a) spoilers and b) stuff's gonna change anyway...but the most exciting part of book 2 for me is how darn cool these girls are. To me, anyway.

This feels like a personal triumph for me, when I think that 10 years ago I barely liked any of the girls in my writing enough to give them their own point of view in a story.


  1. I relate to the point of thinking, "Wow, it's like I wrote half of this post."

    A tragic number of the girls I've written have served little purpose beyond being someone for one of the dudes to fall in love with. (In all fairness, I've done the same in reverse for an also-tragic number of guy characters, too; I just wised-up on the male side faster.)

    Thinking of my characters in more gender neutral terms during their the formative process may be the ticket to finding more cool girls hiding out in some corner of my imagination. I feel it certainly worked with one character I wrote as a boy, only to make him a *her* during revision. That chick, I like!

  2. Yes, I think you're right! I've never gender-flipped a character but with Nan I tried to write her like she was a boy to me but I was going to present her as a girl. As she became her own person I forgot that was my intention but I think it worked in the development stages, at least... It is funny, though, I've found that a lot of times when I do write better girl characters, I then write not-so-great guy characters. Argh.