A.C. Flory wrote a brought up a good point about Theresa Gannon, the protagonist of my book, The Directorate:
“I couldn’t relate to the main character… I simply don’t see her as female… to me, Gannon could be a he just as easily as a she.”
I know exactly what she means. Honestly, I’m surprised more readers don’t mention this, because I feel the same way. There was never much of anything distinctively female about Gannon.
“Well, you’re the one who wrote it!” you are no doubt thinking. “Why didn’t you fix that, dummy?”
Good question. As a male, writing a good female character is something I find difficult, for a number of reasons.
The lazy, quick-fix approach to make a character seem distinctively gendered is to resort to stereotypes. I could have made Gannon interested in things like clothes, or shoes, or something like that. That would be stereotypically feminine.
But I hate stereotypes. It’s not that there isn’t any truth to them; most people are stereotypical in one way or another. That’s why stereotypes exist, after all. But the point of writing fiction is to give people something new and surprising. Stereotypes are, by their nature, not new and surprising but old and familiar. So in general, I think it’s good to avoid them whenever possible when you’re writing stories.
This is another way of saying that it would just feel ham-handed and rather disrespectful to have my space soldier run off to go shoe shopping. Other, more skilled writers probably could pull that off, but I couldn’t.
Writing From A Female Perspective
You don’t have to resort to stereotypes to write plausibly feminine characters, though. You can write plausible, relatable, well-rounded characters who are also distinctly women.
The big problem I see in a lot of female characters written by men is that they tend to be distinctly women first, and characters second. Usually this manifests itself in female characters being preoccupied with sex in one way or another, or else being described largely in sexual terms. I’ve read way too many female characters who seem to exist solely as sexual beings, and it gets tiresome. With Gannon, I consciously strove to avoid this. In doing so, I think I made her too non-sexual, and that makes it hard to relate to her.
The Miranda Lawson Problem
Making a character sexy is a risky proposition. If done right, it can make a character that much more memorable. But more often than not, I feel like the risk outweighs the reward, and you can end ruining a character by trying to sex them up.
Miranda Lawson is one of my favorite characters in the Mass Effect video game series. Part of it is Yvonne Strahovski’s performance (I love Australian accents, OK?), but she’s also a pretty well-written character. She’s been genetically engineered to be the “perfect woman”, and as a result, she feels a lot of pressure to be the best–pressure that sometimes makes her do morally questionable things. All in all, a really good character.
But! There’ s a major “but” here (pun not intended): for some reason, BioWare designed many of the game’s dialogue and cinematic scenes to focus, ridiculously, on her backside. Miranda wears a white catsuit, and the animators missed no opportunity to show her from the back, the most egregious example being a dialogue scene where the view “pauses” there for as long as the player wants until they choose to advance in the conversation.
BioWare defended this by saying it’s part of Miranda’s “character” that she’s genetically-engineered to be beautiful, and supposedly all this was to underscore just how sexualized she was, and how that impacts her personality.
Maybe that was the idea, but it totally didn’t come across that way. It became a running joke by Mass Effect 3 that if Miranda was around, the “camera” had to be positioned behind her. It made her seem less like a character and more like a sex object–which was too bad, because she actually is a good character, and it’s a shame she became the butt of jokes instead.
This is something that’s always bothered me, and what I took away from how Miranda is perceived is that making a character sexy is a very dangerous thing to attempt. It can very easily turn your well-crafted character into a ridiculous figure. I think this is especially true for men writing women.
Mary Sues vs. Competent Men
There’s another common criticism that I’m surprised no one has yet leveled at Gannon, but which I fully expect I’ll hear someday: that she’s a “Mary Sue”. “Mary Sues” are “idealized and seemingly perfect” characters, as Wikipedia puts it. Characters who exhibit preternatural skill in a variety of areas. Such characters seem too good to be true, and as such are hard to relate to.
The term “Mary Sue” comes from a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, so this is an issue for sci-fi writers especially. And the original Mary Sue was even a lieutenant, just like Gannon is! So, I probably am guilty of this.
Here’s my defense: there’s another stock character in fiction, referred to as the “Competent Man“. This character archetype is strongly associated with the work of science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who wrote a passage extolling the virtues of having many skills, concluding with the famous phrase, “Specialization is for insects.” His heroes tend to have a wide variety of skills.
And indeed, having many skills is rather key to becoming a hero. Incompetent characters would not be terribly effective at having heroic adventures.
As a few readers noticed, many elements of The Directorate are intended as an homage to exactly the kind of military science fiction that Heinlein pioneered. I think such stories lend themselves to having competent protagonists–after all, usually people who are or have been in military service possess a lot of training in a wide variety of skills.
Have Female Editors
One piece of advice for any men who are writing female characters: make sure you have female editors and/or beta readers. I would never have attempted to publish a novel with a female protagonist if I hadn’t known women who could critique it first. And am I ever glad they did, because their feedback improved Gannon tremendously from the first draft to the one I ultimately published.
That said, there were still times when I would overrule their objections and refuse to modify something. Because, first and foremost, Gannon had to be somebody I understood. If I didn’t do that, I would have no chance of writing her plausibly. So when somebody suggested changing the character in a way that didn’t sit right with me, I would stick with the way I wanted her. I feel it had to be this way, but it’s quite possible this made her less-relatable to everyone else.
As I’ve discussed before, my early writing has been rightly criticized for having too little description. I tried to correct this in The Directorate, and not just in describing the setting–which is essential in sci-fi–but also in how I described the appearance of the characters.
