FROM THE MAILBAG:
I’m in the process of rereading your catalogue, studying how you put a story together and how it has changed over time. I’m intrigued that you write using female protagonists, and do so quite well nearly all the times you do so. Would you expand upon this and its process?
There’s a lot to this question, and I can’t possibly break it all down in one post, but I can cover the generalities.
Yes, I use a lot of female protagonists in my stories. This wasn’t always true. My first efforts, all those unpublished novels I wrote while in the aspiring phase of my career, had male protagonists. They had female characters in them, but they were always in a supporting character role, and while female characters tended to get more of the spotlight with each story, it wasn’t until I wrote A Nameless Witch that I went with a female protagonist.
At the time, it was an experiment. I wanted to see if I could do it. Trying things your unsure of is just part of becoming a better writer. I’m quite proud of A Nameless Witch. Not only did it win an Amelia Bloomer Award from the ALA, but it remains probably my most subtle and interesting novel in many ways. It is the novel that seems to get the most variety of responses, both good and bad, and that appeals to me for some strange reason.
Since then, I’ve written plenty of stories with female protagonists, and while no writer is perfect and I’ve received my fair share of criticism, I’ve been fortunate that most people think I write women well enough.
The first thing to keep in mind is that there is no default woman. This is just an extension of a basic writing rule I follow. Avoid stereotyping. Even good, well-meaning stereotypes create flat characters. This happens all the time, and even talented writers can fall victim to assumptions.
It happens all the time in fantasy and science fiction, where dwarves and elves and orcs can all be usually called down from central casting with an absence of anything unique about them. Even a show like Star Trek, which is all about trying to show how diverse people can work and prosper together had this issue when it came to Klingons and Vulcans and Ferengi. They tended to have one universal guiding drive that stretched across the species. Some later writers tried to explore and deviate from that, but for the most part, the role the characters fills in the story is built on their species.
It’s weird to consider fantastical racism as a problem, but it bugs me nonetheless. I’m not suggesting we march in the streets to protest one-dimensional orc and elf portrayals in fiction, but we could all be a little more mindful of how easily we stereotype and come to expect certain things from certain characters based simply on their genetic background.
As a writer who loves taking characters like cosmic monsters and super genius space squids and exploring them in deeper ways, I feel I owe that level of care for the women I write. But writing female characters is trickier than writing about aliens. Because there are no aliens, but everybody knows at least a few women.
And here’s where we get to a strange place. I’m about to talk about gender issues.
I am not the guy who should be talking about gender issues. I’m a very boring CIS male. For those who struggle with society’s labels, their own perception of themselves, and the hostility of a world that hates and taunts them for merely existing . . . that’s just not something I deal with.
That’s the disclaimer. I fully support everyone’s right to label themselves as they wish because at the end of the day I can’t honestly figure out why I would give a damn. Except I do have to give a damn since so many people suffer a lot because other idiots get hung up on what pronoun someone might prefer.
Like I said, not my struggle, but for those wrestling with those issues and the society that makes those issues even harder, I can only offer my support and sympathy.
Writing for as long as I have, I’ve at least brushed up against gender portrayals in fiction. We are awash in a constant stream of gender expectations. This is so constant that it’s easy to mistake it for absolute truth. It doesn’t matter if you point out that a lot of the coding and ideas some take as gospel are new ideas. Try pointing out that pink was considered a manly man color not that long ago or that children were often considered basically genderless until they hit a certain age and you’ll jut confuse and anger some people.
Nevertheless, real or not, it’s easy to fall into the “Girls are like this, Boys are like that” reflex in your writing if you’re not careful. But I strive to never think of a character by the role they fill. Always think of them as a character first.
It sounds obvious, but even in my own critique group, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard someone ask “Would a woman think this?” or “Would a young person know this word?” or “Is that really what a father would do?”
The problem with questions like that is that they start with an assumption. They ignore the character and focus on the role. It’s why the Star Wars prequels aren’t that good. Because everyone is a role to fill, a character second. It might seem weird to compare Jedi knights to female characters, but both can easily succumb to the same basic problem, a default portrayal that strips them of any uniqueness.
If you haven’t seen the Seth Rogan movie Neighbors, there’s a great bit where Rogan’s character is off to do something stupid, and his wife, played by Rose Byrne, starts getting really mad at him. But not for the reason one would expect. She’s upset because she’s expected to stay at home and be the responsible one while he goes off on his adventures. She wants to be involved.
Rogan has mentioned that this is a commentary on the original script, where Byrne’s wife character was exactly this type, giving her nothing to do but be the foil to his comedic misadventures. One rewrite later and Byrne is hip deep in the madness, and the movie is better off for it.
Which brings us to my final point. It’s not just about defying expectations but giving the character something interesting to do. Often, when I see people complaining about one-dimensional female characters, it’s not because those characters are a stereotype. It’s because they have no purpose in the story beyond that stereotype. The old adage is if you could replace the character (usually a woman) with a sexy lamp and the story would be unaffected, then you’ve failed at creating a good character.
One of the expectations I play with in the Constance Verity books is that Constance is a daring adventurer and her boyfriend, Byron, is not. I didn’t want Byron to suddenly become a badass over the course of the trilogy, but I also wanted to make sure he had something to do. He wasn’t just there for Connie’s story. He had a story himself. In many ways, he fills the traditional supporting female role in many stories, which is intentional. The yin and yang of their personalities is part of how they manage to make a relationship work. It’s not about filling specific gender roles, but about how these two characters fit together.
Finally, I think it’s important to ask what is a good character and what makes a good protagonist? The answer varies, but I find that we often end up coding female characters “male” when they’re protagonists. Connie has some of this. She’s a two-fisted badass who can handle any problem with her guts and skills. And how many adventure stories with female protagonists are sure to point out that “she’s not like other girls”, which is just code for “She’s a guy.”
Again, all gender expectations that need to be seen for what they are. But they are there, like it or not.
This is why another of my own favorite novels is Too Many Curses, where I specifically went in with the idea of a hero who is traditionally (forgive the word. It’s loaded with baggage, I know) female. Nessy the Kobold, in addition to being a creature that is overlooked fodder in most fantasy fiction, is also a housekeeper, a role that is reserved for only the most unimportant NPCs in fiction. At a glance, she’s nothing special.
Yet it is her nurturing concern for others, her ability to organize and prioritize caretaking tasks, and her sensibility that make her a hero. It is a story that asks more of its protagonist than merely kicking ass and becoming the most powerful sorceress in the universe. This doesn’t mean she has to be a female character though, which comes back to everything I’ve written about here.
Care about the whole character, give them something interesting to do, avoid lazy stereotypes (both good and bad), and I find you’re on your way to making characters worth hanging out with. And regardless of who or what that character is, you’re on the write track.
I could write about this topic all day, but it all comes down to paying attention to our own biases and expectations. Writing is hard, and I wouldn’t say I’ve always done a great job with my female characters. I’ve made mistakes. But I’ve learned along the way that if you make an honest effort, if you avoid falling into the obvious traps, and you make sure to give a character an inner life beyond an easy stereotype, you’ve done 90 percent of the work.
Question? Comment? Reach me at Hipstercthulhu@hotmail.com.
I’ll catch you next time, Action Force.
FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT, WRITING THE GOOD WRITE,