Writing Female Characters 101: The Difference Is Not Biological
From my friend The Ferrett:
Unfortunately, he made an error that I think a lot of male writers do. And that error arrived with this statement:
“Okay,” he said. “At this point, she’s been brought to a foreign land, and I need to raise the stakes so that she wants to stay here and fight for this culture. So I think she needs to get pregnant.”
Cue groans from the women in the session.
Now, I’ve observed before in that in fiction, women have one of two roles: to get raped, or get pregnant. And I think, watching my very well-intentioned friend go at it, I’ve finally understood the reason why men do this.
See, in his excitement to write a woman, he got caught up on the differences between men and women. If women can get pregnant, and I’m writing a woman, well, I should immediately start with this biological difference! That’ll be a plot that only a woman can have!
I don’t think most male writers write females as baby-machines or rape-magnets out of malice, but mostly out of ignorance and the tendency to see male as the default, and by including women you can only give them storylines that your male characters couldn’t have. (Though I know plenty of men who could get pregnant, and a lot of females who can’t.)
The good news is, ignorance can be fixed way easier than malice. It just requires a willingness to learn, and a teacher willing to teach. As Ferrett went on to say,
The best I can do is to write honestly, and keep listening to actual female feedback to keep me on track.
Every time I write a female character for my creative writing class, my teacher asks me why I made that character female.
Inevitably he asks about the character’s sexuality/motherly instincts/how male characters feel about her being female? I guess.
And I’m just like
She’s a lady because she’s a lady
Her sexuality isn’t really important to the story at this point, and no she is not a mother
I didn’t think I had to defend this
Well, duh! Male is the default, so any time you do something “special” to a character, like make her female, you have to justify why you would add such a strange attribute. You can’t just do it for no reason. 50% of the world being female is not a legit reason. Unless her part of the story specifically requires use of a vagina*, there’s no reason for her not to be male, unless you’re looking for attention or just wanna stir shit up!
Obviously, using lots o’ sarcasm there. It’s always frustrating to hear teachers continuing to perpetuate such outdated ideas of what women in stories can be.
Men are people, and women are women. What a shitty way to see things. Why is this person a teacher?
*As always, I know vagina does not always = woman or vice versa, but if you’re dealing with people who don’t even understand why a cis female would be included in a story not about babies or romance, complex gender is obviously not gonna be understood by them at this point in time anyway.
Female writers writing bad female characters
I just read a story outline from a female classmate where the only female characters are a prostitute and a mother. Neither of them are redeemed and are only made important in relation to the male main character.
Do you think it’s mainly a male mindset that’s responsible for most of these kinds of stories or are both men and women circulating non-important-female-characters?
It’s the culture we live in. The male perspective is valued over the female one. So even women undervalue their own perspective and their own experience and their own entertainment value in their own writing. Which is why it’s important to keep pointing out that it’s going on, even to other women who should supposedly know this already. It’s sneaky, crawling around inside our brains like a Trematode.
Try pointing out to her that her only female characters exist to advance the male character’s plot. She is probably not even aware she’s doing it. Encourage her to find roles for female characters that advance their own plotlines. And it isn’t about sticking in a random scene with a couple women that doesn’t make sense with the rest of the story. Lots of times, there are roles that could go to either a male or female character, and we as a culture have been taught that male is the default. But if you stop and think for a while, maybe some of those default-men could be women. In fact, probably most of them! Which doesn’t mean change them all to women, and it doesn’t mean there won’t be subtle changes in dialogue, but the story can advance just fine, and the same meaning will be there.