The exception is Gannon. I was deliberately vague about how she looked, because I wanted the reader to project their own image of Gannon. For most of the book, she is the proxy for the reader, and they experience the world through her eyes. My idea was that by leaving her description largely to the reader, they could create their own image of a character they found relatable. (This is something I picked up writing horror: what the reader imagines for themselves is usually way better than whatever you as the author create.)
It’s possible I made her too vaguely-defined, however; and this could make her difficult to relate to.
Creating convincing female characters is one of the biggest challenges of writing fiction for me. I try to avoid obvious pitfalls that I’ve seen a lot of male writers fall into–lengthy descriptions of their anatomy, character traits that are nothing more than clichéd stereotypes–but I’m still not entirely satisfied with what I’ve done so far. The good news is that I can tell I’m improving, and the more I write, the more I feel emboldened to experiment with characterizations, which hopefully will lead to better and more relatable characters.
One of my on-going projects is called Northville Five and Dime. I’ve written the first part of what I expect to be a three part novella series. And got halfway through the second part before I got bogged down. It’s a story that switches the narrative between three main characters — two young women and a 16-year-old boy. I’ve worried about how I have done with the narration from the female characters, but beta readers who have read the first part haven’t raised any red flags.
A few of my short stories have also been told from a female character’s perspective.
It’s actually one of the challenges I like to take on as a writer — writing from a character’s perspective that is not mine. To strip away as much of me as possible from the telling of the story. My first effort was not that — when I wrote Bridgeport, I was able to do so because I could put myself into the character’s position and imagine what I might do. Not because I had ever done what Jack McGee did, but I could imagine it. Ever since then, I’ve generally tried to avoid that. What better way to do that, as a male author, than to tell a story from a female perspective.
One last comment — on description. I’ve noticed that the more I write, the less I describe. I just want to tell the story and leave the details to the imagination of the reader. I have to consciously insert descriptive details. And I rarely go through much effort to describe the characters’ appearance unless it is relevant to the story. To be honest, when I’m reading a story where the author devotes too much space to description, I tend to gloss over those portions.
I’m with you about description–I have to force myself to do it. But readers of my early books complained about the lack of description, and looking back, I see their point. I still don’t like writing it, though. 🙂
I have a good friend and fellow writer that wrote and taught the college courses on Latinas. I’ve read a number of her stories and she doesn’t do much describing, but she drives me crazy with angst. Her most notable books Is about a mother of a missing daughter when news breaks about a number of women being murdered and buried. The whole book is the mother fearing the worst about her daughter and then second guessing the last thirty years of her life. I haven’t had the heart to tell her how incredibly boring this was to me, but at her book signings women are treating her like their mother and crying at her readings. This taught me that women don’t just write descriptions, they write mental anguish. I added this to Human Sacrifices where I have the protagonist writing diary entries while going through a divorce. I took my own experience of going through a divorce and added a lot more second guessing. Men have a tendency to blame the other person than themselves, by doing this it made me see my ex-wife in a different light.
Of course there’s always Melvin Udall’s explanation in “As Good As It Gets,” When asked how he understands women he replies, “I think of a man and take away reason and accountability.”
Concerning describing women, let others do it, or have her obsess in front of the mirror. It’s better if women describe the men and men the women. Most women don’t know how they affect men, the few that do are the ones who are obsessive about their looks.
Oh, angst is the worst! I don’t think I could write extended mental anguish if my life depended on it.
Although… I suppose if my life depended on it, I’d have a fair amount of mental anguish myself.
Hmm. I thought it was impressive that you had a female main character in a military-focussed SF novel at all. I saw Gannon first as a soldier, so didn’t worry too much about lack of girly characteristics. I agree it’s good you had female beta-readers. I’m trying to remember what the lone male member of the critique group that read my Herbert West books had to say. He thought I made Herbert too competent; compared him to Doc Savage, which I think is a bit of an exaggeration, but I guess that’s a male version of a Mary Sue.
The way I look at it, having very competent characters is appealing for two reasons: First, they’re more interesting to read about. Don’t we all wish we were incredibly good at everything?
And second, it makes it much easier to tell a story when the protagonist can take care of a lot of things him/herself. It would be tedious to read about a lead character who only had one skill, and had to contract everything else out.
Now, I do agree that a character shouldn’t be “perfect”. I thought you got it right with Herbert West–he has all this knowledge and all these skills, but he also has some major personality flaws, and he needs other people to keep him in check.
It’s sort of like having to do some sort of crummy job just to get by, or tedious aspects of life, like doing laundry and vacuuming. We don’t usually lumber our characters with that stuff, so they end up being rich and/or privileged.
I LOVE this post! I didn’t notice stereotypical female behavior in your characters, but I often think men write male characters better than they do female characters. And this is completely subjective, but men I talk to prefer reading about and watching films with male lead characters
Yet I never think that female authors do a bad job with male characters. Is that just bias on my part? What do you think? And I’m not talking about writing LGBTQ characters, which is another discussion.
Thanks, Barb! My impression is that women tend to do a better job writing male characters than men do at writing females. I’ve read lots of books by female authors with male protagonists, and generally they seem pretty clearly male.
I don’t mind watching or reading stories with female lead characters. I do think that maybe the type of stories many men like reading/watching (e.g. action films) tend to have male protagonists, but that is changing.
That’s true about action movies. And detective books/movies.
I’ve posted my novelette Apple of Success on my blog. Let me know how I did with a female protagonist.
Thanks, Pat! I will let you know.