I’ve noticed there is a tendency among readers and critics alike to pick apart authors’ portrayals of female characters far more than they analyze male characters. You’ll hear someone speak of a male character and say “That didn’t seem in-character for him,” but you’ll hear female characters reference with a comment like “A woman would never do that.” Some might say that female characters are more heavily scrutinized because most writers are male and therefore perceived as ill-equipped to write females, but then why are male characters not taken to task the same way in female-authored writing?
I titled this entry “Every Female Character Should…” because this is the heart of the issue. The only way to identify or describe a deviation is if there is an established norm. However, you’ll get as many opinions on the subject as you ask people on what the norm is, or what constitutes a deviation. People throw around concepts like the Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori Test. So what’s one more hat thrown in the ring, eh?
I’m not actually here to say that every female character should do this or that, because here’s the thing: what female characters does and doesn’t do is not the issue. You could ask a thousand different people – men and women – what they think makes a good or bad, strong or weak, and likable or unlikable female character, and you’ll probably get a thousand different responses. Stop by the comments section on any article about female characters, and you can heat your lunch on the flame war alone. Can you have a strong female character who is a housewife and mother? Can you have a weak female character who is a powerful politician and CEO of a corporation? If you answered “no” to either of those questions, then your thinking is the kind I’m addressing.
So what am I saying? What fills the space implied by the ellipsis points at the end of my post title? Here it is: every female character should…be approached as a character. Not the earth-shattering revelation you were hoping for, I’m sure, but if you peel back the layers a bit, you’ll see what I’m talking about. If you approach your mother-housewife the right way, she can be memorable and influential on your reader. If you approach your politician-CEO in the wrong way, she can come across as pandering, mocking, or worse.
If you approach a female character as a woman first or a male character as a man first, you’re bringing with you all your biases, cultural conditioning, and preconceived notions. When I sketch my characters, I usually don’t have a gender in mind at first, because I want the character to tell me who and what kind of person it is (if it’s a person at all). I start with the character’s motivations, goals, and fears, their role in the story, what I want them to accomplish for the narrative, etc. I believe it is important to have a clear concept of the world in which you’re writing before you can figure out what kind of people fit in it.
By taking this approach, the gender becomes a tool and an aspect of the character, once it is assigned, instead of a limiting factor. We can not escape our biases, but we can be conscious of them and mitigate them – or employ them, as appropriate. For example, in my current novel, I have a character that I initially thought of as a man. The character is a high-ranking member of an organization and acts as a mentor to the main character. The interactions I was outlining and goals for their relationship just weren’t working, and I couldn’t figure out why. At one point, I thought, “what if (character) was a woman?” Nothing else about the character changed much, but my biases about women naturally stem from the women in my life – my wife, mom, grandmother, coworkers, teachers, supervisors, aunts and cousins, etc. By making the character a female and looking at her through the main character’s lens with my own life experience in mind, I was able to delve into the interactions and narrative events incorporating, rather than fighting, my biases.
The other problem with approaching a character as female first is that you can easily write yourself into a corner based on the limitations of your world. Perhaps you’re writing a political thriller that takes place in the real world. Readers are going to approach such a book based on their experiences, and if you write something that deviates from reality, it will either ring false and remove your reader from the story, or you’ll have to move narrative mountains for them to accept it. In this political thriller, say your female candidate is elected in a landslide, and the election itself is not a focus of the story. Modern American culture holds a bias largely against female politicians. Accordingly, many of your readers will assume fraud or other unscrupulous machinations at work behind the scenes, the perception being “that doesn’t just happen.” You’ll either have to include a lot of backstory to explain why so much of the population voted for your female candidate (which can have significant ramifications for the rest of the story), or you’ll have a lot of readers saying, “I didn’t find it very believable.”
For the most part, I find that gender has little impact on my characters. There are certain things that are influenced by or inescapably linked to a character’s gender, of course. You don’t typically associate a dowry with a man, and childbirth is pretty much exclusive to women. But at the same time, you can take the female without a dowry and make it a male without a means of supporting his future wife. You can take the female giving birth under dire circumstances and make it a male responsible for a child whose mother died in childbirth. Writing is, in and of itself, an exercise in creatively solving problems you likely haven’t encountered in reality. If the gender of your characters is your primary stumbling block, you may want to reexamine just why it is you want to write and how you approach your creative process.
Tl;dr, women are characters. Approach them as characters. Write a character, make it a woman. End of story. Or beginning. I don’t know where you are in your writing process.